Not long ago, I attended a conference featuring businesswomen from all types of industries. During the event, a female tech company founder — a brilliant, composed, kick-butt kind of woman — revealed that in order to get venture capital, she had to make one big change to her business: She had to add a male cofounder.
I was stunned. Nothing else changed about the company, but once she added him to her executive team, it became remarkably easier to garner investor interest. But I quickly realized that many others in the room weren’t so shocked. They’d already experienced this themselves and come to similar solutions.
We can’t ignore the facts. Historically, most entrepreneurs pitching to high-profile investors were male. Accepting women into those competitive spaces is a relatively new phenomenon. Remember the very first season of “Mad Men,” set in a 1960s ad agency? One savvy young woman is the daughter of a man who owns a big department store. Even though her dad is elderly and essentially silent in the boardroom, he sits beside her at every meeting. The ad executives won’t take her seriously if he’s not present. Fifty-plus years later, that dynamic still persists.
So what’s the answer? Well, the first step is to quit the cycle. We know that adding a man may make things easier in the short-term, but in many cases, that de-values your worth. This is your idea, your business, your strategy. Own that. I don’t think the female tech exec made a mistake in adding a male cofounder — she did what she needed to do, and she’s now blazing trails on her own -— but if you are confident and competent, don’t sell yourself short. You are capable of getting financing; it just may take extra grit and hustle.
Another fact: Most investors are male. This will change over time, but right now, that’s what it is. So as a female entrepreneur, you need to expect investor questions that target your gender. They may not be as explicit as the classic, “How will you balance work and family,” but they may hint at that message with seemingly-loaded questions like, “How much time can you devote per day?” or, “What’s your travel availability?”
When you face questions or comments that appear to invoke your gender, don’t fall into the trap. Answer as any business-minded person would, male or female. I devote 24/7 to my work; even when I’m not at my laptop, I’m organizing and planning. I can travel as much as needed. In other words, I am doing this. Your concerns that I lack time management skills are misguided. Don’t become overly defensive, just be calm and answer the questions.
Other necessary preparations aren’t business-related at all. People recoil at the phrase, “Looks matter,” because it seems gendered and harsh. But often, that’s not really the case. Most men dress appropriately for investors and women should carefully do that, too. If you only own one outfit for pitch days, you’re doing yourself a disservice: Different types of investors have different “vibes” and demonstrating awareness shows your commitment. If you have a formal meeting with a potential investor in his corporate office, that’s the right occasion to wear a crisp suit and heels. Chatting at a more casual venue, like over lunch on a Sunday? That may call for a less buttoned-up look.
It’s not sexist to think strategically about your clothes, hair and makeup. Men have similar considerations when they prepare for a big meeting: Should they slick back their hair? Wear a tie? Pair jeans with a blazer for cooler, younger investors? (Under most circumstances, the Mark Zuckerberg t-shirt approach isn’t the way to go.) You may even want to enlist guidance from a female friend who really has an eye for business-friendly styling. Most people — male or female — feel much more confident when they walk into a room knowing they look just right.
Down the road, you’ll find yourself approached by budding entrepreneurs seeking their own funding or, at the very least, guidance as they build their companies from the ground up. These are excellent opportunities to continue breaking the cycle of male investors boosting male entrepreneurs while equally-competent women struggle to find financial backing. When a young woman in business reaches out, respond to that email. Offer up some of the wisdom you’ve picked up along the way. Yes, women need financial investors, but actually investing in women isn’t just a matter of money. Invest time and energy, better preparing them for the work ahead.
Christie Garton is an author and founder of the 1,000 Dreams Fund