Five years ago, blip.tv co-founder Dina Kaplan said at a panel of female tech founders yesterday at South By Southwest Interactive, she arrived at a pitch meeting with a prominent angel investor and was told, "The first half is going to be your pitch, the second will be me hitting on you."
She said she felt nauseous but pressed on with her pitch. Later, when she asked him what projects he was most excited about funding, he replied, "Honestly, the thing I'm most excited about is the prospect of seeing you naked later tonight. "
And yet, perhaps because of the pathbreaking by Kaplan and her peers, the younger entrepreneurs on the panel, Katia Beauchamp from Birchbox and Alexa von Tobel from LearnVest said they had seen fewer barriers, or subtler ones. Von Tobel's major investor is a woman; they both talked about getting the guidance and advice of fellow female founders.
Beauchamp did recall that when she and her partner Hayley Barna were going before male investors, they didn't understand their cosmetics-driven pitch. "We had a business model that was completely compelling from a numbers perspective, but because men didn't use it themselves," she said, they kept getting sent to meet the funders' wives.
Things have improved, many women said. And yet the sense of catharsis, of making connections, was striking.
A day earlier, a discussion of women in the field moderated by Hashable's Rachel Sklar and TechCrunch's Alexia Tsosis had included a similar horror story, with a woman describing how she was propositioned by a venture capitalist, who suggested a weekend in Paris, didn't respond to her emails about investing in her company, but did email about a date. Another woman was rejected by a venture capitalist who told her his company only invested in "true warriors."
A female entrepreneur in her 40s recalled being asked by a venture capitalist, "Who's watching your kids?" She retorted, "Who's watching yours?"
Earning credibility and respect was another recurring theme, whether as the only woman on the team, assumed to be the affirmative action hire, or having to start from scratch after having kids. And even though many of the men in tech seem to believe themselves to be underdogs or nice guys, there's still plenty of raunch. Another woman at the discussion pointed me to this recent discussion on Quora about startup funding. One guy's pitch:
For most of us links are like women - there are 2 types:
the hot, young ones. you chase after them, check them out once, and forget about them just as quickly.
and the efficient, good, reliable ones we want to have around all the time.
The handful of earnest-seeming dudes who showed up at the women-focused events asked for advice or, one said, entreated the women to drag their guy friends to such events so they, too, could learn about an entire universe of challenges to which he'd been oblivious.
Sometimes it was about simply calling it out, said one female founder. Every time she went out with her friends in the tech scene, she said, it was assumed she was the girlfriend and not a founder in her own right. Finally, she mentioned her irritation to a friend, who promptly made a point of introducing her as a fellow founder.
And there was plenty of talk of solutions. Kaplan said, "If you have an environment where women want to work you'll get more women to work there," noting that in the few cases where women were in executive roles, female participation tended to be higher. She also said the best way to make sure there are qualified women to promote is to "consciously hire talented women early in the process."
There was a man on that panel: Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer Venture Partners, who admitted that venture capitalists "look for patterns, and there isn't a long track record of female founder entrepreneur. When we're evaluating a pitch from a woman, to be perfectly honest, we've got to get over that. There's going to be no change in the status quo if we keep trying to force the same model." He was greeted with applause.
Special thanks to Kelly Meeker.