For every female CEO, there are around 17 male ones.
When it comes to Fortune 500 companies, only 41 CEOs are women—that’s just 8.2%. And this is a record high.
The thing is, you don’t need to ever see these numbers to know just how underrepresented women are in business leadership. And even though the average tech CEO tends to skew a bit younger and less White compared to more traditional industries, only 53% of tech companies have at least one woman in an executive position.
As a woman working in the SaaS industry myself, it’s almost glaringly obvious just how male-dominated this industry is. And for any woman with ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder or even starting a venture of her own, dwelling on these numbers can be depressing and demotivating.
Perhaps a better use of that energy, especially today on International Women’s Day, is to turn our attention to the women who have done it—those who have made it to the top despite the odds against them.
That’s exactly what I aim to do with today’s blog post: inspire myself and others by sharing the stories of four badass, successful women in SaaS.
1. Suneera Madhani, CEO and founder of Stax
Suneera Madhani is a firm believer in having it all. She's 2018’s Most Influential Woman in Payments, one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40, and my boss’s boss.
A child of immigrants, Madhani attributes her entrepreneurial spirit to her late father.
“Every day of my life was a business lesson,” she tells Inc. “My dad came from nothing and used his settlement check from losing his thumb in a Chicago factory to buy his first gas station. From there, he dabbled in everything.”
Besides growing her payments technology company, Stax—which officially hit unicorn status today—Madhani is also passionate about using her success to lift up other female founders. When she found out less than 2% of female-founded businesses ever hit $1 million in revenue, she started a second venture to change that. CEO School is a podcast and a community built for female founders to mentor and inspire each other.
“We need to see more women succeed so that other younger women can envision the success that is possible and dream bigger,” Madhani said.
Within Stax, Madhani fosters a culture that empowers anyone to succeed regardless of gender, orientation, race, or any other factor beyond merit. She believes it’s truly a strength of the company.
“There is infinite potential when you have a diversity of thought and experiences at the top level, and it has been proven time and again that women leaders bring about greater growth within the economy,” she says.
2. Whitney Wolfe Herd, CEO and founder of Bumble
At the time of Bumble’s IPO in February 2021, Whitney Wolfe Herd became both the world’s youngest woman self-made billionaire and the youngest female CEO to take a company public in the U.S. She was just 31 at the time.
Wolfe Herd’s image is almost the antithesis of the ‘tech bro’ vibe of many Silicon Valley startup entrepreneurs and is very much aligned with millennial feminism. Though she’s certainly not letting it hold her back, she’s spoken about the double standard woman leaders are held to compared with their male counterparts.
“I will say that I feel that women are held to different standards when it comes to their grandiose hopes, wishes, and visions for the future,” she said. “You can choose the person—I'm not going to assign names—but when you do think about these big, behemoth, male-led tech businesses, the founders have always said, ‘We're going to change the world. This is going to revolutionize X; this is going to revolutionize Y.’ When a woman says that, she often is called overconfident.”
Though Wolfe Herd may not be aiming to change the world with Bumble, she already is. Her passion for accountability in the digital space has led Bumble to spearhead lobbying efforts to crack down on online sexual harassment. Wolfe Herd herself testified in front of the Texas State House and Senate, ultimately helping to pass a bill that makes the unsolicited sending of lewd photos punishable by a fine of up to $500. Bumble is currently backing similar bills in California, New York, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
“I’ve just tried to be true to my early intention of trying to create a safer, more empowering platform to meet people,” Wolfe Herd said in the same interview.
3. Sevetri Wilson, CEO and founder of Resilia
Remember how only 41 woman-led companies make up the Fortune 500? Of those 41 female CEOs, only two are Black. While neither of those companies falls under the software umbrella, another incredibly successful Black woman, Sevetri Wilson, is the CEO and founder of Resilia, which is a SaaS company helping nonprofit organizations scale.
Wilson’s whole thing is resilience—the word is even where her company name stems from. The youngest of 12 children, her family wasn’t able to put her through post-secondary school. However, that didn’t stop her from becoming a first-generation college student and getting a full ride on the Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship, among others.
Wilson attributes her resilience to her mother, who passed away from cancer when Wilson was only 20. She says: “I do believe that she equipped me with the foundation and knowledge I needed to believe in myself, to never let any obstacle stand in my way, and to keep going despite any odds telling me otherwise.”
The names Sevetri Wilson and Resilia may not be as well-known as some others on this list, but as far as business media is concerned, it’s only a matter of time. Wilson and Resilia have amassed a huge list of accolades. Just some of those include:
- Wilson and Resilia were named a Rising Star on the Forbes Cloud 100 List in 2020.
- In 2019, Wilson was included in both Inc. Magazine’s list of 100 female founders building world-changing companies and PitchBook’s 27 leading black founders and investor list.
- Back in 2010, Wilson won the National Nobel Prize for Public Service, The Jefferson Award.
Resilia isn’t even Wilson’s first business venture. She built her first business, Solid Ground Innovations, and bootstrapped it to seven figures at the age of 22.
As Wilson herself bluntly put it, “I’m a Black woman from the rural south who started a tech company and successfully raised over $10M for it. I think my entire life is an act of rebellion against what would seem possible.”
4. Anjali Sud, CEO of Vimeo
A decade ago, Vimeo was an indie alternative to YouTube struggling to stay on its feet. But in 2017, Anjali Sud took the reins and pivoted its business model. By 2021, Vimeo was pulling in a cool $392 million in annual revenue.
Sud, initially hired at Vimeo as a marketing executive in her early thirties, says she ended up in the role of CEO “a little bit randomly”.
“I became CEO to pivot the company away from being a viewing destination or media platform, like Facebook or YouTube or Netflix, and really into a video SaaS or software company for businesses. Much more like a Slack or a Dropbox model, but for video,” she explains.
In a world where only 40% of female employees want to someday become CEOs, versus 59% of male employees, one part of Sud’s story strikes me as oddly inspiring: she didn’t aspire to a CEO role. Yet, she ended up there anyway and knocked it out of the park.
“To be candid, I never thought of myself as an innovator and certainly not as an entrepreneur,” she told McKinsey’s Inside the Strategy Room podcast. “I came to Vimeo to run marketing—a traditional executive job. There was a clear hierarchy of folks above me, and I never thought that three years later I would be stepping in as CEO to substantially pivot the platform.”
The moral of the story: Girls can do anything
Here’s a slightly more uplifting statistic: when organizations are made up of at least 50% female senior leadership, they're more likely to offer equal pay, and female employees are more likely to trust the company and experience higher job satisfaction.
As the four women in this article demonstrate, there’s no one type of person who can succeed as a SaaS CEO. There’s no age limit or background requirement, and it’s not a job you need to have spent your whole career preparing for.
So, despite some of the less-than-stellar statistics out there about the number of women in business leadership compared to men, I hope you’re convinced that the statistics don’t matter.
Suneera Madhani, Whitney Wolfe Herd, Sevetri Wilson, Anjali Sud, and countless other female SaaS leaders are paving the way for future generations of women in SaaS and proving girls can do anything boys can do.