The Female Lead

Female Leaders: Sophia Matveeva

Sophia Matveeva

Sophia Matveeva is the CEO & Co-Founder of Enty, an innovative fashion tech platform where women can access the professional advice of stylists and the opinions of an engaged style-conscious community in a safe, ‘troll-free’ environment. The Enty platform is supported by unique artificial intelligence, which learns about user tastes and global trends as the platforms grows. Enty was born in a grad school classroom and has grown to serve users in the UK, US and Australia.

Sophia speaks English, Russian, French, and is learning Mandarin. She is also an experienced speaker, contributing to events on entrepreneurship, growth hacking, fashion tech and female consumer behaviour.

Sophia is a regular contributor to Forbes, writing about the ups and downs of her start-up journey.

What inspired you to launch Enty?

I started working on Enty when I was doing my MBA at the University of Chicago. Most of my girlfriends were in Europe so we had WhatsApp groups to stay in touch. One of the things these groups were used for was posting photos of our outfits, asking each other’s advice on what clothes to wear on a date or to an interview. However, the time difference meant that I couldn’t really participate in the conversation and my friends couldn’t respond to me in time, which wasn’t helpful!

At business school, you’re trained to spot business opportunities everywhere. I realised that women were attempting to use existing social networks to discuss their clothing choices, but the actual experience of doing so isn’t great. Either your friends don’t respond in time, or they don’t tell you the truth, or they aren’t decisive enough – they tell you that you look good in everything, which isn’t helpful advice!

I realised that, if we can create a channel where women all over the world can comfortably discuss what to wear and buy, there are lots of interesting monetisation opportunities.

I started working on the idea at business school and then went through an accelerator at Chicago Booth, called The New Venture Challenge. Then, when it came to graduation, there were some people who were willing to invest at that early stage, so I mistakenly thought ‘this will be easy!’. I graduated in March 2016 and registered the company and started working on it full time.

We now have 18,000 users and 24-hour coverage, with professional stylists from the UK, the US, Australia and Hong Kong.

You’re also a Forbes contributor and have written passionately about the challenges faced by female founders, particularly in the technology industry. What is your experience of being a woman in tech?

In terms of tech, I think it’s a good thing to be different. The big tech platforms have been built by people who look really similar to each other, which means that their products and platforms reflect a certain type of life experience. The experiences that women have online are an extension of what they face in the real world – and often worse, as online abuse can be anonymised and on a larger scale. Being a woman who has faced those issues, you come up with a product that’s very different to what guys like Mark Zuckerberg have created.

For example, I don’t think any of the big tech companies have ever prioritised female safety but, for us, none of what we do would work if women didn’t feel safe and comfortable to post photos of themselves and ask questions, even when they’re not feeling super confident. If a woman thought she was going to get trolled or get negative comments, she would never post a photo of herself in a changing room.

As a result, the troll-free aspect is embedded into the very core of our technology and I haven’t seen anyone else doing that. We created a two tier network; anyone can post a photo question and vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an outfit, but only a professional stylist can write comments. This is a really unusual system and we’ve never seen anyone else doing it, so we have to reassure women a lot that they won’t get negativity, but we have a 90% user return rate. It’s the only platform on the internet where you can post a photo of yourself in a bikini and not get any kind of negativity back.

We’re a female team and we knew from the start that we wanted to make a platform where women are safe and comfortable.

What are the challenges of founding a start-up?

Start-ups are difficult in general because, no matter how brilliant a professional you are, you probably only know about one aspect of running a business. When you’re the founder of a start-up, you have to learn to do a bit of everything, from marketing to doing your taxes. You spend a lot of time googling!

As a founder, you need a diverse board of advisors, each with different skill-sets, so that you have answers to most problems. I know what to ask our advisors and even if they don’t have the answer, they’ll connect me to someone who can help.

You’ve spoken about the difficulties in persuading investors that typically ‘female’ problems are worth solving – and can be huge money earners. How do we go about changing that?

Women make up only 18% of key investment decision-making roles in UK banks and venture capital, so it’s really hard to get investment as a woman – and it’s hard in two ways.

The first is being a female founder; you’re likely to be talking to a bunch of men, which means you’re encountering either conscious or unconscious bias. There have been many studies that show that men are evaluated on their potential and women are evaluated on what they’ve achieved. This makes no sense at all for start-up investment, because all investment is based on potential. Facebook wasn’t Facebook at the beginning but someone believed in what they were doing because they thought ‘these guys remind me of myself’. As a woman facing mainly male investors, there are very few people who can look at me and see themselves.

The second challenge is launching a product with female market. If you go to a group of men to pitch your new product, you first have to sell them the problem, or “consumer want”, that your product is addressing. Your typical Silicon Valley white male doesn’t have to sell the problem, just their solution. With a female-focused product, you have to sell the problem, as well as the product and the scale of its appeal. Male founders of products with a female market also have this problem; I spoke to the founder of Treatwell, who had difficulty raising financing from male investors. Farfetch also struggled to secure funding in Silicon Valley, because those investors didn’t see its potential.

As a result of these issues, Enty has ended up being a majority female-funded company, which has actually worked out really well because successful women are so inspirational. I now have a special counsel of these kickass women, who help with the business but also understand the challenges I’m facing.

“I have a special counsel of kickass women, who help with my business but also understand the challenges I’m facing."

 

What would you say to female founders seeking investment?

You have to kiss a lot of frogs so approach it more like a marathon. Sometimes you’ll walk out of a meeting feeling deflated but plan something nice for yourself afterwards – meet a friend or go to a café and have a brownie. When you have a meeting that totally drains you, do something that gives you energy before you move on. Learn to manage your own emotions and build up your resilience.

You’re a vocal advocate for building community amongst women in the tech industry. Do you have particular mentors or role models that you rely on or look up to?

I admire Shelley Zalis, founder of the Female Quotient. She’s glamorous and successful and very welcoming and warm. Her mantra is ‘if you can see her, you can be her’ and so she’s always bringing interesting, very diverse women to speak at her events, so that everyone can find someone to relate to or identify with.

You can have mentors that you know and work with, but you can also have mentors you’ve never even met. For example, I really look up to Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix. Our journey is really similar; she also founded her company out of business school; she struggled with funding, because she was pitching to male investors who didn’t understand why the product would work – but now Stitch Fix is a multi-billion-dollar ‘Unicorn’.

Asking for help is one of The Female Lead’s key themes. Does it come naturally to you?

No, not at all. It’s a muscle I’ve had to actually train. There’s a book called ‘Why Women Don’t Ask’, and which has really helped me. It shows how men are constantly negotiating to make their lives better and it made me realise what I’m up against. If other people are behaving like that, by not asking for help I’m doing myself a disservice.

Even if you’re confident in your worth and happy asking for help, it’s still difficult for women because we have to deal with the fragile male ego. Instead of showing your full strength, sometimes you have to be a bit softer to get what you want. It’s a whole other emotional dance you have to do. That’s why you need other successful women who have gone through the journey with you, because they understand that dynamic.

What advice would you give to a young woman feeling anxious about her career?

It’s good to think of your career as a trajectory. You will have ups and downs and they may last for a while, but it’s the overall trajectory that counts. For example, there are lots of graduates who hate their first job out of university – but don’t despair, that’s normal! In fact, if you love your first job out of university you’re incredibly lucky, because most people don’t! Keep on trying things out, stay open to new things and you will get there. Think more medium and long-term, rather than short-term.

I would also say beware of the draining partner! You can have a woman who is brilliant and smart and ambitious, but if she is in a toxic relationship with an insecure person and feels she has to make herself smaller, all of that energy and confidence is being filtered towards them. How can you be empowered at work if you’re giving all your energy to another person? It’s important career advice!

To keep up with Sophia’s work, follow her on Twitter and Instagram 

Try Enty for yourself by downloading it from the App Store.

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