The White Elephant in the Room

white el·e·phant
a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk [CC / Flickr]

This weekend, I was at a 3-day event for Project Entrepreneur — an initiative from UBS and the founders of Rent the Runway to find, fund, and support women entrepreneurs. Black Founders is a Community Advisor for Project Entrepreneur and we facilitated some of the weekend’s sessions on product iteration, legal, and pitch critiques to the mostly female crowd.

I met brilliant women founders who are starting companies that create biometric sensor systems for clothing, help you self-manage hypertension, and plan for end of life. Despite the supportive environment, all of the great discussions, and wonderful connections made between women founders over the weekend, we’ve all latched onto one moment — The White Guy Question™.

I’ve heard The White Guy Question™ from men of color and women of all backgrounds, but I hear it most often from women of color.

This weekend, the question came from a black woman with a PhD who is the inventor of a medical device and holds a patent. So yeah…she’s always way smarter than most of the people in the room.

Should I bring a white guy to my pitches to give me more credibility with investors?

This time, The White Guy Question™ had an answer…and it was the wrong one. The response from keynote speaker and Skinnygirl CEO Bethenny Frankel was an affirmation that ‘yeah, maybe you should bring a white guy to investor meetings if you feel that is what is holding back your business’.

It felt like a suckerpunch to women of color and counter to so much of what we’ve all been working toward in supporting women entrepreneurs.

I tell founders all the time that lots of smart people are going to give you bad advice and this nugget from Bethenny was epically shitty advice.

Why the White Guy Question™?

The White Guy Question™ is bred from acknowledged cultural bias and wanting your startup to succeed by any means necessary. Women get less than 5% of venture capital funding and according to a recent Project Diane report, only 11 startups led by black women have raised over $1 million in funding.

Outside of that data, we pass along the stories of showing up at a VC firm and having the investor you’re pitching think you’re there to take notes or set up the laptop for the ‘real’ founder who must be pitching.

Many underrepresented founders feel that while they can have the confidence of a mediocre white man, bias will still keep them from succeeding.

Solution: bring in a white sidekick and investors will make it rain.

But here’s one very practical reason why you don’t want to find a white guy to be your mouthpiece.

The way you start it is the way you’ll end it

Let’s just say that you decide to bring the white guy who’s just there to be the white guy and you do indeed get funded.

  • Now you have to trot out this same white guy every time you have a board meeting.
  • When you have to make a hard decision about hiring or firing a member of the executive team, the board is going to turn to the white guy and ask for his opinion on how to structure your team.
  • You been working for weeks validating a new product line? Guess who they’re going to ask to explain how this affects the economics of the current business?

You’ve given away your power and agency in the company you started.

Some investors are just always going to feel more comfortable backing and believing in a person who looks like them — often another white guy. This isn’t the investor you want. You don’t want the investor who automatically turns to the man in the room when it’s time to answer a question about finance or the underlying technology.

You want the investor who you can count on in the hardest of hard times and you’ll find those investors by never introducing the white guy in the first place.

The collective ‘nah’

There are a lot of events where Bethenny’s comment would have gone by unchecked.

But not on this day and not in this room.

Photo credit: Dear White People (Lionsgate)

Throughout the room and at every table, there were women of color. The four black women at my table weren’t going to ignore the comment. Women like mary pryor who stood up and succinctly told Bethenny just how wrong she was were not going to give her a pass.

At this conference, we had a voice.

That was able to happen because Project Entrepreneur made it a priority to have women of color in the audience.

We didn’t need a white guy in the room that weekend and we don’t need one when we go pitch.