What This Female CEO Learned About Gender Bias After Pitching 200 VCs
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There’s no denying that female CEOs are still a rarity. We account for only about seven percent of CEOs in the start-up world. Female VCs are equally scarce, which means a female CEO is usually pitching to a male investor who is used to hearing pitches from other men.
So if the guys create the benchmark for a successful venture pitch, which they do by shear volume alone, what does that mean for how women are perceived by venture capitalists? Does that affect the fundraising process?
Many of the male CEOs I know pitch their startups with a “Billion Dollars or Bust” story and the successful ones are masterful storytellers.
I remember being amazed at the ease with which one CEO painted a picture of the massive value that his company would create. He peppered his story with just enough metrics to pre-emptively neutralize any doubts that might arise. He made his vision seem inevitable.
But listening closely, trying to hook into the tangibles that would make his vision come true, I found that those tangibles weren’t really there. They couldn’t be. The reality is that startups must navigate so many unknowns. It’s impossible to map out the route from seed to IPO. That mapping has to happen on the road.
And yet, that storytelling ability is critical in raising capital.
I think there’s an inherent challenge for women telling the “Billion Dollars or Bust” story, or at least there was for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I want nothing less than to reinvent online video to make it richly interactive. And I want Rapt Media to lead that billion-dollar expedition.
But the process of building a company is iterative and I focus on the next set of milestones and the next risks to be mitigated. If the guys are great at describing the view from the top of the mountain, then I’m the one focused on putting one foot in front of the other to get to the next ridge.
This is not uncommon for female CEOs. Mauria Finley, CEO and founder of Citrus Lane, has written about lessons-learned in fundraising. She says that too often, women “pitch based on their skills and competence, and they undersell their vision.”
So should female CEOs adapt to a more masculine style of pitching? I don’t think so. There is still subtle gender bias when it comes to how women are perceived that might actually make the Billion-Dollar story ineffective.
I first understood this from one of Rapt Media’s investors, Adam Quinton, who is an active early-stage investor and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs.
“When it comes to leadership behaviors,” says Quinton, “there is plenty of evidence that women suffer the double-bind, a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario.” Because typical male behaviors are more commonly associated with leadership, women are often perceived as great team players, but not leaders. And yet taking on male leadership traits is often actually counter-productive," says Quinton.
“Women who step outside of the recognized feminine behavior patterns are typically tagged by both men and women as unlikable,” he says. “You’re really only going to be successful if you are authentic. People need to see you for what you are. You can flex things at the margins, but you can’t make yourself into a macho bullshitting guy if you aren’t one!”
Rapt Media has raised $3 million and in that time, I’ve probably given more than 200 pitches. I’ve tried pitching big vision. I’ve tried pitching demonstrated progress over time.
Ultimately, building relationships with investors who I like and respect, and who understand me as a leader worked best. This relationship building is a slower method for closing capital, but over the long run, it’s better for the company and our investors.
The good news is that, according to PitchBook, the number of venture deals going to female-lead companies has more than tripled, from four percent to 13 percent since 2004. This may be driven, in part, by the growing body of research that has shown companies with gender-diverse executive teams outperform those that are homogenous.
I think this will become a virtuous cycle. The more women that found and lead good companies, the more open VCs will be to different leadership styles, and that benchmark for what a successful pitch should look like will shift to include approaches that may be less stereotypically male.
But until we have more female CEOs, just remember: Be authentic. But be sensitive to what your audience wants to hear. Know that women founders do get funded. And recognize that fundraising is hard no matter who you are because ultimately, shrewd tenacity may be even more important than selling the dream.
Related: 10 Highest-Earning Female CEOs