"While pitching, I've seen folks look to my male co-founders for confirmation. I'm like: 'Dude, do I smell or something?'"
One of my friends recently shared this article
with me from Harvard Business Review, talking about how male and female entrepreneurs get asked different questions from venture capitalists, and the correlation of the questions and funding. I laughed as I recently had a similar experience.
My company, Benekiva, consists of four founders: three men and me. We are diverse in our skillsets and perspectives, which makes our team very strong. We are also very experienced -- not saying we are old :) but we have been in corporations, run multiple startups, managed diverse teams and held mid- to senior-level positions.
Being in the technology industry for nearly a decade and a half, as a woman, I've seen that getting "preventive" questions is such a norm, and the more you climb up the ladder the number you tend to become. I have encountered several times where I had to justify or prove my recommendations on a tech architecture or solution while my male counterparts could walk in and have a much shorter conversation. While pitching, I've seen folks look to my male co-founders for confirmation. I'm like: "Dude, do I smell or something? Do I need to throw out my credentials for you to believe me?"
Recently, I pitched Benekiva to a couple of seasoned mentors. Benekiva is a software solution to bridge the gap between life insurance companies and their intended beneficiaries through claims automation, beneficiary and policyholder management and asset retention. As I was walking the mentors through the pitch deck, I kept getting interrupted and at one point was told, "I don't believe there is a problem." (Note: There is more than $14 billion of unclaimed property from life insurance policies, and that grows at an annual rate of $1 billion; the claims process is broken.)
At the end of the meeting, I was told, "Great job, and they were tough for a reason." I left confused. What do you mean, for a reason? Was this a test? A co-founder, on the other hand, had a conversation with a similar audience and kept getting comments such as, "Wow" and "This is genius."
See also: How Technology Breaks Down Silos
Earlier in my startup journey, I was nicely told that I was a pretty accessory, the female touch. The list of demeaning comments could keep going on, even though I've been a chief product officer, a CTO and a CEO.
I'm not alone. Many women founders are facing similar problems, especially on the insurtech side.
How might one survive?
Here are some tips that have helped me not punch someone in the face:
See also: Startups Take a Seat at the Table
- Come prepared — It is hard to hear statements from your male colleagues about how they can just wing a pitch. We women may, but chances are that we will hear about it. Prepare and practice answers to the questions. The HBR article provides a great point about how to turn a "preventive" question into a "promotion" one.
- Be confident — I don't care about hearing how I am intimidating. I have expertise and come across confident. I also don't have an ego about it -- I am very humble and helping. When facing investors, mentors, prospects, current clients, be confident. Answer with confidence because who knows better than you about your business, product, process, etc.?
- Avoid the impostor syndrome — Especially when getting drilled continuously, it is easy to start doubting your abilities. Don't! Think about your successes and stop the negativity and the voices of self-doubt.
- Find a peer group — Hang out with other entrepreneurs who are in your space. If there isn't a group, create a meet-up! I've started a meet-up in my region for Women in Tech and allies to share experiences and develop a network of tech women that can support and lift each other.
- Be positive — No excuses. Don't put too much energy into the negativity. See what has happened as a chapter in your book. I'm not saying not to address problems, but don't let them fester so much that you are spending time fighting something that is not worth the effort.
Finally — Write about your experiences and share with colleagues. Knowledge is power, and perhaps your story can inspire others.