Only 7 percent of U.S. venture capital deals go to women founders and CEOs. To increase their odds of joining those ranks, Sherry Lombardi and Kerry Bowbliss turned to Astia, an accelerator program and investor network that fosters high-growth women-led startups.
"It's not about networking women to women," says Lombardi, co-founder and CEO of Hulafrog, a web platform for parents looking for local activities for their kids. "It's about getting in front of as many venture capital firms as possible." In fact, more than half the mentors, advisors and financiers Lombardi and Bowbliss met during their four months under Astia's wing in 2013 were men.
It was time well spent: Last June Hulafrog closed a $430,000 seed round financed by one fund and eight angels. But accelerators and investment funds for women-run companies aren't the only ways to subsidize your venture. Here's what several female 'treps familiar with the financing dance suggest.
Go co-ed. Fundraising is a long, arduous process that cuts into time you could otherwise spend growing your business. For that reason, "it is absolutely essential that you start meeting as many people as you can immediately," Lombardi says. "You cannot afford to do it slowly."
Unfortunately, accelerators and funds for female founders remain few and far between. So don't limit yourself to just chasing after women-centric groups. Nor should you woo only female financiers. "I wouldn't go after an investor because of his or her gender," says Alexandra Meis, a New York-based tech startup founder who has raised $130,000 since 2012 through incubators, business-plan competitions, a foundation and a grant, none of them women-focused. "I would go after an investor who's interested in the space that you're working in."
Get aggressive with your pitch. Given that as many as 95 percent of partners at VC firms are men, it helps to know what they expect from an investment pitch. Many women fall short of making powerful presentations, according to Kitt McCurdy, co-founder of Women In Tech Network, a Los Angeles organization that helps groom 'treps for fundraising. "Women tend to speak less directly and more with a connotation of asking a question," McCurdy says.
Lombardi agrees. "Women entrepreneurs tend to be humble and a little less aggressive," she says, but notes that with the help of Astia's advisors, she learned to be "very, very data-driven, with less storytelling" in her presentations.
Seek out others. Meis and her co-founder, Miriam Altman, are used to being the only women in the room. "Any meetup, any meeting or any pitch I go to, it's all men," says Meis of Kinvolved, which strives to improve K-12 student attendance by engaging families. To bridge the gender divide, "we constantly seek out mentorship from women," she adds. This means going out of their way to introduce themselves to female entrepreneurs and executives and attending women-centric business events and conferences.
It also means mentoring other women as soon as you can, Lombardi says. "Once you've been through the process, I think it's important for entrepreneurs to help educate others coming through," she says. McCurdy seconds that: "It's important that we are cross-networking and cross-promoting and not coming from a place of scarcity."