A Story of Sisterhood and Success: Chronicling All Raise’s When Founder Met Founder Program
Originally published here with All Raise on February 25, 2021.
Launched in 2019, When Founder Met Funder (WFMF) has been one of All Raise’s strongest initiatives to support Black female founders. Through small groups, networking, mentor matching, and inspiration pieces, the day-long event offers Black female founders a unique opportunity to connect with investors and fellow founders in Silicon Valley and beyond. Last year, WFMF attracted 120 founders and 40 VCs.
Julia Collins, Domonique Fines, and Megan Holston-Alexander founded WFMF to address the fact that Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the US, yet they receive a negligible percentage of overall venture funding. “We know that warm intros frequently exclude talented people without the same connections. So we decided to do away with the social network of it all and generate warmth the old-fashioned way — in person, in real life, face to face (now virtual)!”, said Holston-Alexander
Fines, All Raise’s current Director of Engagement, was serving as Y Combinator’s Director of Events when the idea was sparked: “When Julia and Megan reached out to me to hop on board, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. For me, this is not an event but rather a movement and a force to be reckoned with. We know the funding is out there and we are passionate about doing what it takes to get it to Black female founders. Show me the money!”
Holston-Alexander also played an integral part in assembling the like-minded group of women to launch WFMF’s first event in partnership with All Raise:
“Julia Collins (one of my absolute favorite people in the world!) and I were aligned on this vision and, before long, When Founder Met Funder was born. We teamed up with Domonique Fines, who led Events at Y Combinator to help us crystallize the vision. We wanted to take aim at the ‘pipeline problem’ which in venture is networks and access, not talent.”
Since 2009, Black women have received under 1% of all venture funding, despite there being a $4.4 trillion opportunity to invest in them. One of All Raise’s 2020 Reports reveals that the effects of COVID have disproportionately impacted underrepresented founders and founders of color. In June, 19% of female founders of color (versus 35% of white women) report having at least 12 months of runway. 14% of founders of color (versus 7% of white founders) who planned to raise capital decided not to raise in 2020.
“In order to successfully push more founders of color, and specifically Black founders, through the fundraising process, we needed a new system of norms: a system that can facilitate exposure between VCs and founders outside of their traditional networks,” Megan Holston-Alexander, Partner at a16z’s Cultural Leadership Fund, shared on the impetus to found the program.
Dominique Aubry, CEO & Founder of Aubry, a startup building predictive AI technology for fashion, participated in WFMF after hearing positive feedback on the program. From Aubry’s perspective, one of the problems that often disadvantages Black female founders during their fundraising process is the lack of “appropriate networks to provide us with the knowledge to navigate venture capital and the relationships [needed] to build a growth company.”
The most valuable part of Aubry’s experience was the ability to have candid conversations with the investors in the program: “The small group sessions with investors were the most meaningful. You’re able to dig into specific problems within your business and problem-solve together.”
Shiloh Johnson, CEO & Founder of ComplYant, a startup building compliance technology for business-owners, also left with more confidence for her next fundraising conversations: “WFMF has had a lasting impact on me because I really started to change how I [saw myself] as an investable founder. Understanding the value of what I have built and knowing how to ask for what I need were powerful takeaways.”
Johnson believes that “one of the biggest challenges Black female founders face is the perceived disbelief in our ability to win. Investors tend to see us as incapable because we don’t fit the mold [of the stereotypical founder]. It’s assumed too often that I don’t have what it takes to return the fund with my startup.”
Like Aubry, Johnson also noted pitch and slide-deck advice from the investor during small group sessions as a highlight. Johnson didn’t expect the session would turn into a long-term relationship with her matched investors, but to her surprise they have continued to stay in touch:
“I didn’t expect to leave the program with such support from the investor we met in the [small group] sessions. She still takes my emails, provides me with insightful advice, and has offered to introduce me to others at her firm. When I’ve attended other events, especially founder events related to supporting women or the minority community put on by non-minorities, there often isn’t a ton of value that I walk away with, so this was a pleasant surprise.”
Anarghya Vardhana, Partner at Maveron and one of the investors to attend WFMF, values the program as a pipeline to connect with more top founders and broaden her deadflow: “As an investor, I spend a lot of time searching for potential investment opportunities — sourcing is a key part of the job! Being able to attend events such as WFMF allows investors to quickly get exposure to a group of high-quality founders, so [the event] is an immediate value-add.”
When asked about how WFM can be of benefit to investors, Holston-Alexander explains, “The program isn’t designed to change your investment thesis. It is designed to change the process. In venture, you want to see as many companies building in a sector as possible, so you’re better primed to pick the strongest bet. WFMF [increases] the chances of more founders being included in that process. If Black women aren’t included in that process, we’re not doing our job [as investors].”
The program hopes to double down on creating lasting connections within the WFMF community. After the event, founders and funders are invited to stay connected through a Slack group to continue giving strategic advice and supporting each other on their founder journeys.
Madilynn Beck, CEO & Founder of Fountful, a consumer lifestyle services app and marketplace, hopes to see more follow-on events and community-building in the future. Through WMFM, Beck felt encouraged to expand her existing product offerings and discovered new growth strategies that “make a huge impact at low-cost.” She shared that while it’s hard to see “the longitude of the impact [in the near-term], simply having the community and validation is lasting.”
The event has been held twice, once virtually, over the last two years. Playing the long-game, WFMF is one of the many holistic efforts needed to support Black female founders. All Raise hopes to continue to dedicate its efforts to tap in the significant amount of upside that lies ahead.
After facing too many all-white judging panels, many of whom provided promising feedback but turned down her idea without a clear reason, Johnson shares, “[I’ve] commenced to prove [them] wrong. That’s what you get when you back Black women, a fire to win even against all odds. We keep doing it over and over. It’s that grit that lives in us and is always worth betting on.”
That’s what you get when you back Black women, a fire to win even against all odds. We keep doing it over and over. It’s that grit that lives in us and is always worth betting on.
Vardhana also looks forward to the success of the participating founders and the future growth of the program: “The success of WFMF looks like Black women founders raising venture capital and being able to build valuable, impactful companies with longevity. Nothing would bring me more joy than to see one of the WFMF founders ringing an IPO bell a few years from now!”
Nothing would bring me more joy than to see one of the WFMF founders ringing an IPO bell a few years from now!
Vardhana’s further advice to Black female founders thinking about participating in WFMF: “Raising VC money can be tricky and often an opaque process. Take advantage of the investors in [WFMF] and get all your questions answered. Build relationships with the other folks in the program so that you can have a strong peer-set in the difficult journey of company building.”
Holston-Alexander also encourages founders to “know that the fundraising process takes time. Most companies receive many no’s before a yes. When you round up, venture capitalists say no 100% of the time. To keep moving, look for the quick no–not the slow maybe–and move on.”
To investors looking to connect with more Black female founders and diversify their portfolios, Holston-Alexander and Vardhana warn against biased pattern-matching and offer poignant advice.
Vardhana urges VC’s to “keep in mind that everyone pitches and presents differently. If and when you meet a founder who doesn’t match [the prevalent white, male founder persona], don’t shoot up your flags of caution. Instead, get curious, and be open-minded. Remember that we are in fact in the business of exceptions — the person in front of you might not pattern match against what you know, but that’s probably a good thing.”
Holston-Alexander included: “True commitment to finding Black women founders, like technical talent or investors, often takes more time and effort. It requires network expansion. It requires learning and culture-building. Once they are in your world, train them, support them, promote them–and if you need help to do this well, ask for it.”
In the future, Fines hopes that the program can bring significantly more funding to Black female founders and help move the needle to build a more inclusive tech and innovation ecosystem: “We want to see more women raising well over a million dollars to bring their ideas to life.”
Thank you to Megan Holston-Alexander, Dominique Aubry, Madilynn Beck, Domonique Fines, Shiloh Jordan, and Anarghya Vardhana for their contributions to this piece and the WFMF program.