Having a Male Co-Founder…or Being a Female CEO

One of the things I love about being a woman CEO is the natural camaraderie that exists among other female CEO’s and founders.  This is especially true in Chicago, where we make an effort to schedule happy hours and speed story-telling events like this one.

Last night, one such lovely friend forwarded me this Fast Company article about how the founder of Posse.com gets treated so differently than her male co-founder.  Her email wrote simply “I hope this isn’t your experience…”

The truth is that the story is very much what my experience has been.  After Demo Day for Excelerate Labs (now TechStars Chicago), where I did the first pitch on stage in front of 300 investors who were being introduced to Chicago’s first big incubator, Ethan and I got a call from a local VC inviting us to pitch in the next couple of days.  We jumped at the opportunity.

I still remember the climb up to the high floor in a building overlooking the lake, wearing a suit, and having spent hours practicing in my head and out loud on the street before the 10am meeting.  My heart sank within 3 minutes of being there.  The room was filled with men, and the lead investor barely made eye contact with me while he jovially shook hands with Ethan.

When it was time for the pitch I stood (rookie mistake I know) and presented our case for raising $500K.  Then, I sat down and watched as they directed every question for the next thirty minutes at my partner.  I was angry, but mostly I was embarrassed.  It felt like all of the hard work I’d put in starting GiveForward, bringing Ethan on as a co-founder, waitressing my way through two hard years of bootstrapping was worthless in this room.  To them, I was the face.

I wish I could say this happened just this once.  But it didn’t.  It kept happening, sometimes subtly with a little hint of false knowing in questions like “Desiree, what role is it you play at GiveForward.”  Other times it was more overt, like the time one of my now favorite investors leaned forward in our first meeting and addressed Ethan with “Ethan, you seem like a real business man.”

Of course there were worse moments too.  The time a potential investor touched my knee under the table I was sharing with him and Ethan while we pitched.  Or the 11pm texts I got from another while I was in bed with my husband inviting me to drinks (that night!) to discuss business.

But you know what?  Nearly every one of my talented female friends has had similar experiences in their professions.  My friends who are lawyers talk about male counterparts who get credit for their work; my friends in banking talk about the boys club while they travel; and even my friends in publishing complain about getting propositioned by potential bosses who take advantage of how competitive the situation is.

The problem isn’t tech or vc’s or startup founders who happen to be male.  The problem is that we live in a world where not all men have experienced enough strong young women to give them the same respect they give the younger versions of themselves they see in the men who walk through their doors.

I truly believe that as more investors raise assertive, capable daughters or watch powerful sisters and wives build companies they are proud of, we will see a shift in this behavior.

Until then, thank you to my amazing investors who make me feel empowered and deserving of my seat at the table.