Plenty of entrepreneurs start businesses based on a need or problem they personally have that will translate into a solution for multitudes. But in Leslie Feinzaig’s case, she wanted to solve a problem that prevented her (and other women) from turning those ideas into startups in the first place.
“The Female Founders Alliance (FFA) is the program I needed when I was trying to fundraise,” says Feinzaig, speaking of her startup Venture Kits. Not only did she find it difficult, she says it was impossible to overcome investors’ biases, even though she got some high-profile media coverage and has a resume that includes leadership roles at Andreessen Horowitz-backed Julep, Big Fish Games, and Microsoft. Feinzaig also worked with Innovator’s Dilemma author Clayton Christensen.
“I used to be the person you hired,” notes Feinzaig. So when she’d go to pitch events to present, Feinzaig felt like she’d knocked it out of the park–especially when she’d routinely win the audience vote for best pitch. But when she went up against male founders in investor-judged competitions, Feinzig says she’d routinely lose to a white guy.
“We are certainly part of a national conversation, but I’m not sure we are getting results.”
“I had a great story on stage,” she explains, “and the investors seemed so eager. But behind closed doors, I was just charming.” This despite also having traction with her product among the mommy bloggers that translated into month-over-month sales growth–something that’s often a prerequisite for investors. And she would often field questions about being a stay-at-home mom, too. “I don’t think that has anything to do with showing investors I can make an incredible product,” she contends.
“We are living in a moment in which we [women] are certainly part of a national conversation, but I’m not sure we are getting results,” she says. Headlines and great stories, Feinzaig says, need to be turned into creating opportunities for lasting results for female founders like her. Although VCs are starting to make changes and adding women to their firms, she believes that hasn’t translated to funding for women. “Realistically we are still looking at a tiny percentage of a huge amount of capital” going to female founders, she says.
The numbers are still woefully low. In 2017, the percentage of startups that had at least one female founder was just 17%, a number that has plateaued since 2012. That handful of female founders received just 2%, or $1.9 billion, of the $85 billion total invested by venture capitalists last year.
Not only did Feinzaig start the FFA for peer networking and support, but she also recently launched a new initiative called Ready, Set, Raise that will run through the month of September. The goal is to find a dozen startups across North America (vetted by investors) and help them secure a seed round of venture financing. Three weeks of remote workshops will be followed by a one-week immersion in Seattle.
An accelerator program built with working moms in mind
The difference with this program versus other accelerators like Y Combinator is that it doesn’t take the founders away for months-long immersive experiences. Perhaps because she’s a mother herself, Feinzaig built in a childcare option for those participants who can’t leave their kids at home for the week in Seattle. Additionally, Ready, Set, Raise won’t take any equity from the startups.
The other thing that sets this program apart is that the Demo Day event at the end of the immersion week begins with a frank discussion for investors that seeks to turn implicit biases into addressable ones, she says. This is an outgrowth of the FFA peer networking events that focus on building the businesses rather than just bringing people together to air their grievances.
Mary Heather Lines, the founder and CEO of ad and sales tech software company Automaton, says she learned a lot from one-on-ones with VCs. “I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of showing my experience and knowledge by highlighting the risks early in my presentations,” she says, “instead of highlighting the incredible f-ing opportunity they’ve got to get in on something this fast moving with this much traction.” After taking feedback during the Access VCs event, Lines says she’s met with 19 angel investors and VCs, and has only received one rejection, only because they prefer to invest in the $5 million range and requested to wait until the Series A. “We’ve had the luxury of turning down big names, and I’m certain it is because of how we learned to show up,” says Lines.
The Female Founder School (FFS) hopes to have similar success stories as they launch a new program for female entrepreneurs that targets an underserved audience: women at the earliest stages of their journey, even if all they have is an idea.
FFS is the brainchild of three female entrepreneurs: Enhao Li, a former investment banker for Morgan Stanley’s technology group (who took Pandora public), Katie Doherty, co-director of San Francisco’s Runway Innovation Hub, and Brittney Riley, an investor who was the VP of U.S. Ventures at the venture fund and accelerator Village Capital.
Creating an action plan and seeing results
The beta program of FFS saw 3 out of the 10 participants leave their full-time jobs to focus on their startup idea, one who raised a sizable seed round, and two teams who joined forces to marry their technical and sales talent. The organization was created by three women executives with successful careers in finance and business who questioned why more of their highly capable, smart, and successful female friends weren’t starting companies, unlike their male peers and colleagues.
The program takes place in three five-week segments and aims to reach women even before they have an official business plan. Although FFS’s applicant pool has drawn an impressive array of talent from the likes of Salesforce, LinkedIn, Facebook, Deutsche Bank, First Republic Bank, and Kaiser Permanente, at this early stage FFS’s founders observed that a woman’s lack of confidence, coupled with reluctance to shake up a solid career with a steady paycheck–not to mention the responsibilities as caretakers and breadwinner–could prevent her from taking a leap of faith on her business idea.
Jordana Stein, the CEO of a venture-backed startup went through FFS’s beta program because she wasn’t sure how to move forward on an idea she had. “The hardest challenge is understanding how to make it possible,” she explains, “You have this big, amorphous overwhelming concept. What do you do first, how do you understand your customer, and how do you measure success?”
She says it’s an even bigger challenge not to have a community to support you. “Friends and family are a great moral support but usually they have no experience starting a business,” she says, and while there are lots of strong networks to support men, there are fewer for women.
“I think for me and for maybe all female founders, it’s important to feel grounded in a plan of action, and to have a community of people that you can reliably talk to,” Stein adds. That’s what FFS provided. “They did a great job of selecting founders that have a special ‘spark’ and give you energy.”
That’s similar to what Baiyina Jihad, a third-grade educator from Atlanta whose startup is called Beyond the Classroom, is experiencing at FFS now. “I was looking forward to building connections with other female founders in different ecosystems outside of Atlanta, and I also wanted to gain understanding on how to develop myself as a founder,” she says.
But her challenge wasn’t just finding support to refine her idea and focus her customer base; Jihad says she battles impostor syndrome internally and a lack of technical resources externally.
“Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you are not fully equipped to take on certain roles or receive the opportunities given to you,” she says. Jihad notes that female founders can often unintentionally diminish their presence in traditionally male-dominated situations. “Unfortunately, this is a behavior that was taught by societal norms,” she observes, “so it can be hard to mentally challenge yourself to overcome these thoughts.”
But Jihad’s lack of technical experience was also a potential stumbling block. However, at FFS, she’s learning to grow her network and build connections to find a good CTO to partner with. “As I wait for my CTO, I’ve learned that I do not need coding experience to work on the basics and test the functionality of my idea,” she says, adding, “I know the ladies in FFS will challenge me to overcome any internal and external barriers.”