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How to Crack the Tech ‘Boy’s Club': 3 Female Founders Share Their Stories

The Wrap Friday, 27 September 2019 ()
How to Crack the Tech ‘Boy’s Club': 3 Female Founders Share Their StoriesThe tech industry has trailed Hollywood when coming to grips with rampant gender and representation inequities. While celebrities — most recently Michelle Williams in her Emmy acceptance speech —  are beginning to bring these issues to the forefront, women in tech continue to find themselves alone in dealing with an industry that’s heavily dominated by men.

TheWrap talked to three female founders about how they’ve navigated their careers and what advice they’d share with others looking to become tech entrepreneurs. Spoiler alert: It means dealing with veiled sexist nonsense.

One of those founders, Kate Edwards, vividly remembers the meeting where a potential investor was confused by who would handle her marketing startup’s finances.

“I’m like, well, ‘Me,'” Edwards said, while laughing, during a recent interview.

By that point, her resume seemed to speak loud enough: She was a Brown University graduate that went on to get her M.B.A. from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, before working in the Los Angeles tech scene for several years. Handling the finances wasn’t a concern.

“I couldn’t make a case that it was specifically sexist,” Edwards continued, “but I know for a fact they wouldn’t ask a man the same question.”

It’s an experience many female founders can relate to. Whether in Silicon Valley or LA’s Silicon Beach, you don’t need to search far for women that share a similar story: getting confused for the social media manager, rather than the person handling engineering or business.

Here’s what Edwards and two other female tech founders had to say about cracking the “boy’s club”:

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*Ashley Crowder, Vntana, CEO and co-founder*

Background: Ashley earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from USC. She worked at aerospace firm Northrop Grumman and BP before co-founding Vntana, a LA-based interactive hologram technology company, in 2012. Vntana raised $2.3 million soon after its launch and was profitable within its first year. The company has worked with Adidas, Lexus and Pepsi, among other clients.

*As a woman, did you run into any roadblocks when you were getting Vntana off the ground?*

I’m lucky. I haven’t had anything terrible happen to me. What I’ve seen is that unconscious bias is really real. I have a male co-founder, Ben Conway. He’s great, and we’re great partners — and at most of the early investor meetings, they’d assume Ben was the engineer. “Ben, how’d you build this?” And he’d say, “Well, my co-founder is an engineer, and she can help tell you that.” (laughs) It was just little things like that, but you can’t let anything get you down. At the end of the day, I just want to be another example of a woman technical founder, and I really want to be successful. That’s what drives me.

That unconscious bias — especially if you’re in a room with people particularly from an older generation because they’re not used to seeing as many women in these positions — that’s why I think it’s so important [female founders] encourage each other. I want to be that one more example and help change that mindset.

*What advice would you share with a young female founders looking to launch a start-up?*

Just start doing it. It doesn’t matter who you are, male or female. There are so many people who have an idea, and they’re afraid. They want it to be perfect before they release it. You have to just have a minimum viable product and start going. Don’t get too bogged down in the planning.

One of my favorite quotes from General Patton is: A good plan executed today with force is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

And specifically from the female perspective, don’t even think about the fact you’re female. I don’t even think about that. Just keep going. Keep trying. You’re going to hear a million “no’s.” That’s just the name of the game in startups. Winning that first client, that first investor, it’s a numbers game, so keep going, and don’t take it personally.

Raising money is just hard. Raising money is just all about your network. It’s all about who you know. People want to get to know you to trust you and get to the point where they feel comfortable giving you millions of dollars.

*Do you have any pointers on how to raise money?*

Go to as many networking events as possible. Ask people to coffee. Ask for advice. The best way to meet people is asking them for advice and to compliment them. (laughs) Building your network early is so important because the first time you’re meeting an investor is ideally not when you’re asking them for money. You should get to know them before that point.

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*Kate Edwards, Heartbeat, co-founder and COO*

Background:  Edwards earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Brown University before earning an M.B.A. at UCLA. While  at UCLA she worked for Facebook, and after graduation spent half a decade working in LA’s “Silicon Beach,” with a focus on digital advertising. She co-founded Heartbeat, a marketing tech company, in 2016 alongside Brian Freeman. The company has raised $4.5 million to date.

*You spent years in the LA tech scene before starting Heartbeat. Is there a bit of a “frat mentality” women have to deal with at even the most progressive workplaces?*

I think within startups, there’s a tendency to devalue the voices of women because they’re not used to having them in the room.

Tech in many ways lags [behind] what’s happened in Hollywood with #MeToo and Time’s Up, because a lot of the people in the industry still haven’t spoken up about what’s happened.

In tech, it tends to be less sexual harassment — although there’s certainly a lot of that — I find that sexism, and pay discrimination in tech can be more subtle.

*There seems to be a fine line: How do women stay ambitious without being painted as “pushy”?*

You don’t. I’m going to be painted in that light. As a female founder, you have to accept you’re going to get labeled as “bitchy” or “aggressive.” I’ve had employees, both men and women, use those words to describe me. I think anybody who knows me personally probably knows I’m the most easy-going person, and that’s a mischaracterization. But, as a woman, it’s tough. It’s about resilience. It’s about pushing ahead and doing what’s right. For me, I’m able to come to work everyday and know our mission is to empower everyday people. I get to change the image of women and marketing in media everyday, so that inspires me to keep going.

We’re quite aware there’s a “boy’s club” in tech.

As a female founder, you have to fight for yourself, but you also have to fight for women, in general. It’s something I don’t take lightly. So because of that, I have to be extra ethical, extra dedicated to my job. I probably work more hours than my male co-founder. My level of professionalism has to be that much higher. I have to overcompensate, which is tough. But I know everyday I’m able to chip away at some of the criticism that exists, and that’s really the only thing that keeps me going.

*What advice would you give to young women looking to make it in the tech world?*

You should start out your career by getting a job in the industry you want to start your business in. I think a lot of young people now see entrepreneurship as aspirational and maybe “the easier route,” but I was only able to be a successful founder because I had worked in the field my company is in for well over a decade. I knew the challenges the industry had and was able to help devise a solution.

*What about when it comes to raising money?*

My advice is to really try and build a relationship with investors first. I’m a really outgoing person, so I built relationships in the LA tech community before I started Heartbeat. I was then able to lean on those personal relationships when I did go out to fundraise, so it wasn’t like I was coming out of nowhere. My advice is to develop actual relationships with investors.

I also think it’s important for people to know their numbers. I do some advising for young entrepreneurs and what I find is they’re really passionate about their idea but they don’t know their business. You have to know business fundamentals — your margins, your unit economics, all of those boring business things are incredibly important to investors.

One piece of advice I give to females, in particular:  I always encourage women to always take meetings with investors at breakfast as opposed to lunch or later. Because I’ve had several occasions where I’ve thought I was going to an investor meeting with a venture capitalist, and they think it’s a date. For women in tech, it’s pretty common.

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*Andrea Chavez, Pawscout, founder and CEO*

Background: Chavez earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Harvard University. She later graduated from Stanford Law School.  She founded multiple companies, including Pawscout, a social network for pets, in 2015. Chavez recently raised $3 million funding as Pawscout hit 150,000 users.

*Have you faced pushback because you’re a woman in Silicon Valley?*

I had one [business] partner when I was starting out my career, and he said, “You look too female and too ethnic.” So to be told that was rather shocking. I [also] had a guy that was a board member at one of my companies that said I was cutting good deals, but, “You don’t look and act like a Silicon Valley sales executive.”

There have been many anecdotes like that. Subtle. I’m like, “Hey, I worked my ass off.” No one handed me cum laude at Harvard. I had to earn it. So I’ve never really taken it all that seriously, but I’m sure that it’s out there.

*What advice would you share with aspiring female founders in Silicon Valley?*

I think getting some real-world experience in another company is a really good idea. It’s very hard to do this without some life experience. Hopefully, they would pick a well-run, functional company to really learn from. And what has been profoundly helpful to me has been having a mentor. At various points in time, I’ve had some really wonderful people help me along the way. So anybody that could do that, I would encourage them to do so.

Lastly, when I was in my 20s, I had so many stupid ideas (laughs), and I still really have a lot of stupid ideas. But I’m able to cull through them a little better, versus just inventing stuff because it’s cool. You should be more focused on solving a problem.

Start from a more stable platform. Entrepreneurship can be so overwhelming. Test out your ideas on the side; make sure they have some legs and whether it’s something people would actually want. That is definitely a good path and makes it more manageable and less stressful.

*Do you have any tips on how to pitch your product to investors?*

When I started out, I thought I was covering all the main points in my presentation. But it turns out, in Silicon Valley, there’s a formula that most venture capitalists are comfortable with. I would’ve saved myself a lot of time by starting with that. If you [read] the VC Pitch piece by [former Apple employee] Guy Kawasaki, it’s still best practice to start with that.

Of course, create a great pitch and just practice incessantly. When I was fundraising, I would practice 30-60 minutes a day, with my door shut, going over the pitch constantly. Trying it out on friends, seeing what was confusing, seeing what resonated. The pitch I ended up with was completely different than the one I started off with.

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