Estonian female founders are disrupting the FinTech industry and are moving beyond it. From transforming green investments to easing overseas hiring for businesses, they are building dynamic and competitive companies.
Despite numerous achievements, they still face gender bias in the industry and call for more diversity across all stages. How to address the issue? Merit Valdsalu from Single.Earth, Hedi Mardisoo from Cachet, Triin Hertmann from Grünfin, Karoli Hindriks from Jobbatical and Kristel Kruustük from Testlio tell their stories for the Spring 2023 Life in Estonia magazine.
Merit Valdsalu, Single.Earth
DeepTech startup Single.Earth is disrupting climate action by investing in forests. CEO Merit Valdsalu set out to find alternatives for monetising forests in 2019, after winning a hackathon at which she and her co-founder showed that nature can be commercialised without being sold. To date, Valdsalu’s Single.Earth has raised 7.9 million euros to transform the world economy by introducing the first nature-backed currency.
“I grew up with older brothers and I’ve just been fundraising, so I’m used to being surrounded by men,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking of myself as somehow a different human. But at some point, I realised that it’s just the 1% of women, or maybe a bit more if we’re talking about mixed founders, that actually get funding. That was even shocking
to me, and I was already there. Even the women inside the system don’t know how little funding is actually going to them. That needs to change.” Valdsalu hopes to see her children be the first generation to grow up without the biases women face in the business world, and society as a whole. “It should make all the sense in the world to see women as leaders. And we need more female VCs, definitely.”
Hedi Mardisoo, Cachet
Hedi Mardisoo is the founder of Cachet, an InsurTech startup that raised 5.5 million euros and doubled its team in 2022.
Cachet provides solutions for the growing platform economy workforce, projected to account for 1 out of 5 economically active citizens in the EU by 2025. For Mardisoo, one of a very small number of female startup founders in the insurance tech industry in Europe to raise a round of VC funding, the problem of the gender funding gap had been a relatively abstract one, until the numbers simply weren’t adding up anymore.
“When I started to talk to other female founders and saw the numbers, it hit home.” The number of female-founded companies is growing, but investments are not. The solution, as far as Mardisoo is concerned, is a dialogue. “In most cases, people involved aren’t realising the bias in their decisions, as this has been considered a norm in the past. Therefore if we’re not the ones putting it in front of everybody, who will? I think it will be a sign of a healthy ecosystem, where women feel safe and strong enough to bring up these topics.”
Triin Hertmann, Grünfin
Triin Hertmann has helped take household names like Skype and Wise from early-stage to unicorn. Convinced that every technology product should strive to make the world a better place, Hertmann founded Grünfin to focus on investments in climate change, equality, and health.
As the community’s choice for Investor of the Year, Hertmann was the only woman to win a category at this year’s Estonian Startup Awards. With 20 years of experience in the finance and technology world, Hertmann has had a front-row seat to the biases female founders face in male-dominated industries. And she does not shy away from speaking up about it.
“Even if we feel like we are the only women in the room, we have to go and make ourselves heard,” Hertmann says. “Because other women are looking in, and they need someone to show the way. Women are not here to demand special treatment, just something that is fair. We’ve spent too long on the sidelines, thinking things will happen by themselves and that people will understand how it’s beneficial to have diverse investors and teams. But I think we need more of that push.”
Karoli Hindriks, Jobbatical
Karoli Hindriks has been an entrepreneur for a solid 20 years. Jobbatical, the tech platform that Hindriks founded in 2014 and successfully pivoted in 2019, makes it 2x faster and 3x less expensive for businesses to move employees from one country to another.
The latest round of funding, 11.6 million euros in 2022, brought the company’s total close to 20 million euros. Last year, Jobbatical tripled its revenue, landing Hindriks in the top 3 in two categories at the Startup Awards: the Revenue Hack and the Founder of the Year. Throughout her career, Hindriks has seen how the VC space treats men and women differently in seemingly small ways that nevertheless lead them on drastically different paths.
“It starts with the questions,” she says. “Men tend to get questions about opportunities and their vision, while women get questions about the risks, and what can go wrong. We don’t need more mentoring for female founders. We need to mentor the VCs.”
Kristel Kruustük, Testlio
One of the very first female startup founders in Estonia to ever raise a round of VC capital, Kristel Kruustük has long been a hands-on investor and mentor on a mission to empower more success stories like her own Testlio, which provides quality assurance, quality engineering, and digital experience solutions.
Kruustük believes that varied perspectives and experiences are what create truly innovative products and services, but that the potential successes of many underrepresented founders are locked away behind barriers like limited networks compared to men.
“Our companies are equally important to companies built by men,” Kruustük says. “Women are tackling significant challenges, and thus, they deserve more funding. While sharing our stories is crucial, we also need to recognise and overcome our biases. At Testlio, we’ve for example also implemented anti-bias hiring training for our managers.”
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