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- When it comes to representation in the tech space, woman have been persistently in the minority — these three female founders shared their advice for others trying to break through the glass ceiling.
- Payak Kadakia, the founder of ClassPass, said that learning the difference between “no” and “not right now” has been an essential lesson that’s paved the way to her success.
- Charlie Javice, the founder of Frank, encouraged founders not to waste their time with people and events that won’t actually move them forward.
- Ruzwana Bashirt of Peek.com said that VCs should look beyond the resume to find strengths diverse founders bring to the table.
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That women have been maligned when it comes to opportunities for advancement in the workplace is an old, nagging story — as is the fact that, when it comes to representation on the tech scene, they’ve been persistently in the minority. Reports from Q1 of 2019 revealed that women still received a fractional share of capital the year before — only 2.2% of the VC funding pie in 2018, reported Fortune — and, within venture firms, a mere 9% of general partners are women, a gap that contributes to funding inequality, according to research out of Columbia University.
The good news: Parity is improving. Last year, PitchBook data showed that women-founded startups were trending upward. First financings — new companies entering the venture-backed tier — have grown from 7% in 2005 to 21% in 2017. According to a PitchBook and All Raise report released last fall, female founders raised $46.3 billion in 2018: a new record and a 15-fold increase from 2010.
Business Insider spoke to three female founders about navigating the tech world today and got their tips, insights, and advice for others working for their own business breakthroughs.
Payal Kadakia is the founder and executive chairwoman of ClassPass, a subscription app that connects people with fitness classes and wellness resources around the globe. The company recently became the first unicorn of 2020 worth $1 billion.
When I was first building my company, there weren’t many people on the other side of the table who understood the problem I was solving. I remember male VCs asking me why I wasn’t focusing on personal training. Personal training was something male VCs understood; boutique fitness, on the other hand, was a craze that began with women and at the time wasn’t a market many male investors knew existed. It’s great that things are changing, and there are more women deploying capital. But there’s still so much work to do to achieve gender parity among investors and entrepreneurs.
Another area where we’re making progress — but the numbers still skew low — involves how much women are raising. When I was starting my company, there weren’t any women I knew of who had raised more than $200 million (ClassPass has now raised more than $500 million). Even today, too few of us who have built companies worth $1 billion or more. We just announced that milestone ourselves, and I’m grateful that the numbers are slowly improving.
I think we were ultimately successful in raising capital for three key reasons:
- First, I stayed laser focused on metrics. It was frustrating when VCs didn’t understand the power of my idea because they weren’t my target customers. Many were new to group fitness, and in order to validate the idea they needed to ask their wives and secretaries if they would use our product. (Keep in mind that this was right before the boutique-fitness boom!) Once we achieved product-market fit and began growing virally, the VCs couldn’t line up fast enough. My advice is to focus on the metrics that matter and also to prove the value of your idea by building something that users love. It’s a lot easier to get investors on board once you have happy customers and a positive growth trajectory.
- Second, I found the right advocates. I lined up a great team of advisors, investors, and other founders to make introductions and guide me. Look for people who are fully on board with your vision and with whom you want to share your entrepreneurial journey.
- The third lesson: I learned to be okay with “no” meaning “not right now.” Entrepreneurs hitting a brick funding wall should feel comforted knowing that even ClassPass, a global company with 30,000 partners in nearly 30 countries, took a few years to secure a Series A.
Another area where I’ve seen positive progress involves Instagram. On a professional level, it has enabled entrepreneurs to start smaller movements and build vibrant niche communities. On a personal level, Instagram has made it easier for me to connect with my culture. I am now able to follow other South Asian movers and shakers and find people with similar backgrounds. Being Indian, it’s also just a nice feeling to know that there’s a place for us to go and connect. There is now a market for these niche movements and products because marketers know they can reach a large group of consumers through these influencers, micro-influencers, and targeted communities.
Charlie Javice is the CEO and founder of Frank, the leading financial aid platform that connects students with aid at colleges. Founded in 2016, the company has raised $15.5 million to date.
My name is Charlie, not Charlotte — that’s always surprising to people when I walk into meetings, because they’re often expecting a man. Building the company, I’ve been asked by prospective investors in front of all my executives questions like: “Why do you, as a 27-year-old woman with no children to financially support, need to make this much money?” Just FYI, as the CEO of Frank, I’m not among the top-five-paid people at my company. I learned that while you will always have investors who make your skin crawl, you will equally meet amazing investors who will be your No. 1 cheerleaders (and shake the pom poms, too!).
My favorite piece of advice is to always do what you do with purpose and to keep your mission at the core of your company. That being said, your mission is not a bible that investors and employees will always accept as gospel. It’s about leading with data. But sometimes, the data isn’t enough. You need to connect over shared experiences, which may be typically more difficult, for example, for a woman who couldn’t tell you anything about sports or going skiing in Aspen.
Once upon a time, a big venture investor turned to me and said, “I don’t get it. I had no issue filing my FAFSA. Are people idiots?” He didn’t know anyone who had gone to a community college or that the majority of students don’t even finish their degree in six years and drop out. I explained that the data supports that he is in the minority. He still wasn’t convinced, so I asked him about his background prior to applying for financial aid for his MBA. It turned out that he had gone to law school and spent a couple years doing private equity and leveraged buyouts before applying to business school. Eventually, I realized: It’s really, really hard to pitch to the person who doesn’t believe a problem exists just because they have never experienced it personally. It is never worth your time to convince that person. So, instead, target your pitches to an audience who will. Directing your time and energy strategically will save you a lot of time and frustration.
Another thing I learned along the way is that life is short. Keep moving forward and jump through windows when doors slam in your face. Spend time developing deep relationships with people and not simply networking for the sake of networking. Female-only events are almost always a waste of time — always keep pushing for inclusion and diversity. Take all the advice you can get with a grain of salt: Sometimes making a decision now is more important than making the right decision.
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