When Sallie Krawcheck was raising money for Ellevest, her investment platform for women, there was one venture capitalist she just couldn't get to commit. She told another woman entrepreneur how much she wanted that VC on board. "Actually, you don't," her friend replied. "That person gets drunk at my board meetings and screams obscenities."
"Excellent," says Krawcheck in retrospect. "That was excellent information to have."
How do you get that sort of insider information? To whom can you turn when it's time to hire a head of engineering, or when you don't know what your org chart should look like? For female founders, turning to a peer is often the answer, and knowing how to present yourself is almost as important as knowing whom to call.
Julie Rice, who founded SoulCycle with Elizabeth Cutler, says the duo tries to be "pretty generous with our time and our contacts." They can't help everyone who asks, but they know each entrepreneur has her specialty, and they take the time to try to learn what it is. Rice says she's more likely to help people with an expertise in branding, for example.
Beyond that, get a warm introduction if at all possible. Sometimes, Rice says, someone will approach her after a speaking engagement, and she'll make time to help. But largely, she echoes the thinking of many VCs: "If someone wants to find their way to me, they should be clever enough to get there."
That's a common refrain, but not the only point of view. Alexis Maybank, the co-founder of Gilt Groupe, says she takes requests through LinkedIn and Instagram. Other founders specifically favor people who aren't as connected. "If someone is connected with another influential person, I feel like that person will be OK," says Tiffany Dufu, founder of women's peer-coaching platform the Cru. "They don't need Tiffany."
Once you're in front of the right person, preparation counts. Show why your query is the perfect fit for their expertise. "If they've done their homework to understand why it's me they want, that's super important," says Kara Goldin, the founder of lifestyle company Hint, best known for Hint Water.
Another tip, echoed by many mentors: The more specific and tactical your request, the easier it is to get a response. " 'Can you help me grow my business?' That's a really hard request to wrap my head around," says Elizabeth Gore, co-founder of small-business platform Alice. "But if you're at a particular point in your company, and you don't know if you should try to raise equity or get a loan, let's get on the phone and hack through that."
Show that you have something to offer, too. The key is to frame your expertise to appeal to your mentor. Ask them if they want to learn how to use TikTok, and they might not care. But if you say you know how Gen-Z connects online, your mentor might be curious, says Goldin. "The best-kept secret of mentoring," she says, "is that mentors learn something too."