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Foreign-Born Women CEOs Find Common Ground in the Valley

Five CEOs of Silicon Valley start-ups discussed how they overcame the challenges of starting and running their own businesses at an event Thursday.

Often a minority in the Silicon Valley start-up world, female CEOs often have more obstacles to work through than their male counterparts.

That was the consensus of a panel of five business savvy, foreign-born female CEOs on Thursday. The women, drawn to Silicon Valley from places as far away as France, India, and Singapore, assembled at Adobe’s San Jose headquarters for "Global Women's Journey." There they discussed how they tackle, and plow through, the challenges of starting and running their own businesses to an audience of 80 women—and a couple of men. 

“A lot of people said you aren’t going to make it: You’re a foreigner, you’re a woman,” said French-born Béatrice Tarka, who co-founded travel website Mobissimo with Stanford Database Group graduate Svetlozar Nestorov. “But if you want to accomplish anything, you have to go for it.”

It can take longer for women to secure funding for their companies than men, said Tarka. She added that many women are often not as bold or aggressive when it comes to pitching their ideas and fundraising, especially when they hail from a culture where they are expected to behave more “feminine” or “soft.”

Michelle Zatlyn, a Palo Alto-resident and co-founder of CloudFlare Inc., stressed the importance of finding female mentors, through through online resources such as LinkedIn and Twitter, and lining up supportive business partners. Born in Canada, Zatlyn is now one of two women out of 20 employees in her San Francisco workplace.

Regardless of gender, the panelists agreed entrepreneurs need to be resourceful and thoroughly research the markets they’re seeking to enter.

“It’s an entrepreneur’s task to go and search. Not everything is handed to you,” said Poormina Vijayashanker, founder and CEO of Bizeebee, a yoga business software company based in Palo Alto.

To “get to the top,” women often make sacrifices, such as postponing having a family, said Vijayashanker. But not everyone agreed. Tarka, who recalls taking her two young children to her office, said it is still “possible to have everything.”

Singapore-born and raised Aihui Ong was not aware of gender inequality in business until she came to the U.S., she said. Before she started her own business, San Mateo-based culinary website, Love With Food, a friend approached her, disheartened that her new business wasn’t succeeding.

“She said it was because she’s a woman. I told her, ‘You shouldn’t think like that,’” said Ong, who has tapped into several resources available for women entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, such as Women 2.0.

The panel was moderated by NPR Digital Culture Correspondent Laurie Sydell, who said she felt the subject of women CEOs is often pushed to the back burner, as women would rather talk about the ins-and-outs of the business world than any gender inequity found in it.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about what’s different about women in technology, because they’re so busy,” said Sydell.

But the topic remains essential, said Brazilian-born event organizer,  Margarise Correa, who saw the event as an early celebration of International Women’s Day. Two years ago, she founded BayBrazil, the organization that sponsored the event alongside Silicon Valley Bank.

“In every culture,” Correa said after the event, “the problems related to women are the same.”

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