On Unicorns, Being Nimble and Successfully Pivoting

Female founders and VCs gather to talk about succeeding in a challenging environment.

Cathy Traugot
Jul 21, 2020 · 6 min read

We recently heard two founders and two VCs talk about what they’re doing to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. It was part of The ‘F’ Word: Future, Female, Funding, co-sponsored with Women in AI.

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Let’s set the stage for why this panel focused solely on female founders and funding. VC, after all, is a scarce commodity that all founders are scrambling to find. Female founders, though, have it particularly hard. PitchBook reported that 2.8% of the capital invested in US-based startups went to women founders in 2019.

And that was a record.

The panelists talked about overcoming struggles, building on successes, gaining strength from pivoting, and creating robust networks. The goal is not just to land funding, but rather to receive it from VCs who can provide the kind of engagement and meaningful mentorship that help grow a business

Let’s take a look at our panelists and highlight some of the terrific takeaways.

Maren Bannon has been the only (or nearly only) woman in the room for a chunk of her career. She studied engineering in college and worked in tech companies until starting her own company and then founding January Ventures.

She and her partners recently renamed the company from Jane VC to be more inclusive of all the “Jannekes, Juanas, Jahas, and Jiaos out there.”

Her fund surveyed 250 early-stage founders in April and saw “that half of the startups have already pivoted or were considering a pivot. Startups are really nimble; over 80% had already taken swift action to cut costs.”

Because 75% of founders reported that VCs were taking longer to respond and were harder to reach, her firm introduced a virtual option to get founders in front of VCs. “We started an event called pitch collective, and we’ve done two of these. The idea is allowing female and underrepresented founders to pitch seven funds at once,” Bannon says. “Part of it is the efficiency of just being able to get on to one pitch call (with) a bunch of funds at once and hopefully get some of that capital more quickly.”

This effort isn’t just nice. Bannon says she believes some of the most innovative ideas are going to come from a very different looking group of founders. “(The) next decade’s unicorns will be much more diverse — not just race, but gender orientation, age, and other factors.”

Where should these next-generation founders be looking? Bannon mentioned COVID-19 is making dramatic changes to industries like health care.

“We are reaching this tipping point with behavioral and regulatory (actions) with some technologies breaking out like coupling hospitals and home monitoring. Patients and physicians are incentivized to use telemedicine. I think that is going to stick.”

We only brought one newbie founder to the panel, but she has worked for herself as a consultant for nearly 15 years. Renée Cummings is a criminologist and AI ethicist who recently founded Urban AI, a venture designed to deploy AI to solve challenges around public safety, food security, and community-led policing. She is passionate about using AI for good.

She sees the current pandemic, along with the recent protests against police brutality, as opportunities for people in the technical community to take a step back, assess inherent bias, and train AI from a more inclusive perspective.

“AI needs to be transparent and explainable. You don’t want to harm,” Cummings says. “(With) technologies like facial recognition governments are calling for law enforcement to rethink the ways in which they do things.”

And with some research on hold, “it’s really about regrouping mentally. Some of the ideas I had pre-COVID 19 are no longer relevant. (The pandemic) is putting a lot of pressure on regrouping, rebranding, and re-strategizing. There are just a lot of opportunities.”

But VCs will need to be open to different kinds of founders. “I think when it comes to women of color, we have been the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, but we have been, of course, underrepresented, underestimated overlooked and probably the last to get a check cut, but we have been very resilient.”

The key will be to get into the conversation and access the spaces where VCs operate. “Because right now, that landscape is still a bit uneven.”

“You can imagine in my nine-year journey I have lots and lots of stories,” says Jenny Griffiths by way of introducing herself. She is the founder and CEO of Snap Vision, which offers visual search tools to publishers, retailers, and tech companies.

Her pandemic story is a happy one. An acknowledged introvert, Griffiths, thinks the pandemic might have helped her raise her latest round.

“Sometimes (I) think that extroverts can win at fundraising because they can go into a room and they’re very good at working it. I don’t get my energy from that way at all, so I’ve actually found that raising from home, I’ve been far more targeted in my conversations, and that level of bias gets eliminated.”

She believes any type of technical, introverted founder will benefit from this kind of situation.

Pandemic or not, Griffiths advises female founders to seek out funding that comes from people who can mentor and understand your business. She has walked away from some conversations like the ones who say, ‘I don’t know about fashion; I’ll have to run it past my wife.’ Because they’ve completely overlooked, we’re a deep tech company who happens to be in fashion.”

Janneke Niessen used part of the recent lockdown to work on her passion project, encouraging young girls to consider a tech career. She has published a book on the topic and is a co-initiator in InspiringFifty. This non-profit aims to increase diversity in tech by making female role models more visible.

“Already at a very young age girls tend to think that tech is difficult or not for them,” says Niessen, whose day job is cofounder of venture fund CapitalT and startup assessment platform VCVolt. “I once met a girl who said she preferred to collect garbage over working in tech — (that’s when), you know you have an image problem.”

The cure is to reframe what tech is. “If you ask if she wants to work at Instagram or Snapchat, then they say yes.” In addition, Niessen says young women need to understand that not everyone in tech is a programmer, nor do you need to be one to work in tech.

The webinar wouldn’t have happened without Eve Logunova and my colleague Amy Sorrells, who moderated the panel. Eve is the ambassador for The Netherlands chapter of the Women in AI group and a consultant to startups.

Sorrells has been instrumental during this pandemic in helping Oracle for Startups help founders continue to build their businesses. Discounted cloud credits have been part of Oracle for Startups since its inception. With the pandemic upheaval, Sorrells helped lead the campaign to cover cloud costs of paying startups in the program for three months to help businesses conserve cash. We also doubled down our energies and resources to further assist startups through other efforts, including increased mentoring resources and virtual webinars with industry experts.

“It’s one way we can help these growing businesses to continue to maintain momentum during these challenging times,” Sorrells says. “The world needs startups. And we have a responsibility to help because those businesses that make it through will come out stronger and more innovative. That’s good for all.”

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Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around…

Cathy Traugot

Written by

Her 6th-grade teacher’s love of technology piqued Cathy’s interest. Abysmal math skills led her to write about it. Her current gig is with Oracle for Startups.

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here: https://airtable.com/shrShpeN89HrzCzOB

Cathy Traugot

Written by

Her 6th-grade teacher’s love of technology piqued Cathy’s interest. Abysmal math skills led her to write about it. Her current gig is with Oracle for Startups.

Startup Grind

Stories, tips, and learnings from and for startups around the world. Welcoming submissions re: startup education, tech trends, product, design, hiring, growth, investing, and more. Interested in submitting? Visit our submission form here: https://airtable.com/shrShpeN89HrzCzOB

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