Female Founder Spotlight: Elyse Ribbons of GeiLi Giving
May is Female Founders Month at Startup Grind, so they’ve been hosting female founder events to increase the visibility of all the amazing female entrepreneurs out there.
This is a great opportunity for SOSV to highlight the role female founders play in our accelerators. In Chinaccelerator for example, we had three female CEO founders in Batch VI, and now in Batch VII we have five of 10 companies led by women–all of them CEOs.
Elyse Ribbons is CEO of GeiLi Giving, a WeChat app that facilitates donations from citizens to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In addition to her role there, Elyse has met success as a radio host, playwright and model. Elyse has plenty of insights to share about overcoming barriers that women can face in business.
Kayla: First of all, can you tell me about your current project at Chinaccelerator?
Elyse: I’m exclusively working on GeiLi. GeiLi Giving is a WeChat platform connecting Chinese citizens with NGOs that they can trust, because we provide transparency reporting, as well as a fun gamified donation experience, all through the WeChat app. WeChat is like Facebook-slash-WhatsApp, but better. It’s really awesome–it’s highly addictive, and very cool. So we’re creating campaigns for the NGOs, and then we splash that out to users who can participate in the game, and then get their friends to join, because they get points for getting their friends to join in the game. Then we try to get everyone to donate a little bit of money, so that as a group they donate a lot.
Kayla: Have you experienced any specific challenges that go along with being a female founder?
Elyse: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of people say–well, especially because…I’m going to say something that sounds horrible–but you know, I was a Beijing Olympics spokesmodel, I’m an actress, so I know that I am attractive. So a lot of people have said to me that I’m too pretty to be a CEO. So I’ve had some investors say, “Oh, don’t do this, I’ll pay you to be my mistress instead.” Because in China, certainly one of the things that mistresses do is open up these kind of flighty companies on the side, and their boyfriend invests in the company for them, but they don’t actually do anything. It’s just a show. And I know they have a social motive, a social imperative for their company–but we actually still want to make money, so I need to be taken seriously.
Kayla: Absolutely. It seems like there are many more male founders than female founders. So what can businesses do to bridge the gender gap and make entrepreneurial roles more accessible to women?
Elyse: Well I think that you have the social side–I think it affects us far more than other entrepreneurs. I would say most of the male entrepreneurs here in China are, on average, in their early thirties. Some are slightly younger and some are slightly older. And a guy in his thirties can take time off from everything, and focus on entrepreneurship–giving up one or two years working with his heart. That’s okay. If he has a girlfriend or a wife, she’s probably going to understand. But as a girl, you can’t let yourself go. It’s hard to balance a relationship with it all. So there are those social things. Women tend to value family a little more–especially because we can have a ticking time bomb in our uterus. So I think that changes a lot of the dynamics. So you’re not seeing a lot of women participate in entrepreneurship, certainly in America. The reason you see it more in China is because women only have one kid. So they don’t have as much of a time pressure.
Kayla: Yes, the expectations are much different.
Elyse: For instance, very few of my Chinese friends who are my age already have kids. I would say at least half of my American friends–the majority of them, have kids.
Kayla: It’s starting to happen with my friends–it’s so weird!
Elyse: Yes! And you feel that peer pressure all of a sudden. But that thought–I don’t think it’s the same in many male founders’ minds.
Kayla: Interesting. Which women have had the biggest influence on your career, and your mindset?
Elyse: Oh my goodness. So many! I love Madeleine Albright. I used to want to be Secretary of State back in high school. That was my career goal. I read her book and I loved it. Obviously I love Elizabeth Warren–she is awesome. My mother, obviously. She was a single mom. Her job was essentially being a homemaker, and then she worked weekends as a nurse to earn money so we wouldn’t starve to death. But her number one job was being a mom, which is seriously underappreciated and undervalued in modern society. Another big inspiration for me, particularly in regards to GeiLi, is Jacqueline Novogratz. If you haven’t read her book The Blue Sweater, you absolutely need to–amazing read! I’ve met so many amazing women in my life, you know, all these professors I’ve had–it’s hard to even pick a few.
Kayla: Those are great examples. So what do you like about sticking to Beijing and Shanghai as your locations for work right now?
Elyse: I’m in Shanghai right now. I was in Beijing for 13 years. And so moving down to Shanghai was a really big change for me. It was good because it got me out of my routine. I know everyone in Beijing–I know all the good restaurants, and I know where I need to be and how to do things. And I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone, because it’s never worth it. But in Shanghai, none of it is my comfort zone, so it’s all worth exploring. And it also helps me to not have a lot of friends here, so that I can work more! Because as you can see, it’s dark, I stay here in the office until it’s late every night. I run to work in the morning and then I run from work late at night.
Kayla: My last question for you is kind of “out there”–but if you could make one more big change or outcome with what you’re doing, what would you hope to accomplish in the world?
Elyse: With GeiLi, I want to change the way that citizens connect with their community through philanthropy. Right now, China has a bigger problem than America, but I would say even in America, philanthropy is very passive. You get asked to donate money. That’s why the Ice Bucket Challenge was so exciting. It was an act of “I want to play! I want to participate! I can’t wait until I get picked”–you know? And that’s what GeiLi wants to do. We’re starting in China, but eventually we want to move to the entire world. One of our benefits is that we can get rid of middlemen. I’m a big fan of small NGOs. Anytime an NGO is not small, they’re wasting money, a ton of it. Because unlike a corporation, they don’t get better the bigger they get. They need to be members of the community they’re working in. Great examples can be seen all over America, and specifically in the developing world. When the NGO is run by locals, and specifically social enterprises, I think are great examples of this. Right now social enterprise is kind of a new concept in China, and I hope that I can help bring that consciousness more to the floor, because why does it need to be an imperative to just make money? Why can’t you make money and do good? And why can’t you make money by doing good? We should reward people for having a product and doing good work, and then give back to the community and feel more connected. One of the problems that faces society as a whole is this disconnect between everyone because we’re all walking like this [looks down], we’re all on our cell phones all day not actually connecting with the community. GeiLi means “to empower”. GeiLi, to give power. It’s an internet phrase from around 2010, to convey when something is really awesome and exciting. That’s why we picked GeiLi Giving–it’s empowered giving.