The Hero Founder Fallacy

Want gender balance at conferences? Then expand who you think is worth hearing from.

Alanna Irving
4 min readDec 17, 2018

Some time ago, I was asked to keynote an overseas conference about cooperatives, the solidarity economy, and a “building a post-capitalist future”. That’s right up my ally, but I get way more speaking invitations than I can accept. So I suggested the co-founder of my main project at the time instead, who was a man.

They rejected him, saying:
“We were really hoping you could come yourself, because we already have a lot of men speaking and we’re proactive about gender balance. The other keynote is from an organization who only have one executive director, and he’s a man, so we can’t ask them to send a woman.”

Hmm. Something told me that lone executive director doesn’t work alone in a vacuum without female colleagues. But I’m a big supporter of gender balance at conferences, so I rolled with it and recommended another of my close collaborators, who was a woman.

The project they wanted to hear about is co-owned by all core members (hence the relevance to cooperative solidarity) — including the collaborator I was recommending. On that stage, she would have been able to share her own valuable perspective on many of the same stories I’d have told. Given the topic of the conference, I assumed they’d understand this.

But they rejected her too, saying they were only interested in “founders”. Apparently, their audience wanted to hear only from “people who’ve gotten their hands dirty starting new entrepreneurial projects,” not from someone who’d joined the project later.

“Oh no”, I thought. “They’ve fallen for the hero founder fallacy.”

I considered letting it slide. They sounded well intentioned. But these people were in our movement, trying to be feminists, to build solidarity, and to create a cooperative economy. If we don’t combat these harmful myths in our own community, how can we hope to combat them in the wider world? So I decided to say something.

Thank you for explaining your thinking. I appreciate your invitation to have me speak, specifically, and I’m flattered to have been chosen.

The very heart of the story you’re asking me to tell is about creating companies collectively, transcending the fallacious “individual hero founder” narrative. Our story belongs to a whole lot of people on an equal basis — that’s what makes it special and interesting. I’m pretty sure that characteristic is why you invited me to speak in the first place.

Despite what wall street fairy tales and the covers of magazines might lead one to believe, there are no “hero founders”. They all succeed because of the teams around them. This singular obsession with the person who happened to start something ignores all the other leaders involved in helping it live and grow.

The “many hands, many heads” dynamic is an essential part of our story, and that looks like telling it through many voices. The collaborator I suggested is actually a visionary founder in her own right, as well as someone who can lead things started by others. At this point, she has played just as much of a leadership role as I have.

Our collective is different because we are collectively resilient. I have actually stepped back recently for personal reasons (thus not accepting as many speaking engagements) — but we did not implode as many organisations do when a key leader steps back. Instead, the community is thriving and growing in new ways. I myself stepped into leadership in an earlier iteration of a similar cycle. That’s how we evolve.

It’s great that you want to feature female speakers. As someone who has organized conferences myself, I know gender balance can be challenging and I commend your efforts.

What about engaging with the deeper issue: the hero founder mentality itself is a masculine way of approaching leadership. It’s a frame that assumes conflict and competition, winners and losers, instead of a non-zero-sum, win-win game. If we’re serious about diversity in leadership, that means valuing collaborative leadership, ego-free leadership, and feminine leadership (by both men and women).

One reason you don’t see more women at the top is many of us aren’t willing to step on others to get there. The spotlight shines more broadly when you share power. So, if you want to feature more women, you might need to change not just your speaker invitation process, but your very definition of “leader”.

All the best with your conference,

The best part: they went for it! I thought for sure I’d put them off by speaking my mind, but instead they took what I said on board. The person I recommended spoke at the conference, and they loved her.

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Alanna Irving

Exploring bossless leadership, collaborative tech, and co-op systems —