Raising a seed round as a pregnant minority female founder in blockchain
This article is based on a talk I gave a few weeks ago at a Women in Blockchain event. My hope is that it will help other female founders have the strength and courage to persevere with their startups, despite the odds.
When the excitement around crypto and blockchain peaked in fall of 2017, I had an idea for a company. It was an aspirational idea — a moonshot idea if you will — difficult to execute, but if one succeeded at it, it could be huge. And, it was desperately needed. The idea had the potential of shifting the paradigm of the legal industry by creating alternative legal systems.
Yet, I sat on the idea for quite a few weeks. I didn’t want to pivot my existing startup, but it was such an alluring idea. At one point, I called up a friend to try to convince them to do it (they declined).
And then, I found out I was pregnant.
“Having a baby” was not exactly at the top of my priority list at the time — I thought that type of future might be years off (if ever). The news threw me off and, for a couple days, my mind spinned with thoughts of ‘what am I going to do? How am I going to manage a baby and a startup?’
But I should thank my baby, because the news of his impending arrival allowed me to throw caution into the wind and pursue this ‘big idea’. At the moment, I figured I was as un-investable as founders go. There I was — a pregnant, minority, solo, female founder — not to mention, of a blockchain company (which already had fewer women than the traditional tech startup industry). ‘Well, if that was going to be the case,’ I reasoned, ‘one might as well go big or go home.’
Now, a bit over a year later, I have a baby, a technical co-founder, a growing team, and seed capital. Here are some lessons I learned along the way.
#1) You are your own worst enemy
People always ask me what advice I would give to other female founders. I always say that they should not think of themselves as a female founder, but just a founder.
We often get caught up with self-imposed limitations and fears in our minds. While being female (or pregnant, or somehow different in any way from the cis-white male founder) may in fact have disadvantages, the greatest disadvantage is an attitude of being handicapped. In that way, many founders are their own worst enemy.
Applied to pregnancy, I often wondered through the fundraising process whether I should disclose the fact that I was pregnant to investors and colleagues. I decided not to — and for me, that was the right decision. Here’s why:
Early on, I debated whether or not I would let investors know. Ultimately, I decided to say nothing unless asked — for a few reasons. First, as far as I know, male founders don’t go around telling investors that their partners are pregnant, nor do they feel the need to (and yet, they don’t get to sleep much when the baby is born either — assuming they’re contributing to parenting). Secondly, while hemming and hawing over my stance on the issue, my (awesome, female) advisors/business coaches Cam Kashani and Jasmine Hannaby pointed something out that I hadn’t thought of. “You are hustling so hard and traveling around the country speaking at conferences. You’re doing much more than any normal male entrepreneur — AND you’re pregnant. You’re what an investor should WANT to invest in.” And I realized, she was right. A great founder hustles and gets stuff done, no matter what is going on in their personal life.
Colleagues: Pregnant Women Don’t Get (As Many) Speaking Engagements
This is where it gets interesting. I was getting invited to speak at tons of blockchain conferences, both domestically and internationally, and didn’t want to lose that momentum. I’ve seen instances before where event organizers, knowing that a female they wanted to invite as a speaker was pregnant, decide to invite someone else — not in a discriminatory or malicious way, but because they didn’t want to bother or burden the pregnant lady.
I was not about to let someone else decide on a potential speaking invitation for me, especially when I was perfectly willing to go. So, I left the pregnancy news close to my chest and the invites kept rolling in. I was still flying around to speak up until 34 weeks, and still driving around to local speaking engagements until the moment I delivered. Literally. This is a photo of me speaking on a blockchain panel in Irvine, CA around 1pm; my water broke and I went into labor about six hours later.
Colleagues: Traumatized Dads
Two men talk at a conference and one tells the other that he’s expecting. The other guy says ‘congrats’, gives a high five, and then continues on to the next topic.
A man and woman talk at a conference, and the woman tells the man that she’s expecting. The guy then proceeds to launch into great detail about how awful birth was for his wife — how his wife almost died, or she felt everything because the epidural wore off, or how her pelvis or a ligament split leaving her unable to walk for half a year after delivery.
I couldn’t understand why men kept telling me about their wife’s horrible labor stories — it was terrifying to think that something could go wrong with me. It wasn’t until third trimester that I finally understood that a lot of men feel trauma by the whole delivery experience, but can’t really talk to other guys about it, and so it all comes gushing out when they talk to a woman about it. I think it’s therapeutic for some guys, but it genuinely freaked me out and I didn’t really want to hear anymore stories about how I might almost die.
#2: Make it Your Own Experience
Parenting in the U.S. today, I think, is a lot different from parenting when I was a kid, or parenting in other countries. There seems to be a lot more judgment if you’re not doing everything maximize your kid’s future success and everyone has a damn opinion. Everywhere, I was assaulted with pressure to buy belly-phone contraptions to play Mozart to my unborn baby and take “we’re expecting” photos and study strollers and pour time into planning the design of the nursery.
That’s all fine and good, but to each their own. Don’t let other people guilt you into what you’re supposed to be doing.
Meanwhile, I was hauling my big belly up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco going to meetings from investor to investor. I distinctly remember during first trimester (when I had terrible morning sickness), I had to do an in-person, livestreamed radio show in the bay area. I pulled up in a Lyft 5 minutes before the scheduled start time, shook hands with the host, and excused myself to freshen up in the restroom — where I proceeded to throw up twice. I gurgled some water, popped a breathmint, threw on some lipstick, and proceeded to go back outside and record the hour-long show.
Some of us have different priorities — mine was to get my startup as far as possible before my baby arrived. To each their own.
Did you know that maternity clothes are made to show off your pregnancy — not conceal it? I didn’t.
I’m not sure why I’d want to show off my pregnancy before its superobvious. Weird things happen when you’re pregnant. I literally had strangers come up congratulating me and trying to rub my belly. That, and sometimes it makes things awkward because you can tell that men are looking at you and trying to figure out whether you’re pregnant or gained weight (but are too afraid to ask in case it’s the latter).
I just didn’t want to deal with some of this, so dressed my pregnancy down. Most folks actually had no idea I was pregnant until I had the baby. Here’s how I did it:
- Wear black. I generally work a non-form-fitting black jacket and top. Black makes it harder to distinguish between the clothing and shadows.
- Wear a thick scarf (weather permitting)
- Don’t wear form-fitting tops (duh).
Cocktail reception at a conference? No problem. Order ginger ale or club soda in a cocktail glass. Ask the bartender to add a lime or something to disguise it as a cocktail. Don’t say “I’m not drinking alcohol” — people will immediately ask whether you’re pregnant.
#4: Create a great support network
There is no way I’d be able to do anything I’m doing now if not for a strong support network. In my personal life, my husband is super supportive. We divvy childcare between ourselves, an au pair, and my parents. (We are fortunate to live within an hour of my parents (both retired) and be well-off enough to afford child care). So, when I had the baby on a Sunday and was back taking calls on Thursday, this was super critical (though I can’t lie and say I didn’t fall asleep on a few conference calls). This has also made work travel much easier — in the past five months since I had the baby, I’ve been away on two work trips that lasted more than a few days.
Company-wise, my co-founder has been super understanding as well. He’s taken meetings and speaking engagements when I couldn’t go and, as a family man himself, is yet another resource for parenting advice.
My advisors and investors have also been super. When my company was just a concept, I bashfully told my advisor/investor Terrence Yang that I was pregnant. He responded with an enthusiasm. “I love artificial deadlines!” I was surprised, but relieved and grateful for his support. The COO of my lead investor Wavemaker Genesis is also a badass working mother herself and has been super supportive.
#5: You are stronger than you realize
Look — let’s be real. Doing a startup while pregnant/as a new parent is tough; doing it as a woman is tougher; doing it as a woman while trying to raise a seed round? Well, I’m pretty sure I lost a couple years.
But at the same time, I’m not sure I’d have started and raised capital for this company if not for my pregnancy. Because I thought I had nothing left to lose, I cast all risk aside and figured I might as well be unreasonably aspirational. So, in that way, becoming pregnant gave me the courage — and energy — to be deliriously ambitious.
There is no price on the happiness you feel when you succeed because you believe in yourself. Every woman is capable of this, and you all deserve to feel this sense of pride and accomplishment as well. Follow your dreams — no matter how scary they are, no matter how impossible society tells you it is. Babies has no sense of what is and isn’t possible — that’s often pounded into our brains as adults. Unlearn all that — the impossible is very possible.
As a new mom, every hour and every day is a battle between juggling a new baby and a fledgling company. I guess you could say I have two new babies — one human, one corporate.
But this entire experience has been a test of my strength, my limitations, and my boundaries. It’s taught me better how to delegate, trust my team, and get shit done when everything is chaos. And in doing so, I’ve learned that you really don’t know how strong you are until you’re pushed to your limits.
And I promise you this — you’re stronger than you know.