"In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders." – Sheryl Sandberg, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead" (Knopf, 2013)
I believe in these words from Sandberg, who so clearly states that gender is not a quality of leadership. I'd wager a bet that most would say they also agree. But, don't take my word for it – as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.
Over the past 20 years, according to a recent American Express report, the number of United States women-owned businesses grew 114 percent, compared to the overall national growth rate of 44 percent. Even at this historic rate, there is still a long way to go.
Most founders may face several challenges on their journey to start their business. However, for female entrepreneurs, these challenges can, at times, be a test of conviction. While I'm inspired by Sandberg's vision, I'm also keenly aware of its future-looking sentiment. Unfortunately, business leaders are still seen by their gender, proven by my experiences founding my company.
What took the fun out of funding
When my co-founder Heath Wells and I began our company, NuORDER, in 2011, our first key challenge was funding our business.
Heath and I conceptualized the company, developed the business plan together and planned to play equal parts in our pitch to venture capital firms as we searched for the right partners to help our startup succeed. However, we quickly realized that I, as the female founder, was very often overlooked in VC meetings, or not even heard. While not blatant, it was evident in all the little signs: Minimal eye contact, key focus on Heath, directing questions to him as if I wasn't in the room, making little effort to get to know me, etc.
The ultimate goal of funding is to raise money effectively. At the beginning, we weren't sure if we would have the luxury of choosing our investors. We did agree, however, to only work with investors who viewed us equally, understood and agreed with our vision and who would be true partners. Heath and I know how important each of our roles are to the success of the company, as we have different but complementary skills and values we bring to the business, enabling us to divide and conquer.
While we knew not everyone would be a fit, I was surprised that some investors expected Heath to lead, present and manage the conversations for us to even be considered. What I expected to be my "elevator pitch" moment, felt more like a glass elevator. In the end, our current partners checked all our boxes and have been a great fit for us. However, I wish I had advice from female mentors and knew what I was walking into, so I could better prepare myself for the hurdles that were distinctly specific to me as a woman.
Searching for the best VC partner
For other women entering the process and beginning to meet with VC firms, whether solo or with a co-founder, I offer three key practices:
- Maintain conviction in your vision: Do not be discouraged if you aren't taken seriously as a female leader. Have confidence in who you are because, woman or not, your business will not succeed if you do not speak up and fight for it. Share your thoughts willingly and never sacrifice your vision to settle for a partner or lower valuation than what you think is fair.
- Find female-orientated VC firms: There are more and more of these firms being established every year. These firms invest in lot of female or co-ed-founded businesses, and/or are led by a female team. They understand the value of a female founder and will value you for the pitch you bring to the table, assuming of course you have a good fit business opportunity.
- Have not one, not two, but many options: The key is to have as many conversations as possible with many different firms so that, at the end, you have options. This will help you find the right partner, faster. By gaining diverse insights from various meetings and gauging respect for women founders, it will become obvious to you which partner is a good fit.
Being a woman entrepreneur presents an interesting set of hurdles. However, with our lived experiences, we bring an edge to the leadership table that will continue to set the stage for women in business in the coming decades. Raising capital is only one small part of building a business, but it can be a great start.
About the author: Olivia Skuza is a co-founder of NuORDER, a B2B e-commerce platform. NuORDER is Olivia's third venture and second company with her NuORDER co-founder Heath Wells. Prior to NuORDER, Olivia and Heath were running a digital agency for premium fashion brands in Los Angeles. They were surprised at how old-fashioned and antiquated the B2B process still is in today's tech-first world. The duo knew they could provide a modern system to help bridge the gap between the B2C and B2B experience, and in 2010, they set out to change the way retailers and wholesalers transact with NuORDER.