I recently had the privilege of attending a salon-style “Venture Dinner” brought together by Women@Austin and underwritten by JP Morgan. It is one of a series of events, each connecting a handful of women entrepreneurs with select investors, offering lively conversations on how women entrepreneurs can more successfully gain attention, confidence and funding from investors. Jan Ryan, Women@Austin’s founder, was the facilitator. Each dinner includes different entrepreneurs and investors, so there are unique takeaways from each session.
These Venture Dinners typically include five woman entrepreneurs and five investors (usually all male, no surprise), at a seated dinner. (They are listed below.) The evening began with cocktails and networking. I was instantly struck by the brilliant energy of the young women entrepreneurs and the support they show for each other. Each founder came across as smart, articulate and poised for success. Several of these amazing women balance the challenges of orchestrating their young families while tackling the brutal demands of running a start-up, which we all know is crazy hard. It was inspiring to hear how these women confidently make room for everything in their lives that matters, without sacrificing the quality of what they deliver.
The dinner conversation covered a number of important topics relevant to women founders who seek funding. Three challenges struck me as particularly tough – and here’s what I heard:
1) Women entrepreneurs need to gain authentic, helpful, advice and feedback from investors
Often after a pitch, women entrepreneurs are left wondering how they did. Sometimes there is no feedback, or they feel that the VC holds back on delivering an honest assessment. We discussed how women can solicit and receive helpful feedback, whether it’s good or bad. A couple of the VCs admitted that they sometimes feel less comfortable delivering direct and/or negative feedback to women founders than to men. I could see in the room that once that idea was articulated, there was an almost palpable group recognition that this is a relic of our past. My favorite quote of the evening came when Alyson Eberle, CEO of PureSpoon, pronounced, “We’re tougher than you think! We can take it!” One VC confessed that he can become weary of taking the time and energy to provide direction because he often experiences that it’s not taken seriously by founders, regardless of gender. The time required for an expert to provide quality direction for a CEO is significant, and I know from my own experience that young entrepreneurs can take expert advice for granted. My takeaway: it’s important for founders to ask for the feedback they need and make sure that the VC understands they value it, good or bad, and will seriously consider it. If feedback doesn’t come during the meeting, a quick email afterward with a request for feedback is a good way to learn what’s working or not. I was encouraged to see that this group of women realized that female entrepreneurs who want to grow by receiving expert feedback, even when negative, are going to have to ask for it, and find new ways to push to get it.
2) Studies show that VCs interview women entrepreneurs differently than men
We discussed how VCs tend to ask male founders questions that drive toward conversations about positive futures, such as how they will grow and scale their businesses, and how they will acquire new customers. When speaking to female founders, VCs gravitated towards questions that are geared toward uncovering risks, such as how the entrepreneur will prevent competitors from stealing market share, how they will meet deadlines or how they will be able to manage their business while having a family. These questions lead the conversations to center around limitations and barriers to success. While this is obviously an example of unintended gender bias on the part of VCs, it creates an uneven investment playing field for women founders.
My takeaway: because women tend to be less self-promotional than men, we should shape our pitches toward featuring opportunity, and assert more confidence and optimism in our projections of success.
3) Businesses created by women for women can be difficult for male VCs to resonate with
Two founders at our event have created businesses for whom young women are the target audience. Purespoon makes a healthy line of organic baby food, and MosieBaby is the creator of the first insemination syringe developed specifically to help women get pregnant in the privacy of their own homes. VCs, being mostly men, and generally of an older generation, can find it hard to relate to and judge the business potential of the offerings. While surely younger female VCs could relate, we all agreed that there are too few of these. One of our VC participants insisted that while he may not personally relate to the pain points that a female-focused product solves, he can always understand the business opportunity.
My takeaway: It’s important for women founders to explain the product, then put aside the fact that the VC may never really “get” the pain points it solves. The founder should focus on inspiring the VC with the financial picture. If he can see how the business will make money, it almost doesn’t matter what the company does.
Overall, the investors stressed the importance of networking in the investing community to understand what investors are looking for. Many VCs are limited in their investment options due to the focus of their LPs. But by building relationships, women entrepreneurs can seek referrals and find better matches for funding.
I was encouraged and inspired by the openness and positive nature of the conversations. While we all recognized that women have challenges finding the opportunities they want, the VCs we visited with couldn’t have been more supportive. I believe that open exchanges such as this about how we can establish mutually beneficial relationships are making a difference in chipping away at the barriers and creating new pathways for women to succeed.
My thanks to Jan Ryan, founder of Women@Austin, our sponsor JP Morgan and the amazing participants in the evening where I learned so much. The entrepreneurs in attendance were Karyl Fowler, CEO and Co-Founder of Transmute; Elizabeth Truong, M.D, Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Cloud 9; Katherine Allen, CEO and Co-Founder of FloRecruit; Maureen Brown, CEO and Co-Founder of MosieBaby and Alyson Eberle, CEO and Founder of Purespoon. The investors included Tom Ball, Managing Director at Next Coast Ventures; Ben Scott, General Partner at Live Oak Ventures; Rick Timmins, past-Chairman of CTAN Angel Partners; Jason Seats, Chief Investment Officer, TechStars Fund and Nick Nielsen, Head of Startup Strategy at UPS. Ashley Brueckner and Mark Sanchez, from JP Morgan Private Bank, were our hosts, who provided a lovely seated dinner in a private room at the Fairmont.
Women@Austin, focused on advancing women entrepreneurs, has recently become part of Notley Ventures’ portfolio of impact companies. For more information read here.