Why Men (and Women) Bail on Female Founders

I started to write this post last Fall and didn’t because I was worried how my peers would respond in a post-non-Hillary world. But on International Women’s Day, I’m going to take a chance…

Recently, I was at the First Round CEO Summit talking to an amazing group of female founders.  I joined the group as they were discussing a vc who backed out of a term sheet.  We all gasped a little inside.  We know it happens, but deep down you hope that in your next round, you’ll saddle up with investors who would never do that.  And we all wondered aloud, if this happens more to female founders than to our male counterparts.  
The conversation turned to talking about a certain woman vc who is notorious for abandoning her companies at the first sign of difficulty.  I don’t know her personally, but I started to defend her.  

My argument was that there are so few women involved in big deals and there’s so much internal and external pressure for them to perform that they’re likely uncomfortable spending too much time on a company that might reflect poorly on the vc in a Monday morning partner meeting. 

We all agreed we wouldn’t want her as an investor.  

But having had a few months to reflect, I’m realizing how fundamentally flawed this whole system is.  And when you break down why people don’t back or bail on female founders, I think it all stems from this miserable intersection of fear of failure and the subconscious need to be right…even when right means “I knew I couldn’t do it.”

At one point when I was running GiveForward, I got into an argument with a senior team member.  In front of a room of people, we disagreed about something and he “reminded” me that he was “in charge of growing this company.” I asserted loudly enough for everyone to hear that he was wrong.  As CEO, I was responsible for growing this business.  

That moment was a turning point for me in a lot of ways.  It was the first time my team saw my frustration at what was a growing problem on the senior team.  But it was also a loud announcement of my fear that our failure to hit numbers was an indictment on my ability to lead the company…and deep down that evil imposter syndrome reared its ugly head.

What followed was a tailspin of self doubt.  I questioned myself as a founder and as a leader.  And thanks to a call to my board by said senior team member, my board now questioned me too. Ultimately we decided to look for a new CEO.  

But to be perfectly honest, that wasn’t the part I’m embarrassed or ashamed of. What happened inside my head was the most embarrassing part.  I’ve always considered myself an early supporter of women founders, but the reality was that there was an internal monologue that sounded nothing like support.  It went something like this:

You knew you couldn’t really do this. They knew you couldn’t do this. This was always going to be the way it worked out. Very few women get to take a company as far as you have. You should be grateful. Now maybe you can spend more time with Griffin and John…or have another baby?  You’re just a better starter than executer.  That’s okay. You’ll probably love running strategy and biz dev. You are lucky you got this far. Just don’t lose your company.  Play along.  What are you if you’re not the CEO of GiveForward? Founder is good enough. Isn’t it?”

I wish I could shake that person and scream at her “You’re wrong!” Everything about that message was flawed because every piece of it was filled with self doubt and convincing myself that I was right all along…that few women can build massive companies. 

Because that’s all we’ve known as women…especially in Chicago.  There are so few of us that have actually started and carried a business to scale.  And the brain likes pattern recognition.  If there’s no pattern of women killing it, how do we know we can? 

It’s like the 4-minute mile.  No one thought it was possible until someone did it…and since hundreds of people have done it. 

Women need our 4-minute mile successes–ones not led by celebrities. We need to turn off the subconscious bias that rings in the minds of both male and female board members that says we are less likely to succeed. 

Performance is what’s going to change this system…that and more women in the room.  It’s not protesting or taking today off work, although those actions are powerful for separate reasons.  It’s performance. Killing it at our jobs, finding new and better opportunities that only we can see, and supporting each other on the journey up. 

Feel free to disagree, but I believe that the day we IPO our own companies and fill our own teams with women leaders is the day that we will see equality.

And for what it’s worth, I didn’t tell the group of women founders that day that I had just had a firm back out of a term sheet–that a name brand investor with an all male team gave me terrible terms that I accepted for the wrong reasons. They talked down to me, called me diminutive names like sweetheart, and ultimately passed because our 160 day old company hadn’t hit explosive growth. At the time I was embarrassed it happened.  

But time (and hitting numbers) gives you so much perspective.  I realize now that the only disappointment I should feel is that I ever considered the deal in the first place. Lessons like that aren’t a sign that I can’t do this…they’re a sign that I’m learning…like every male founder is too.

And I’m so glad they passed. It made room for the valuable male and female investors who truly believe in me and this business.  
Thank you: 

Sam Yagan, Paul Lee, David Cohen, Stuart Larkins, Ezra Galston, Kevin Willer, Matt McCall, Guy Turner, Stopher Bartol, Russ Fradin, Genevieve Thiers, Cyan Banister, Brittany Graunke, Sam Shank, Ethan Austin, Chrissie Pariso, Joe Roos, Justin Alden, Tord Alden, Heather and Sean Harper, the leaders at FireStarter, and everyone who has invested through our Republic campaign. And of course, thank you to my husband, my biggest “investor.”

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