Lessons Learned Pitching As A Female Entrepreneur (To An All Male Panel)
“I don’t even know how to ask you questions without sounding like a jerk.” This is how the man judging my pitch for MBA Mama started my 2-minute Q&A session yesterday. Sensing a tinge of condescension and sarcasm in his voice, I was startled but tried not to show my discomfort. During a series of pitches for Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program, the judges took a “Shark Tank” style approach to Q&A, frequently cutting people off mid-sentence and firing off tough questions. My experience was slightly different given that the first words from this particular judge did not propose a question but instead suggested that any feedback or questioning of my ideas meant the judge was being a “jerk.” I find this to be fascinating. I plan to spend some time over the next few weeks reflecting on how this all went down. I’ll also be archiving the recording of the pitch session to better prepare myself for future experiences like this one.
I found out earlier today that I did not get selected to be part of Wharton VIP. While this is not unusual given that VIP is highly competitive, I wonder how my gender and the gendered-focus of my business may have played a role in the tone and direction of the questions I received from the all-male panel of judges. Interestingly enough, I practiced my pitch during my communications class at Wharton and had a male classmate tell me that MBA Mama is a nice idea but he would not support the business because more MBA moms in business schools means less spots for men like him. #sideeye
We would all like to believe that entrepreneurship is a meritocracy where people are judged solely on the viability of their ideas. However, research from professors like Laura Huang of Wharton indicates that investors have a strong bias towards funding and supporting male founders. I just read a case in my entrepreneurship class that talked about the challenges the founders of Rent The Runway faced trying to convince male VCs a generation removed that they had a viable business aimed at college women. The fact of the matter is that gender biases are prevalent in the entrepreneurial funding landscape and impact the level of support female founders receive. Numerous studies show that the number of women in the venture capital industry continues to be abysmal.
An entrepreneur I admire very much is CommonBond CEO David Klein. He famously tells the story of how he was rejected from Wharton VIP not once, but twice. Last month, CommonBond announced a Series B funding round of $35 million. Meanwhile, there are student ventures that won VIP on the first try but have long been abandoned by their founders. Clearly, getting rejected by VIP is not an indicator of success for student entrepreneurs. This gives me hope that with continued hard work and dedication, I can take MBA Mama to the next level.
To be clear, I am not saying the judges were biased — or that I deserved to be selected for VIP during this application cycle. I know that, despite our traction in the six months since we launched, I need to better communicate our vision to revolutionize the experience of women in the workplace. I also need to do more work to narrow down our target market and refine our monetization plan. I am working on it, and feel grateful to be at Wharton where there are numerous opportunities to pivot, innovate and iterate on my ideas. This is also not my first rodeo. I’ve founded 3 other companies and know that it takes grit, scrappiness, and determination to be successful as an entrepreneur.
Pitching to VIP reminded me that the journey ahead will be challenging. Me and my business partner, Nicole, will likely face many more all-male panels. These men hold the checkbooks and the access code to prestigious venture accelerators. It is also relevant that I am a black woman, and Nicole is a Latina. This presents another unique set of challenges as there are very few people who look like us prepared to make deals that could give MBA Mama the financing and backing we need to scale.
Despite the odds against us, MBA Mama is positioning ourselves to disrupt a work culture where millions of women, especially moms, lack the confidence to apply to business school and lean in to their careers and their destiny. Not to mention nearly 60% of highly skilled moms are not working full-time or utilizing their elite MBA degrees. This presents an incredible market opportunity to empower women and boost global economies.
Addressing institutional problems like gender inequality and gender bias that are deeply entrenched in our society is tough work. Convincing people that it can be done is even harder. Obstacles abound but I am not deterred. I feel confident about the potential for this company and I plan to apply for VIP again in the Spring. I want to thank all of our subscribers and supporters for continuing to believe in our vision. Onward. Upward.
Now, I’m going to have a dance party to Beyoncé with my daughter to celebrate the opportunity to grow, learn, and improve. Never give up ladies!