Thinking About Giving Female Founders Advice? Think Again!
by Anna Dewar Gully
Or, at least, think first!
Oh, the plight of female founders.
I know it, because I am one, and I’m currently seeking business investment, which is probably why this article came up in my feed today (thank you LinkedIn algorithm).
“Specific advice for female founders with regards to fund raising?” is a piece by Alex Jarvis, consultant to founders and investors alike. His website headline is “Startup sucks and fundraising is a bitch.” But in his article, he tells us (female founders) - sage-like - that he falls “into this little camp that treats everyone equally, purely on results and intellectual factors.” In other words, is he claiming to have liberated himself from the nearly 200 ways cognitive bias affects the rest of us?
Regardless, his article really annoys me.
Actually, it pisses me off.
As someone who investigates and tackles inequality for a living. As someone with a scalable business model, I offer my rebuttal. And I’d like to begin by drawing Alex’s attention to the data on meritocracy in the start-up world.
There is no data on the meritocracy of the start-up world. Because the start-up world is NOT a meritocracy.
There is, however, strong data that suggests women get a raw deal when it comes to VC financing.
Instead of getting money from VCs, women founders too often (every day) get something else. They get bullshit tips on confidence and presentation style.
Alex tells us: “I find many women lack the exuberant confidence many men do and don’t set their goals high enough (Of course this is not the rule! I now many women who are basically men, but more fun.)”
I don’t know what that last bit is supposed to mean. But I can say a little something about women’s confidence. I could say a lot, actually, but my partner already did that, so if you want to debunk the women’s confidence myth, read this.
Alex gave his best advice to one of his clients, a female founder: “Ok, my guess is you have low confidence? Most of the people at [xx] are prob tier 4 people, so start building up some arrogance - be a 10% dick”.
Why did Alex
(a) assume she has low confidence?
(b) not assume the VC prefers a more stereotypical form of presentation?
Alex’s advice on being a woman entrepreneur is sh#t advice, because when women go into a pitch meeting full of confidence (like many many many of my peers) they also get negative feedback. They get told to smile more, then they get told their valuation or business model are unsound.
For the record - for Alex (since he’s a man who appreciates intellectual riguour) and for his clients and anyone else buying into this sort of narrative - here’s a little actual data from the US.
Women found 40% of all businesses in the US. There is no dearth of women-led businesses to fund.
In 2019, they have received only 2.2% of VC funding.
When funded, women-led ventures grow revenue 2x the rate of their male peers.
In large companies, women on leadership teams expand share price x4.
If the market economy had a gender, it would be female. Women are the largest consumers in just about every category.
Men don’t always understand the female market, or women-led business.
Women entrepreneurs can take Alex’s advice if they want to… but it’s based on opinion - conjecture - not data. And it seems many do: in their responses to his feedback, his clients tell him that he’s funny and right. But my guess is, secretly, they think his advice on being a female entrepreneur is total bullsh*t, because he’s not a female entrepreneur.
The problem is, they’re tired. They’re tired of the paternalistic pat-on-the-head, and they’ve become numb to hearing bullshit advice OVER AND OVER AND OVER again.
If Alex - or anyone, for that matter - would like to provide better advice or support for female entrepreneurs, I’d encourage them to really study the experience of female entrepreneurs. And instead of making data-less assumptions that the problem is the female entrepreneur, take a look around the ecosystem and consider if it’s possible that the ecosystem you are in has actually codified bias: what types of businesses are worthy of funding, what character traits do you look for in presentations and teams, what type of bravado makes an investment or conversation worth your time?
Here are my thoughts for fellow female founders (based on my own experience):
If you want / need VC funding, know what you’re up against - this system was not designed by or for you. Learn about the system and what VCs want, and then gently nudge the positioning of your business to fit that box. Call yourself a data company for example, not a consulting company (but stay true to your bigger picture goals). It’s a gross pill to swallow, but if you want capital from VCs today, it’s a thing.
Think about debt financing so you can own your own pie at the end of the day. It’s scary to take on the risk, but it may be just what you need to take the first step to scale your business and to build an irrefutable business case.
Group together with other women and push for better ideas, new voices, and more accountability in the design of entrepreneurial ecosystems which are tended to by our governments and public dollars.
Ask people to help you build a VC network - so much of the funding landscape is about who you know. That means expanding your male networks, or finding women-led venture firms.
Know, from me, that the ‘no’ you received is not about your confidence or a chip on your shoulder. Bias is in the air we breathe. It’s inevitable that you will meet many a VC who think they are inherently unbiased. That VC is wrong. And you should feel free to call them on the myth of meritocracy.
As for Alex’s article? There are many lines and “tips” that really, really bother me in terms of his generalizations about women entrepreneurs, not beginning or ending with either of the following:
“You are a founder. You are NOT a female founder.” Would he share the same advice with a black founder? Only 1% of venture-backed founders are black. Only someone who has the privilege of living the default (founder, not black founder, CEO, not female CEO) gives that kind of advice. You cannot divorce a person’s experience of living in this world from its intersections with their identity(ies) particularly when you are underrepresented or marginalized.
And then there’s this: “Normal ‘male’ VCs are not grabby.” I’m not sure what to do with that.
What I can tell you is that so many have room to grow in terms of their understanding inequality, and understanding the experiences of women entrepreneurs.
Alex, if you’d like to engage in a consciousness-raising discussion about these issues, please feel free to reach out. Female founders have unique experiences, they have negative experiences, and those negative experiences are not their fault.
I encourage Alex and his peers in the VC world to be a whole lot more curious about women’s entrepreneurial experiences moving forward.
Anna Dewar Gully, MRes
Co-CEO, Women’s Work Institute
Anna Dewar Gully is founder and co-CEO of Women’s Work Institute.
Anna is an organizational strategist with 15 + years of experience designing enterprise-wide strategy, advising boards and leading on governance, leading transformation initiatives, and building greater equality in large systems and organizations in Canada, the U.S., Europe and the UK.
Throughout her career, Anna has guided numerous Boards of Directors, CEOs, and senior leaders through complex organizational culture, policy, governance, and strategic change initiatives. She has also coached frontline, management, and senior staff in a variety of contexts on how to successfully navigate and advance progressive change.