Allyson Downey was sure from the start that her funding pitch was doomed.
In October 2013, the co-founder of weeSpring, a website on which parents shop for and review baby products, met with a group of almost two dozen angel investors. Most were under 40. Only one was female. And none were parents. "This is a complete waste of time," Downey recalls thinking.
Yet she walked away from that meeting with $115,000. Downey succeeded by recognizing how the odds were stacked against her for one simple, unfair reason--her gender--and by figuring out how to beat them. It's a fiercely frustrating system, but Downey's methods can improve your chances of getting funding while female.
Even though women own more than a third of businesses in the United States, the tech and venture capital worlds remain largely boys' clubs. (Just ask Ellen Pao.) Less than 3 percent of all venture financing goes to startups headed by female CEOs; for angel investments, the percentage is 19 percent--better, but still quite unbalanced. And women seeking financing face many less measurable challenges, including sexist treatment ranging from the merely condescending to out-and-out harassment.
It seems like an intractable problem, despite being a well-known one. "The equity model that exists in the United States does not appear to be a particularly good fit for many entrepreneurs, especially for women," a group of researchers wrote in a 2014 report for Babson College's Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, which has been monitoring the issue since the late 1990s.
But while we're awaiting a more equitable future, entrepreneurs like Downey have to figure out a way to get their funding in the imperfect here and now. She had 20 minutes in front of a room full of less-than-interested dudes. This is how she vaulted over the financing gender gap.
First of all, it's crucial to come off as an expert--even a know-it-all. Don't worry about seeking consensus. "Women often see investors as a higher authority, and each suggestion as a command. Men see investors as partners whose suggestions are a starting point for a larger conversation," says Margaret Musgrave, a senior analyst at the Innovate Indiana Fund. When Downey realized few in the room knew anything about children and would have little cause to criticize her business, she tossed her prepared pitch and used the meeting to inform the investors about new parents' needs.
Remember, men are often faking it too. When Downey sought advice from successful male entrepreneurs, one told her that before meeting with VCs, he pumped himself up by walking around the block while listening to his workout playlist. "Do whatever it takes to enter a room with a little swagger," Downey says she learned.
The more often you pitch, the greater your chances someone will say yes. Don't fold at the first no, and don't take rejection personally. "If women knew they needed to pitch to a hundred investors to get four to say yes, more women would stay in the game," Musgrave says.
But don't waste your time pitching to just anyone. Instead, make use of everything from LinkedIn to college alumni associations for personal introductions. Downey credits her success to the three months she spent in Techstars' startup boot camp, where she emerged as part of a growing network of mentors and entrepreneurs. "I can get support and advice and introductions by asking people I've never met from other Techstars classes," Downey says.
It sounds a bit like a fraternity's alumni network. A fraternity, that is, that includes women as well as men.