Every week, the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute elects a Startup of the Week (SOTW). We then invite the founders of these startups to share a blog post with our community. These posts can be inspirational, educational, or entertaining. Founders can share founding stories, resources, lessons, or anything else they want. During the month of March, to celebrate Women's History Month, all our SOTWs have at least one female founder. We have asked these founders to talk about how being a woman has influenced their stories.
This blog post was written by Myriam Sbeiti (Tandon '18), co-founder of Sunthetics.
My co-founder and myself are two relatively young women trying to crack the chemical industry with our startup, Sunthetics. She’s 27, I’m 23, but we both look like we just turned 18. She is from Venezuela and I grew up in France but have origins in North Africa and the Middle East. So you can see how the two of us walking into a room full of 60+ years old, predominantly male and predominantly white people can be a challenging experience of its own (on top of the regular challenges that come with starting a startup).
Sunthetics is developing more sustainable chemical manufacturing equipment. The chemical industry is responsible for over 30% of energy usage in the USA, which makes it one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. A hefty majority of the industry uses what we call thermal reactions – chemical transformations that require high temperatures, high pressures, and/or toxic and harsh chemicals. An alternative is electrochemical reactions – chemical transformation that are enabled by electrons (fed by running electricity through the reaction). Electrochemical reactions occur at room temperatures and pressure, often require less energy, eliminate the use of harsh chemicals, and enable easy integration of renewable electricity. A simple switch from thermal equipment to electrochemical equipment can make a huge difference for this massive industry. Our goal is to drive this change by offering easy-to-use and cost-effective electrochemical equipment.
When we first started exploring this field, our drive was sustainability. And we, perhaps naively, assumed that stakeholders in the industry would share our concerns and care about improving sustainability in their work. That was not the case. In fact, we often got a lot of push back from customers and investors alike that sustainability just wasn’t enough. So we started digging deeper into our value propositions 1) trying to understand how our current product could offer cost benefits through its environmental impact and 2) trying to see if there were ways that we could improve those cost benefits. And, sure enough, it turns out a lot of points do align! For example: reducing raw material usage is positive for the environment, but also significantly reduces costs.
This definitely helped our case, but there was still a lingering skepticism in the air of how two largely inexperienced young women could connect with and convince some chemical industry veterans to adopt new technology. That’s where I doubled down on connecting with people on LinkedIn, going to conferences, being a speaker, and making ourselves known to the key leaders in the field. Once we had those connections, we worked to find ways to concretize them through letters of intent, NDAs, or other physical representations we could show as proof of those relationships.
Now, we are at a point where we feel more comfortable with our role in the industry. However, we still face challenges everyday around cementing our credibility. We continue to work hard to establish our brand and highlight our expertise, learning as we go.
So, if I had to give young women some advice on how to enter and find success in large, male-dominated industries, it would be this:
- Being the underdog can become an advantage. You have to prove yourself and that means you need to work harder. However, working harder can give you an innate advantage over competitors! Make use of that dedication.
- There will be lots and lots of criticism, skepticism, distrust, and reluctance. Learn to look past the initial (and often prejudiced) negative input and seek to truly understand where that doubt is rooted. Is it your lack of experience? Is it a belief that you would be unable to connect with and thus sell to your customers? Is it a belief that you lack enough market understanding to validate your assumptions? Once you find out what is holding someone back, it is much easier to address it, both for yourself and for them. Emphasize the amount of industry experts and business mentors you have on your side advising you. Highlight the contacts you have already made with the industry and how those relationships have evolved. Cite the sources for the important statements that you make and talk about their reliability. Or, if this is something you haven’t addressed yet, talk about how you are aware of it and developing a plan to remedy that, or better yet, ask for advice directly from those who are the most doubtful.
- Knowledge is power! Somewhat related to the previous point, no matter who you are, if you come armed with knowledge, chances are everyone will take you more seriously. Especially going to conferences or meeting with industry experts, the conversation will be much more fruitful if you can demonstrate that you are already an expert in this to some extent. That being said, some people can’t fathom that you could be an expert in the field you work in, and they will still explain everything from scratch as if you don't already know it. In those cases, it’s best to take a deep breath, take a backseat for a bit, take notes, and wait for the right time to jump in and show your expertise.
- Believe in yourself. As cheesy as it sounds, people will be more prone to believing you if they see that you believe in yourself. One of our recurring feedback is that people see a certain earnestness when we talk. It’s clear that we believe in our vision, and that we believe in our ability to realize it. But it can be hard to do that on your own, especially when it feels like no one sees what you are capable of. That’s where it’s important to rely on your team and your support system as well. So many times I would have felt discouraged if it wasn’t for my co-founder reminding me what got us here in the first place.
Being a woman, being young, being a person of color… These aspects of who you are can make the game feel rigged against you. It's a sad reality that we are working to fix, but until then, arm yourself with the tools you'll need to face these challenges head on and don't let the discouraging moments weigh more than your vision for your startup and for your industry.
For more information about Sunthetics, please visit www.sunthetics.org and follow us on Instagram @sunthetics_nyc. We will be exhibiting at SXSW in mid March, so come visit us if you are in the area!