Ask any woman who has ever attempted to raise funds for a business venture and she'll have a least one story of the sexism she faced in her pursuit. Whether it's being treated like a child; having failure rather than success assumed; or suffering through a public "show us your pregnant belly" request during a meeting, women have endured it all. It's preposterous really, considering that it's 2019. But it's true.
Women—particularly in tech—are simply not seen as worthy, let alone equal, players in the business world. It's assumed that husbands and babies and all things shiny will keep women's less than developed brains from creating remarkable companies despite the fact that they keep succeeding and beating men at what they still seem to believe is their own game. Here are just a handful of the stories out there of the sexism women face every time they fundraise.
Talia Goldstein - Founder & President of Three Day Rule—A matchmaking company with matchmakers in nine cities across the country.
In both 2012 and 2015, Goldstein was meeting with angel investors and venture capitalists to raise funds for Three Day Rule. She was pregnant both times she was fundraising. The first time around, she hid that fact based on feedback from advisors and investors. The second time around, she did not.
"Not one investor who met me in person while I was pregnant ended up putting money into the company. Everyone who said yes either spoke to me over the phone, knew me from before, or met me after I had the baby. It was as if the physical sight of a pregnant woman deterred investors from joining the round" Goldstein explains.
Of course, with 400% annual growth, she ended up proving, pregnant or not, that she was committed and successful. "However, I could tell the other people in the room, who were always mostly men, felt uncomfortable. One investor invited me to a group Skype video call, and when he learned I was pregnant, made me stand up and "twirl around" in front of the camera so everyone could see my belly."
He thought it was cute of course, but Goldstein rightly saw it as highly inappropriate. "Several investors said outright that they were interested in the company, but wanted to see how it goes with the baby' before they committed. One investor jokingly called me 'bad mama.'" In every in-person meeting, she says her pregnancy was discussed and investors could simply not stop focusing on it.
Goldstein says it's time to put an end to this and the only way is "for more women to become part of the process—founding companies, investing and fundraising all while having a family. I can confidently say it is possible to do both: to be a great mom and to run a successful startup."
Her 50-person company is nearly all women, and she says she sees her employees are thriving, "speaking on panels, writing articles as thought leaders, and going head-to-head with their male peers. We've launched our services in nine cities, recently closed another round of funding—and have proven all those hesitant investors wrong." Goldstein is confident we can get to the point where this type of sexism is no longer an issue. "The more we talk about our experiences and stand for what we believe in, the more we blaze the trail for future female founders, who I hope won't have to think twice about their decision to be a mother and an entrepreneur."
Melanie Aronson - Founder & CEO of Panion—A social platform built to connect people using common interests and keywords searches.
She's been raising funds, somewhat passively for the last year, she explains. "But now that we have a prominent lead investor we are more aggressive with our fundraising efforts."
The sexism she's experienced has been rampant. A large demo day event rejected her application to pitch but then reached out to her a week or two before the event and said they realized they had very few women pitching and wanted to offer her a spot. "That felt really bad," she says. "In general, I find that many investors really put a lot of effort in discrediting our product and business rather than inquiring further about the plan." Of course, she says, there are plenty of people who are not so overt when it comes to their sexism.
"You realize more so in the tone of some of the investors' voices that they really don't trust your capabilities. But they don't outright state that it's because you're a woman." Aronson also says she looks very young for her age, which doesn't help matters. "I'm thirty-four but people often think I'm twenty-five. So that hasn't helped. People will talk about 'someone my age' not realizing I'm closer to their age than the someone they are talking about."
For women looking to fundraise, Aronson has some advice to help combat the sexism they are unfortunately very likely to face. "Collect all the questions of doubt you get from investors and start to build bullet-proof answers for all of them or adjust your business model to consider them."
She says at the beginning I was caught off guard by certain questions that she had never thought about. "But now I walk in to a meeting as confident as possible and show them that no matter the doubt they have, I have a solid response for how we are addressing that doubt or how that doubt actually isn't founded in the market data."
Aronson also says to steer clear of talking to male founders about how discrimination feels. "My experience is that they most likely cannot understand it. I have met a number of male founders who are upset about all-female initiatives to help female founders because they consider it discrimination." Obviously there are many who do understand it. But she says she's found that "sometimes people shoot down what you notice as subtle sexist cues, and say, well maybe it's because a, b, c etc. that are not related to being a woman."
Of course, Aronson says she's noticed that some women treat her differently as well. "We have embedded stereotypes of what men are better at and one is technology. When I worked for Apple, men and women alike would skip my offer for help [and then] go speak to a man. So we can't just blame men for this problem. It's our society, culture, media, etc. that needs adjusting."
Elyse Kaye - Founder & CEO of Bloom Bras—A revolutionary company creating adjustable, supportive sports bras for curvy women.
Kaye says she began her fundraising with Kickstarter, which was fantastic. Then she started exploring with angels and looking into loans. The VC model however was not of interest to her, she said.
Kaye has experienced plenty of sexism during her fundraising efforts. She even had investors ask her about what underwear she was wearing. "I had a man put his hand on my thigh mid-pitch." But her favorite story to share is this. She launched Bloom Bras to great fanfare and had a ton of inbound requests. Her vision was to take on a few angels but no VC capital. She was then approached by two men who asked to meet for lunch. When she arrived, there were four of them instead. The pitch was going very well when one of them stopped her and said, "I absolutely love everything about it and the numbers are great. But let's hear more about you."
Kaye says she was feeling great. She had nailed all of the questions about numbers, financials, the patent, and then he just stopped her mid- sentence and says, "I notice you are not wearing a ring. Does this mean you are not married? Do you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend." Kaye replied by saying, "Ummm sorry, not sure the relevance." Then things took a turn for the worse. "Let me rephrase this," the man said. "What if you accidentally get pregnant?"
There are a lot of things she wishes she would have said, Kaye says now. But she says she was just so stunned. "I have built multiple successful business. I have contingency plans for most things in life. And, a lot of things have to happen for a girl to accidentally get pregnant. But the most offensive part was that no man would ever get asked this question."
Kaye said she's sure she looked surprised and then she simple shook her head, told that they she didn't think they would be good partners, and then left. "It took me months before I would take another meeting like that. But it gave me additional motivation to grow the company the way that I have always envisioned."
For women who are looking to fundraise, Kaye offers these suggestions—"Know your numbers; have thick skin and do not get thrown; and use your network and find amazing mentors who have done this before successfully." Kaye is confident that things are getting better. We have proven that women can and should lead companies, she says. "Look at the amount of females who have successfully raised, taken companies public and who are going into unchartered categories. I am so proud of the female founders I know who are busting through walls. Support these businesses. Follow them, talk about them and they will do the same back.
Andre Loubier - Founder & CEO of Mailbird—A desktop email client for Windows built to integrate multiple email accounts with additional organizational apps.
In terms of fundraising, Loubier says she and her team attended tech conferences and leveraged their existing network. "We also did some cold call outreach, as well as PR via a TV series targeted for investors. Angellist was a good place to target, too," she says.
Loubier says that not being taken seriously as a tech founder is always an issue for women. "Plus, it seems as if I am always being asked questions like how I would overcome failure versus my male counterparts being asked about how they would achieve their success." These are two incredibly different approaches to questioning an entrepreneur, of course, Loubier explains. One that focuses struggling and failing (if it's a woman doing the fundraising) and one focusing on thriving and succeeding (if it's a man doing the fundraising).
For other women looking to fundraise, Loubier says, "Defying social expectations is an important ingredient in cultivating change, especially when it comes to areas that have always been dominated by men. Never conform to society's idea of how you should run your own company or the labels you should possess."
Instead, she says, women should show their tenacity and their power because "if you don't stand up and fight for both your business and other women, who will?" Once investors and understand that you have something of value to offer them, Loubier adds "you will gain their full attention and, perhaps more importantly, their respect."
Fundraising has been tough, Loubier says, but it has definitely forced her to stand her ground. "I've learned how to hold onto the ways I want to run my business, refusing to give that up to attract a financial investment. We want to work with strategic investors who support women-led startups and recognize the importance of adapting in order to stay competitive."
Alexandra Fine - Co-founder & CEO of Dame Products—A sexual intimacy product company focused on bridging the pleasure gap between women and men.
Dame did their initial fundraising via Indiegogo, Crowdfunding, and Kickstarter. The last of which they used until they changed their policies, Fine says. "They refused to put us on their homepage or include us in a newsletter" due to the nature of their products. Recently, they started to raise capital in the more traditional way.
Fine says the "fascinating way" she has experienced sexism during fundraising is based on the fact that they "make tools that are generally for vulva-owners." She says she is constantly introduced to women associates and partners at venture capital firms who then have to go out and pitch Dame to the rest of their partners.
"It's a lot to ask a woman, doing her best to be taken seriously by her predominantly male team to pitch a vibrator company." That issue has caused Fine herself to become "sexist" as she now tries to only speak to male partners at firms. "I need to work the system as the system is in order to change it," she explains.
She says that women who are looking to fundraise would do well to "build an audience first; tell everyone you know about it from day one; encourage everyone to share; and ask for what you want. She states that it's imperative to remember that sexism can be incredibly subtle. In fact, she adds, "We are all a little sexist and oftentimes people don't realize they are sexist. It doesn't make it okay. But you can point it out without shaming someone. This is how we make change." The truth is only 2-3% of VC capital in the US goes to women, Fine says, and that simply is not anywhere near enough.
The bottom line is this—the sexism is real but it only means we, as women, have to keep asking and keep succeeding and, more than anything, keep supporting one another. The money is out there. The women with ideas are out there. It's high time that men learn that the only thing they'll achieve by not investing in women, is falling behind in the game. The future is female. And now is the time to invest.
WRITTEN BYJenny Block