As a female fintech CEO, I'm asked all the time, "Has it been hard to raise money as a woman?"
Certainly, it wasn't easy to raise six rounds of venture capital for our startup. But since I've never raised money as a man, I don't know if that experience would be any different. Of all the venture capitalists who passed on the early funding rounds, no one ever said, "We're not going to invest in your company because you're a woman." In fact, I found that if they didn't like something about our business model, they usually didn't say anything. They were vague, polite and just never called us back.
However, only about 9% of entrepreneurs in venture capital-backed technology startups are women, according to a Harvard Business Review study. Those numbers tell us it's tougher for women-led technology companies to raise money from venture capitalists—or any investor—than it is for men. Is overt sexism at play here? It's something deeper and more systemic than that.
During the time I've spent fundraising, I have never heard a sexist comment. So I don't feel there is blatant, overt bias. However, women raising money for technology companies face obstacles that men don't.
First, there is ingrained, inherent bias in society. We – both men and women – use pre-formed expectations as a shortcut to make our lives easier. In fundraising, we see evidence that women are more successful when they're raising money for businesses that society thinks women should know about. Think: cosmetics, fashion or other products women use. There's already an expectation that they're knowledgeable in these areas, so they don't have to work as hard to prove it.
Second, we all know that we are just naturally more comfortable with people who look like us and speak like us because we don't have to work as hard to figure out what kind of people they are, and how best to communicate with them.
The clearest example of this look-like-the group tendency for me was when I was a consultant at The Ascent Group. We were working on a business strategy for a software company in California, and I'll never forget my first meeting at the company. The first three men that I met were all between 5'6" and 5'7". They were each wearing Levi 501s, brightly colored button-down shirts and Sperry topsiders. I thought, huh, that's kind of strange. The fourth man I met was the CEO, and guess what? He was about 5'6" and wore Levi 501s, a bright pink button-down, long-sleeve shirt and Sperry topsiders. It was a very visual reflection of the idea that from the top down, people are just more comfortable working with people like themselves, and more likely to gravitate toward those people. I think this is true of both men and women.
Since only about 7% of venture partners are women, most of the investors that female CEOs pitch to are men – regardless of what kind of company you're raising money for. So, the "lookalike" shortcut, for the most part, isn't available.
To overcome these challenges and get more female fintech firms funded, entrepreneurs should follow these six strategies.
Be Confident in Your Statements
I realize I am stereotyping, but I have noticed that women, myself included, will often say something like, "I believe we're going to expand our channel and grow 25% next year." Men, on the other hand, typically say something like, "We are going to expand our channel and grow 25% next year."
The more declarative statements may or may not be factual, but the way a woman communicates matters. It is useful to come across as commanding, even forceful. The more cautious way of communicating is less appealing to investors who are looking for confident, take-charge leaders.
Target Firms with Female Partners
Venture firms that have a track record of investing in women-led businesses, or even better, have an investing partner who is a woman, are probably more likely to invest in women-led businesses. Target those firms—if you can find them in your market. Even if you don't pitch to the woman partner, the men at these firms are probably more comfortable working alongside women and their expectations for women's roles are likely different.
Target Firms in Your Market
Do not waste your time with investors outside, or even adjacent to, your target market. Otherwise, you will have to educate them, convince them there's an opportunity and gain their confidence to invest in a woman founder. That's asking them to make too many leaps.
Early on in my fundraising days, I talked to firms that invested at the edges of consumer payments, which are very different than business-to-business payments. After I finished my pitch, one of them said, "I don't really understand why this market opportunity exists." At that point, I knew I was in the wrong room, with the wrong people.
I was much more successful with people who really understood the market dynamics and the opportunity in B2B payments. They were the ones that were really excited about what we were doing. The opportunity overcame any gender bias.
You should speak to people who really know your target market. They're already going to understand most of what you're saying and that may get them past the fact that you don't look like they do.
Pre-dot-com bust, you could go in with a great-looking slide deck and a hip company name, and walk out with a million dollars in early-stage funding. Those days are long gone. If you want to convince somebody that you have a good idea and you are capable of building a business around it, the most compelling thing you can do is show results from customers who have used your product and can speak about it favorably.
Get your product to market and get some customer traction. That may mean bootstrapping from your own savings, or getting money from friends, family or angel investors. You must have something that will allow you to get some customer results before you're sitting in front of a venture capitalist. Market traction and customer results counter gender bias.
Some people believe that you have to fake it until you make it. But anybody who's been around more than a few years can see through the smoke and mirrors. Instead of faking something, focus on the results you do have. If you're asked about weaknesses, be honest, but positive. Answer the question, but redirect it to the strengths of your business. Never make anything up. It's a losing strategy.
Bring Your Business to Life
To bridge the communication divide between women CEOs and venture capitalists, find a way to show the emotional appeal of your product. It's one thing to use customer results or a customer quote as part of a slide deck. But if you put a customer in front of them, or vice versa, and can capture the customer's emotional response and enthusiasm for your product, it's much more powerful.
If you can't get potential investors together with a live customer, use video. I once heard Jennifer Fleiss, the co-founder of designer dress rental service Rent the Runway, speak at a Harvard Business School event. She was pitching to audiences of male venture capitalists, and could not get them to understand the importance of the perfect dress.
She assembled a focus group, delivered dresses to them and filmed their reactions opening the boxes and trying on the dresses. Then it was no longer a man talking about the product, or a woman talking about the product. It was a customer talking about it, and that's more powerful than an entrepreneur of any gender pitching it. Granted, this was a pitch for a product many venture capitalists would expect from a woman CEO, but this strategy can be used effectively for almost any product.
No one has ever come out and said, "I'm not investing because you're woman," and they've never said the opposite either. I have no way of knowing what part gender has played in my successes or failures, but I do know that, in the end, I succeeded and other female founders can, too. In this process, we can control the way we communicate, and we can control who we approach. We can control getting customer results, we can control the way we present those results and we can control how we handle rejection.
What we can't control is subconscious bias. We can adjust for it, but the real long-term solution is we need more women to get out there, raise funds and become investors themselves.
Karla Friede is chief executive of Nvoicepay.com