Just recently, I was tasked with finding women to attend a prestigious event that would put them on a deep social level with venture capitalists, angels and fellow startup entrepreneurs. As I pay close attention to the presence of other women in my field (startup founders), I felt this would be a simple task. It is not. The issue is as follows: the core limitation of the invitation is that the startup founder cannot also be working as a consultant. That person has to be 'all in' (as I discussed in my TEDx talk recently, doing your startup alongside consulting/working means you aren't all in). Because of the lack of funding/underfunding for women-led startups, many female startup founders have had to resort to doing some bitwork on the side. I know from personal experience (not yet getting any funding save bits and pieces of F&F money), I've been tempted to do some consulting in order to pay my bills. I've only refrained because of time issues. I'm still broke.
The second part of the issue is: though this event is reasonable as compared to events like TED, Davos and The Summit Series, it still costs more than $1,000, which, for anyone who is bootstrapped, is not only tough to swing, but pretty much impossible.
And the ultimate issue is: this becomes a chicken or the egg scenario where an unfunded entrepreneur needs to create those social bonds with people in positions of power and wealth in order to get funded, but because she doesn't have the funding, she cannot actually attend.
I did something pretty cool a couple of weeks ago. I went running with Rob Hayes, a partner at First Round Capital. We met for about an hour, then we put on our sneakers and went for a 45 minute run. I already knew that First Round had a conflict and couldn't fund us, but it didn't hurt to bond anyway. Rob thought it was an interesting way to get his attention and commented, "I think people should conduct all pitches this way." We ended up talking about everything but my startup and, at the end, he made oodles of valuable introductions for me. It's a meeting I'll never forget and probably one he won't either.
This is sort of akin to the idea that the deals take place on the golf course. It's true. Social connections and feelings of camaraderie will give anyone the leg up to getting funding and making deals. This is why the 'old boys networks' are so powerful. Those relationships are the key to making things happen. And herein lies the rub.
People love to hate on Affirmative Action: the policies that are meant to give equal opportunity to minorities by setting a minimum hiring threshold for women, people of color and otherwise non-Caucasian able-bodied males. I won't go into a debate about this as there are, of course, issues with the implementation of such policies, but I will say that a 'leg up' is something that comes quite naturally to certain groups: ones that can afford to socialize with those with money and the power to help.
No, I don't want to be funded because I have boobs. But sometimes I feel like I'm NOT being funded because I have boobs. As I've been at this for a while now (things haven't changed since I gave that TEDx talk), I've observed patterns emerging in the barriers to raising money:
- I've heard repeatedly, "This is not a market that I'm familiar with and I'm not comfortable investing where I don't understand the market," in response to the fact that Buyosphere's main audience is women who make the majority of the household purchases.
- The second most heard excuse, "We have a conflict," which roughly translates to "I don't understand the market and the future of this market and get that there are multiple ways to approach the democratization of commerce, and haven't figured out that I need to diversify my portfolio in this area."
- The third reason for passing, "We have too many deals going on right now," which is true. There is a frenzy of investing happening at the moment. Apparently in men (according to the WSJ as well as talking to other women like me who are struggling). I'd kill to be a teensy part of that frenzy. We're looking for a much smaller number than is being thrown around in these deals.
I have a private Google Group for female entrepreneurs where we discuss these issues. There are about 100 members. We try to keep it strategic so as not to get bogged down in the frustration, but it's not easy when we hear news day after day of this company raising multiple millions off of a pitch deck and that company raising millions within weeks of coming up with an idea with no clear revenue model after most of us have launched, have users, have a revenue model and long-term visions that appeal to THE BIGGEST MARKET online: women.
And it's not that anyone is overtly sexist or trying to block us from advancing. It's not malicious at all. It's just that those with the money don't understand our markets. I can share the charts and statistics and big, fantastic numbers showing the growth and the potential, but it doesn't really register. They don't understand the phenomenon behind Haul Vlogging and Makeup Tutorial obsessions (yes, that does say over 27 Million views). They certainly don't understand Swishing. And yes, there are women in VC roles, but not very many. They are also highly in demand and we cannot paint them all with a 'you're a woman, so you'll get it' brush. Quite often they've survived tech finance because they can think like a dude.
Running with Rob didn't cost me anything, so I was quite proud of my creativity in that one. But there are oodles of events that are going on that are enabling the bonds between the money people and budding entrepreneurs that DO cost money. And the fact that I'm having a helluva time finding women who can afford to attend just one event (one that is pretty damned cool if you ask me) is a bit troublesome. And Women 2.0 and Women in Tech events are awesome, but don't quite bring the same advantage as mixed prestigious events. Perhaps an effort to get more women to these events (scholarships? comped first time passes? just freakin funding us and making the effort to learn more about our market?) would help increase the rate of women attending and break the cycle of the same types of people getting funded and encourage more activity from female entrepreneurs.
Like I said, I don't want to be funded because I have boobs, but I also don't want to run into barriers because I have boobs. Speaking of which, I have to figure out some new ways to bond with the movers and shakers. Anyone into mani/pedis? ;)