Making Your Mark as a Female Entrepreneur: Q&A with Liz Tilatti

Founder and CEO, ZipFit Denim

Starting a business provides a whole host of challenges. Whether it’s finding the right team members, securing funding, or identifying the correct customer base, being an entrepreneur is no easy task. But, female entrepreneurs — a fast-growing portion of the entrepreneurial ecosystem — face their own set of difficulties. We recently spoke with Liz Tilatti, MBA ’13, founder of ZipFit Denim, on these challenges, her experiences in launching a business, and how she has stayed on track for success.

Polsky Center: When you began the process of starting ZipFit, were you faced with challenges being a female entrepreneur? If so, what were they?

Liz Tilatti: The first few months of starting ZipFit brought very few challenges as a female entrepreneur. At the idea phase, there are not too many road blocks as a woman. You’re testing out your product, seeing who would buy it, and developing a make-shift business plan. When I first started ZipFit, I took about 100 men out shopping for jeans. That was the easy part.

Later came the more challenging parts to building a business as a woman: financing. The odds are not in your favor as a woman. According to TechCrunch, there are not a lot of female founded companies. It doesn’t get easier as you grow either; it only gets harder. Based on the TechCrunch article, 29% of male-founded companies fail in making it from a seed/angel round to an early-stage round (A/B). You would expect the same percentage of female companies to fail. However, 56% of female-founded companies fail in making it from a seed/angel round to an early-stage round.

You may ask why this is the case. I believe a lot of it has to do with negative biases. For example, when I got engaged, I was asked if I was going to give up on ZipFit and stay at home and have babies. Other female founders I know in Chicago have been asked their bra size in VC meetings, if they were in a relationship with their co-founder, and two female founders were told that investors would be more interested if they were in a romantic relationship together.

How do these negative biases form? Let’s take a look at an example. A female founder in Chicago falls in love. She moves from Chicago to California and closes her firm. Many people lost their investment, and now they are afraid the same situation will happen to other female founded companies. As a female founder, I am most disappointed in my fellow female entrepreneur. First, if your company is not doing well and needs to close, own up to it. Do not say you are closing because you fell in love or wanted to stay home with children. That hurts other women. If your reason is truly love, please consider another career path. For men, one female’s bad decision does not mean that all women are that way. Please keep this in mind as you look at female-run companies.

Polsky Center: How did you overcome these obstacles?

Tilatti: The solution is quite simple: work harder. I don’t want sympathy from anyone because more investments are made in men than women. I do not want to be treated differently because I am a woman. Treat me the same. Statistically speaking, you’re probably going to have to meet with more people to find investors if you are a female entrepreneur. So, work harder. I’ve done that. We’ve been greatly rewarded with some awesome investors who are our biggest advocates.

I’ve also learned to target certain investors. We have many female investors and many male investors who have ambitious women in their lives — whether it be a sister, mother or daughter who is driven just like me.

Polsky Center: What do you think are the biggest roadblocks for women in entrepreneurship/business?

Tilatti: The simple answer to this would be to say “funding”. But I think there is more behind “funding”. Why do people invest in you? Two reasons: the team and the idea. Generally the team takes much more precedence over the idea. I’m not going to go and get a sex change in order to get more funding for ZipFit, but I also need people to like me in order for our company to keep growing.

There are some things I can do. I learn as much as I can about my business and our market. I work harder to know every technical term. I set revenue goals and achieve them. I maintain specific key metrics and monitor them frequently. I meet with VCs early to make sure I am prepared for future financing rounds.

Polsky Center: Many publications have noted Chicago as becoming a thriving city for female entrepreneurs. Why do you think that is?

Tilatti: I honestly can’t say Chicago is thriving for female entrepreneurs — yet. We have had many big successes here, but the majority of them are started by men. We need more larger companies started and sold by women. We have had a few which is wonderful. But I think we need many more large, successful exits by female CEOs in order to change the ecosystem.

Polsky Center: What advice would you give to a potential female entrepreneur?

Tilatti: I remember participating in a pitch event and someone coming up to me after and saying, “Wow, you really stuck out from the crowd.” I asked what he meant. He explained that of the 10 pitches given that day, I was the only female to present.

You’re going to stand out from the crowd, so use that to your advantage. People will remember you. If you’re pitching with 9 men and you’re the only woman, it isn’t all so bad.

Before cooking up ZipFit, Liz Kammel-Tilatti had two years of consulting and three years of retail experience under her belt. She studied mathematics, Italian and economics at Emory University and earned her MBA from Chicago Booth. When not dreaming up math equations to improve your denim experience, Liz enjoys indulging in chocolate and tearing up the soccer field.