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How To Fundraise In A Sexist World, From 4 Women Who’ve Done It

When women only see 3% of VC funding, there’s no debating that the system needs to change. Until that happens, here’s how women can work around it.

How To Fundraise In A Sexist World, From 4 Women Who’ve Done It
[Photo: Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Pennsylvania Conference for Women]

The sexism and funding gap facing women entrepreneurs is well-documented. Women receive a paltry 3% of all venture-capital funding, and the numbers are getting worse.

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As Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and cofounder of Ellevest, the investment platform for women, points out that investors “are doling out their money to VC firms that are 96% male on average, and 98% of their money goes to white and Asian men, so it’s their responsibility to change things.” Speaking with Krawcheck at the Fast Company Innovation Festival, Elizabeth Gore agrees. “The ecosystem needs to change,” says Gore, who serves as board chairman of Alice, a machine-learning tool for entrepreneurs. “From banks to seed funders to series C, they need make a commitment to diversity.”

“Who wouldn’t want 63% better returns?” adds Krawcheck, referencing the percentage by which First Round Capital estimates companies with a woman founder outperform those with all-male founding teams.

Meanwhile, however, women aren’t just going to wait for change. Gore and Krawcheck joined Tiffany Pham, CEO and founder of On Mogul, and Trisa Thompson, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility at Dell Technologies, to discuss how women entrepreneurs can work around bias to launch and grow their businesses. Here’s their advice.

Perfect Your Pitch

Unfortunately, women founders are typically judged by different standards and have fewer resources than men. Pham knew convincing people to invest in a media company would be an uphill battle as it was, so she made extra certain that her pitch was strong.

“I didn’t have millions of dollars to hire a team of engineers, so I thought the way that I could help myself with fundraising was to come with a prototype,” she explains. “So every single night, I taught myself how to code.” Pham ended up with a website that wasn’t pretty but that had all the basic functions she wanted to show. Then, she says, she sent it to some of the women following her on social media whom she thought would be On Mogul’s early adopters. Pham ended up with a million users within one week, all before she starting pitching.

That gave Pham plenty of data, but she says she made the mistake of putting too much of it into her early pitch deck when, in retrospect, one strong data point per slide, backed by with good storytelling, would’ve been more compelling.

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The way you talk about impact matters, too, Krawcheck notes. Many of the men who’ve pitched her talk about disruption or how their businesses will  change the world, she says, while many of the  women who pitch her focus more on the risks and the downsides.

Put Yourself Out There With Networking And Cold-Calling

These strategies can be uncomfortable, but in many cases they’re crucial. Pham says she sent hundreds of emails. “I thought of who were the most incredible people at the top of companies and then asked them for only a five-minute call or a 15-minute tea–because it’s hard to say no to such a small amount of time,” she explains.

Just don’t make it only about you, Pham cautions. “I was always sure to offer to help them, and opened with asking to hear about what they were working on [before I would make a pitch],” she explained. Some recipients of those early emails turned into champions of Pham’s business–even helping her secure investments. Of course, many others said no. But “if they say no, they aren’t going to remember your name in six months,” she points out, “so it doesn’t matter.”

Krawcheck agrees. “I would stalk people online,” she says. It can be as simple as “checking out your fifth connection on LinkedIn who knows a VC.”

Thompson points to the benefits of more formal networks, too; many of her most powerful connections have come through Dell’s women’s entrepreneur network, she says.

Consider Alternative Sources Of Funding

Understandably, many women entrepreneurs are getting sick of pitching tables full of men and are seeking alternative sources of funding. Women already outperform men in crowdfunding, for example according to Geri Stengel, a writer and researcher focusing on women entrepreneurs who attended the event. Thompson suggests BBG Ventures  and Golden Seed; both are investment firms that focus exclusively on funding women-led startups. She also points to the grant programs that Eileen Fisher and the Tory Burch Foundation offer for women-led businesses.

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Many of the investments available to women entrepreneurs have traditionally been small relative to the billion-dollar startup world, but Thompson is encouraged by recent efforts to change that; she nods to Intel’s $125-million investment, in 2015, for businesses started by women and people of color

For women entrepreneurs, the experience can feel like both a minefield and an uphill battle at the same time. But until the terrain changes, many women are pressing onward to create their own opportunities.

About the author

Kathleen Davis is a Senior Editor at FastCompany.com, managing the leadership and work-life section. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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