I participated in a pitch event whose mission was to elevate women founders in tech. I have an obligation to all of the women out there working to start and grow tech companies to share this experience and speak up. You hear about this happening, but nothing can prepare you for it happening to you. Here is the feedback I left from the event:
I believe in elevating women entrepreneurs, and I believe in this event. However, I had a disappointing experience. As a woman entrepreneur and a leader, I am obligated to say something, and I want to say it directly so that this can be avoided in the future. I leaned in to this uncomfortable conversation, but I didn't think the person I was paired with, who was an older caucasian man, was qualified to make advisory comments, and I fear that this person may have made similar comments to other participants.
These comments were dejecting and discouraging, leaving a bad taste in my mouth and me questioning why I got involved in this event in the first place. On the positive side, I learned how to converse with people about our venture who do not have the social impact background or balanced gender images that I normally find in even moderately savvy investors. I was able to steer defensive and offensive questions back to the topic at hand.
There are three specific points that I continue to think about after the experience:
- The first comment was a defensive comment about my personal ethics, and not the venture. After I finished pitching, the person asked, “So, do you think I’m a bad person for wearing down? What would you say to that?” I was able to kindly steer the conversation back to the venture’s mission itself and market that we are addressing, but this should not have been the person’s mindset from the start. It was self-centered and selfish, and demonstrated that I wasn’t being taken seriously as a founder, and that our venture wasn’t being taken seriously.
- The person told me that my idea was a "lifestyle business" which is highly offensive and sexist, especially since I had just said that ours is a growing $200 billion market and we have already made money with a proof of concept. We are already making revenue and are scaling, which is why I’m pitching to investors in the first place. A lifestyle business is a business that is started by a founder to afford her a certain lifestyle income and no more, and is intentionally not meant to scale or have real impact. I was able to flatly reject this accusation, but I wish it had not been brought up in the first place. The fact this this comment made by a man during an event that is supposed to elevate and support women entrepreneurs is discouraging and frustrating. It reflects every other conversation I’ve had with male investors over the past six months.
- I was asked which I would personally choose if I could make a lot of money or have an ethical business. I explained the concept of social enterprise to this person, but he immediately dismissed my answer and said, “No, I don’t care about the business, I’m asking you as a person.” This was so inappropriate and distracting from the point of the event. I answered, “I reject the premise of your question,” and he said “Fair enough.” I flatly rejected the the premise that one cannot make money and make the world better at the same time. Social enterprise has been around for over a decade at this point, and now includes publicly-traded companies. I shouldn’t have to explain this concept to someone who is supposed to be knowledgeable about the current startup landscape. This comment demonstrated an ineptitude and lack of knowledge about the sphere they purport to be advising in.
In all, I hope that by my speaking up that this can be avoided in the future. If other founders reach out to you with similar complaints, I am more than happy to meet with them and give them good feedback in a way that empowers them. I have advised and worked with 200+ entrepreneurs, many of them women, and I would like to support your mission moving forward.
Let's not forget how far we've come, and let's not forget how far we still have to go. After all, the first programmers were women. Rock on, girl bosses.