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How to deal with the sexist assumptions you’ll get from investors

Two female founders on how they made the call—and the pros and cons of bringing a white guy to the meeting.

How to deal with the sexist assumptions you’ll get from investors
[Photo: Viespire App/Unsplash]

The unfair truth is that women’s appearances are scrutinized more harshly than men’s. Investors will make snap judgments—unconscious or not—about you when you’re sitting in front of them in a pitch meeting. If you’re a founder, you may find yourself wondering, “How much should I tell them about my personal life?”

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Bee Chang Shapiro, writer for The New York Times and founder of clean luxury fragrance line Ellis Brooklyn, says she was frequently asked, “How are you going to manage everything? How will you balance your personal and professional life?”

As a pioneering startup founder myself who has braved the harrowing process of fundraising, I doubt male entrepreneurs get asked this very often. “I hated that question most of all,” Shapiro told me. “With the success of Ellis Brooklyn and trajectory that we had proved out, questioning whether a founder can handle it all felt anti-woman. ‘I’m obviously handling it all…next!'”

One day, before going to an important investor meeting, Shapiro forgot to put on her wedding ring, and the question didn’t come up. So she stopped wearing it to meetings, as it had become a distraction in the pitch.

While she didn’t completely alter her appearance in other ways, she did dress a bit more conservatively. “I also showed up to every pitch relatively dressed up and polished,” she says. “I do think physical impressions matter, no matter what people say. … Being a minority first-time business founder, I knew I already had the chips [stacked] against me.”

On the other hand, Ariane Goldman, founder of HATCH Collection, is transparent about being a married mother because it’s core to her business concept. She develops and sells high-end maternity clothing and accessories for moms and babies. Letting investors know she’s married with children gives her legitimacy that she understands the audience segment because she is the audience segment.

Venture capitalist Monique Woodward counsels entrepreneurs to bring their full selves. Wear whatever you normally wear—whether your style is cool and funky or classic and preppy—and don’t change who you are. You want investors who really get you. Investors who lead your first round may lead your second and third rounds, so you want people who will stick with you and not be surprised as you evolve.

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Relatedly, nontraditional founders often ask me if they should bring a white man with them to pitch to investors. If there’s a white guy who’s legitimately part of your team, then, of course, bring him, but be prepared for the consequences. Some investors may only talk to him, even if you’re in the room. I’m sorry to say more than one female founder has had this experience.

The bottom line is: Don’t be dishonest. Don’t bring a white man to your pitch meeting because you’re afraid that you won’t be treated fairly or that you’ll be discriminated against. If you’re the lead founder, be proud of that. You want the kind of investor who sees your promise and invests in you specifically—even if that means you have to knock on more doors to find that person.

Shortcuts only lead to trouble down the road. When the investor finds out the truth, it will undermine their trust in you, and if there’s one thing you need from your investor, it’s their trust and respect.


The following is adapted with permission from Mechanical Bull: How You Can Achieve Startup Success.

Cheryl Contee is the award-winning CEO and cofounder of DoBigThings.today, a digital agency serving causes and campaigns that uses new narrative and new tech for a new era. Previously, she was the cofounder of social marketing software Attentive.ly at Blackbaud, the first tech startup with a black female founder on board in history to be acquired by a Nasdaq-traded company. She is also cofounder of #YesWeCode, which represents the movement to help low-opportunity youth achieve high-quality tech careers.

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