WHY YOU WANT TO LISTEN:
Over 90% of venture capital dollars are controlled by men. Until that number changes, women looking for VC money need to play the game. Guest Leslie Feinzaig wants to teach you the rules. Her company, the Female Founder’s Alliance, helps women entrepreneurs “communicate their story in a way that investors can rally behind.” She talks with Nancy about pitching to men, common pitfalls to avoid, and why women need to talk to each other about hot deals.
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Our interview with Leslie Feinzaig of the Female Founders Alliance on How to Raise Venture Capital for Female Entrepreneurs.
Nancy: Today I would like to welcome Leslie Feinzaig, the founder of the Female Founders Alliance and she's female and she's a founder. Hi, Leslie.
Leslie Feinzaig: Hi, thank you for having me.
Nancy: You're welcome. Listen, since you're the founder of an alliance to help female founders, could you first tell us about your female founder experience?
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah. I have been in technology for, I don't know, like way over a decade, strategy consulting and consumer goods before that. And five, six years ago I left my job at Microsoft. And after a few years busting my butt off as an executive for a couple of pretty hot startups, I decided that it was time for me to try my own. At the time I may have been a little crazy, but at the time I was pregnant with my first daughter and I had this-
Nancy: It always works that way. It's like a special energy.
Leslie Feinzaig: It was like a now or never and looking back that was stupid. I had tons of time. There was really no urgency to it at all, but it felt urgent at the time. And so I decided to start my own company and I spent many months trying to figure out what to do. I tested a couple of concepts. Finally, when my daughter-
Nancy: Wait, slow down there. Okay.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah.
Nancy: So you first say, I want to start a company and then you go, "Okay. I have to think of an idea for a company." Is that how it worked?
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah.
Nancy: That's interesting.
Leslie Feinzaig: In my case it did. In my case it did. I'd always carried around a list of things that I would do if I quit my job.
Nancy: I knew it. And what was on the list?
Leslie Feinzaig: It really reflected different stages in my life. There was a... Kind of like a home concierge subscription, because we were new homeowners at the time that I came up with that one and I got handed this giant binder with all of these things that I was supposed to do every season. And I was like, "This is impossible. I have to find vendors for all of this stuff. I hate Angie's list."
Leslie Feinzaig: There was dating across borders because I'm Costa Rican. I'd moved to America in 2007 and came up with that one after moving here, but then I got married so that was no longer relevant.
Leslie Feinzaig: So it was just a lot of random things.
Nancy: No, I love that. There's doctors without borders. And it's dating across borders, I like it.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah. One of the ideas that I had there, I'd always been passionate about women's education and girls education. And I was having a girl. I was pregnant with a girl. And one of the startups that I had worked for was a gaming company, big fish games and I learned a little bit of game design and game theory and designing in game economies, and creating kind of user feedback loops to motivate certain types of behavior.
Leslie Feinzaig: And so one of the things that lodged itself in my mind from my gaming days was, why don't I design a girl that teaches girls how to negotiate? And that idea, as I had my daughter, I started thinking about it more and more and more and more. And then one day it morphed into this concept of entrepreneurship as a game, and that was the company that I ultimately started working on when my daughter was three months old. The name of the company was Venture Kits. It just came to me. I spent all of that summer play testing with neighborhood kids, with kids in libraries, with kids in schools and just obsessively coming up with something that really resonated with them. The initial prototypes were physical games, so there were boxes that we would send.
Leslie Feinzaig: The ultimate vision was to develop this in the form of software. So anyways long story short, this thing really had legs. It really had traction. I was bootstrapping it from my basement on my own with no help. And within a few months I had a strong fan base. I had shelf space in toy stores all across... Basically any toy store within driving distance of me. I even landed on Today Parents organically, without any PR. And that's because parents really loved the concept and kids were having fun playing it. And then I decided that it was time to raise capital.
Nancy: Because up to this point you bootstrapped and you said "Okay, I'm either running out of money or this is enough of my own money to put into this?"
Leslie Feinzaig: Well, it's really expensive to develop technology with your own money if you're not a software developer. So that's the primary thing and-
Nancy: So you were turning the corner from the board game... I mean a physical game to "I want to turn this into a software"?
Leslie Feinzaig: I wanted to put it online and also to expand reach right? To professionalize this. I mean, I was selling these boxes that I was hand assembling in my basement, by myself, shipping them by myself. So there's no way to scale a company without investing a little bit in it. And I also wanted smart investors, I always knew that I wanted to create a company that went big or went home, right? I wasn't in it for a hobby. I mean I had enough hobbies, right? I was a mom, I didn't have time for hobbies.
Leslie Feinzaig: I wanted to do something serious with it and something big and I was ambitious with it. And going out and trying to raise capital for it was like a splash of cold water in the face. It was like, I went from being the hot hire, right? Like, "Ooh, she was an executive at these really hot startups and like five years at Microsoft and full scholarship to Harvard Business School. And by the way, she's a woman and she's Latina." Right? I'd like check all these lists.
Nancy: You were a tri-factor.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah, I was the hot hire that recruiters loved and then all of a sudden I was like, the cute mom hawking the kid's product. And the feedback was so minimizing. It was like, "Oh, we love you, but we hate the concept," or "Oh, you're so charming." "Oh, that's so cute." "Oh, have you thought about Shark Tank, really you should go on Shark Tank?"
Leslie Feinzaig: Now let me just be clear, the people that I met back then... Some of the people that I met back then have become incredibly helpful and supportive and have invested in me after. So there's no like pointing fingers or placing blame. I could have done things differently. It was in the education technology space, which is not everybody's cup of tea. So it's not like, "Oh, these VCs are evil and nobody gave me a chance."
Leslie Feinzaig: It was more like having this realization for the very first time in my career, that I was having a different professional experience because I was a woman. Versus if I was not pitching a company that was inspired by the fact that I was a mom.
Nancy: And when you went out to raise money for Venture Kits, and as you said, it was the first time you felt like you were being judged solely on being a woman. Were you presenting to both men and women, or was it predominantly men? Who were these people out there who were giving you that feeling?
Leslie Feinzaig: I think it was both, it was both.
Nancy: It was both?
Leslie Feinzaig: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the experience that I talk about was a pitching competition that I was heavily courted to go, and there was like a $100,000 prize or something like that. I made it all the way to the finals. Or at least I thought that I did, when I got to the finals, I was one of like two women out of dozens of companies. They headquartered me so heavily that I got there thinking that I was a shoo-in, stupid me. How innocent of me.
Leslie Feinzaig: And it was a big deal because I had to travel to Silicon Valley and leave my daughter alone. And I'm still bootstrapping at this point. Right? Not leave her alone, but leave her alone with my husband for the first time ever. So that was a big deal at the time. Anyways, I showed up, I was like one or two women on stage. I was checking their diversity box. Obviously I did not win or place or anything in that competition.
Leslie Feinzaig: And one of the judges came up to me afterwards and this is like a very, very well known prominent women in Silicon Valley. And she said to me, "Oh, Leslie, you're so charming."
Nancy: That was it?
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah. I mean "Thank you. But I'm not charming, I'm investible." You know what I mean? Charming in that context was kind of like telling me I'm cute. It was just incredibly minimizing.
Leslie Feinzaig: Right? And I just started looking at her like, "You should be helping me. You should be betting on me. You can open doors that I can't open on my own." But she didn't, she thought that I was charming. And that's okay, because honestly I am charming. Right? So it's fine. I understand that not everything is everybody's cup of tea. But it was systemic. And it was not personal.
Nancy: It wasn't personal, it's systemic.
Leslie Feinzaig: It was not personal, it's systemic.
Nancy: Okay. That's a significant word. Is this still true that only 2% of venture capital money goes to women? What is the percentage that goes to women?
Leslie Feinzaig: Somewhere under 3%? It depends on how you measure it and what geographic area.
Leslie Feinzaig: But it's somewhere under 3%.
Nancy: Okay. So let's agree, it's under 3%.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah.
Nancy: Now it has been stubbornly under 3%. Now I went out to raise money way back in 1995 and it was that same number.
Leslie Feinzaig: You were pioneering.
Nancy: Well, yeah. I've always said that I think we must be responsible for all the 2%. But now it's over 20 years later and it hasn't about changed, what is going on?
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah, yeah. A lot of things.
Nancy: Let's begin with women. Do we have a problem? Are there not enough of us asking that we don't have enough of a pipeline asking? Are we asking for too little? Do we not know how to ask? Really what's going on? How much of it is our problem?
Leslie Feinzaig: Some of it, some of it. And I always like to start that conversation by saying that you don't get to a gender gap that big with a single cause. You don't get to 97/3 due to a single problem. And by that same measure, we don't fix it with a single solution. This is a complex multi-dimensional, multi-generational issue. Some of which is self-inflicted, a lot of which is just systemic and outside of what we can do. So let's just start with that.
Leslie Feinzaig: And also I tend to think that at least in my experience most investors are well meaning. There's really not a lot of the stereotypical evil guy who is out there too. Most of them legitimately might be misguided, might be whatever. But I really don't think that there's a lot of like... There's some legit bad actors, but by and large, it's a lot of good intentions that just are not executed appropriately.
Leslie Feinzaig: So with that as a kind of baseline, because I think if we kind of make it all about the evil investors then we're never going to fix it, because they do have the money. And so we have to work together in order to tend to fix some portion of this. So with that, your original question is like, is it the woman? I mean, yes, there's things that the women can do better. There is a game to how companies are pitched in venture capital and women tend to not pitch in those ways.
Leslie Feinzaig: But the same rules that VCs, the same lenses that VCs apply to the men when they pitch they apply them to the woman. So let me explain that. One of the things that we see a lot is that... And actually I fall into this trap as well when I'm pitching for myself, we don't pitch a giant vision. We pitch what we're able to do next. So we're pragmatic. We are kind of confident in what we can deliver and then we go out and we deliver it.
Leslie Feinzaig: The problem is that VCs are used to founders who get in front of them and they pitch giant visions that may or may not be actually achievable. Basically, the way to think about it is they pitch what could happen if absolutely everything went their way. And on top of it everything breaks their way and they execute perfectly and that's what they pitch. They pitch this giant vision. So when VCs look at any pitch deck, they basically discount the size of what this company is trying to do, because they know that this founder is pitching the best case scenario.
Leslie Feinzaig: And then you see the women pitching and they're not pitching the best case scenario, they're pitching what they're actually going to accomplish, but it's still gets discounted just like the men would. So they appear smaller, they appear on meeker and they appear to lack confidence. When in reality we just communicated differently. So those are some of the things that are in our hands if uncomfortable, but they're in our hands that [crosstalk 00:25:04].
Nancy: Can I say back to you then what I think you're saying, which is-
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah, absolutely.
Nancy: ... that women are reluctant to overpromise?
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah.
Nancy: They want to make sure that they can deliver the goods they're presenting. Whereas men don't seem to have a problem saying that not only will the world shake with their business, there will be a paradigm shift and there will also be unicorn money floating down from the sky for everyone.
Leslie Feinzaig: Basically. And these are giant generalizations, but they are pretty on point. Right? And hey, by the way it's important to note that when you say women pitch what we think we could do, we deliver on it, right?
Nancy: That's the good news, totally.
Leslie Feinzaig: Women we deliver on it. So these are actually incredibly sound investments for the most part, right? You can get in front of a woman and she says, "This is what I'm going to deliver." She's probably going to do three times what she's showing you. Women deliver twice as much revenue for every dollar that you invest in them. 63% higher ROI, according to first round capital from their own portfolio, data from PitchBook last year and always says that they take one less year time exit, so goodness all around.
Leslie Feinzaig: But when we get in front of investors were like, "Well, I think I can do this in 12 months." It's very meek, very small. And then they see man after man, after man being "Well, I'm going to change the world and I'm going to solve climate and make a gazillion dollars out of it. And this is a giant social change." And women get in front and say "I think I can get to a million dollars next year." Right? It just even sounds so different on the other side of the table.
Nancy: So to that part of the problem, as you said, it isn't one thing to be fixed, it's many. At your organization where you are coaching and teaching women to present, would you try to get a woman to move her up the scale from saying, "I think I can deliver this in 12 months," into a bigger, more powerful, more vision driven pitch presentation?
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah. And it's really not just about the pitch, but about your conviction in it. And it's about not being scared to think of a bigger picture. So we can't do this one on one, there's more than a thousand verified companies in the FFA community at this point. But we run an accelerator every year and through that accelerator, I like to think of it as it's quite selective to get into the accelerator. So by the time they join the accelerator they have their ducks in a row.
Leslie Feinzaig: They know how to execute really well, so we don't need to help them execute or pivot or whatever. What we do is help them understand their business model and communicate their story in a way that investors can rally behind.
Nancy: I would guess that for women this maybe 10 times as necessary or as helpful as it might be for men.
Leslie Feinzaig: Well, so that question brings me to another big challenge or another kind of big bucket of cause for that big VC gender gap, which is most women are doing this for the first time. And there's very few people like you out there, right? There's very few women from the '90s and the early knots who founded companies and had big exits and are able to find more companies. And that is super problematic because that's how you get to the big rounds quickly. It's when people already know what you can do.
Leslie Feinzaig: So the vast majority of women and non-binary founders that are coming into this are coming into it for the first time. And honestly, that was one of the big problems that I had. You just make all of these rookie mistakes because you don't know how to... It's a game, you don't know how to play it. And you're not de-risked and people don't know you. And one of the things that happens is when investors meet you for the first time, when they don't know you, every stereotype applies. You get put in every box.
Leslie Feinzaig: But once they know what you can do, you can stand on your own two feet, but that takes time, right? That doesn't on your first company and the first time you meet them, you really have to develop that over time. So we just need like a lot more women to start companies, grow them and exit them, exit as in like sell them for large amounts or go public and then have them start second companies and third companies, and start investing their money in order to get anywhere, breaking that 3%. And that's, I think what hasn't happened.
Nancy: So it would help... This is a rhetorical question, to have women who have made exits, who do have a record, even if they were brought on as an angel investor and/or an advisor to have their name on the pitch when it's made? Would that help?
Leslie Feinzaig: I mean, I think I am not a huge proponent of names on pitches. I think that putting your name to something should also come with putting your time against something, which I realize is problematic because you don't scale as a human being, right? You can't do that for every single company. But I think that the bigger part is be risking the founders that in front of other investors. So if you are one of those women who's had a very successful career, whether in corporate or in startups, and you probably know this really, really well.
Leslie Feinzaig: The things that you want to be doing are investing in female founded companies, even if it's a small amount, the fact that you were putting your trust and your dollars on that woman and on that founder speaks a lot. And then the second thing is telling all of your friends.
Nancy: And being a door opener.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah.
Leslie Feinzaig: As women that is totally self-inflicted not on the part of the founders, but on the part of the rest of us. Kind of as a broader community, women are really uncomfortable asking each other for money unless it's charity.
Leslie Feinzaig: And yeah, it's so problematic. It's so problematic.
Nancy: But the asking for money... I mean, almost every woman I talk to who does have an idea for a business and a strong idea for a business, she gets hung up when we talk about money. It's all of a sudden deer in the headlights and she stops. How do we get beyond that?
Leslie Feinzaig: It's really hard. And you know what, it's not just the founder asking you the investor for money, the thing that men do really, really well is share deals with each other.
Nancy: Boy do they?
Leslie Feinzaig: Right? And they think of it as doing each other a favor, "Hey, I'm in this hot deal," right?
Nancy: No, and if you're a woman who gets, the guys will share it with you and one day women can share with one another.
Leslie Feinzaig: I think I heard this from Sallie Krawcheck at a dinner once and she said... I might be paraphrasing a little incorrectly here, but the gist of it is that women are more apt to talk to each other about sex, death and their weight before they talk about money. None of those things. I think, you know what I mean? That's just so problematic. For men it's like, "Hey, I have all of these cool investment opportunities for you."
Leslie Feinzaig: I think about my dad a lot. I love my dad. And I've learned so much from him through the years. My dad has been going to the same poker group for what, like five decades, right? Like forever, for decades. And this poker group has created... I mean, I think it's not a stretch to say that presidents of Costa Rica have been elected out of this damn poker group. Because it's like years of trading favors. Years and years and years, and years and years of tit for tat.
Leslie Feinzaig: And women are like, "Okay, well, years of wonderful friendships and brunches and doing breast cancer benefit together," but we're not sharing deals. Why are we not sharing deals? So it's not just about me asking you to invest in me, it's about you saying yes and then you telling all of your girlfriends with money that they should invest too.
Nancy: I do, do that.
Leslie Feinzaig: I bet you do, but most don't.I have run into the situation where I have friends and mentors who are very, very, very well to do. And it is incredibly uncomfortable for me to put an investment opportunity in front of them. I just can't, they're completely put off by it. And that has to change, that has to change okay. The odds of a woman raising, not a little money, but like substantial venture capital in the millions, you're more likely to win an Oscar. You're more likely to be hit by lightning twice. Right, without dying.
Leslie Feinzaig: I mean, it's atrocious. Now, I haven't updated that math and we have inched up from the 2.19% when I did those calculations, but it's really just inched.
Nancy: Yeah. And we do need to say that we now have a few more women VC groups and VC women partners in existing VC groups.
Leslie Feinzaig: Absolutely.
Nancy: Because we need that side of the equation to change too. When we went out to raise money way back, maybe we saw one woman inside one of those big conference rooms, but it was all men. Not that we don't like men but-
Leslie Feinzaig: No we like them, and hey by the way... So we've talked about what founders can do and what female investors can do. But let's not forget that most of the money is still controlled by men, right? So something like 90% of all venture capital dollars or more are still controlled by men. And so any kind of solution that we come up with is never going to be substantial unless we bring them along as well. That's just what it is.
Leslie Feinzaig: And so in that, I mean, there are a hundred different things that we can and should be doing there. But one thing that I like to talk about a lot is, as women we tend to use the language of impact, the language of nonprofit impact, even when we translate it into our companies and investments. One thing that I see in the Female Founders Alliance is that our founders, the founders in our community are by and large, much more comfortable talking about the impact that they will have on the world and their customers than talking about the amount of money that they're going to make when they exit their companies or how much they're going to return to their investors.
Leslie Feinzaig: And it's, again, going back to that discomfort with money. We are much more comfortable saying, "I'm going to end childhood poverty," than we are saying, "I'm going to sell billions of meal kits" or whatever. Right? I mean, maybe that's a bad example. That's a problem.
Nancy: But that's a good opportunity to teach-
Leslie Feinzaig: That is a good opportunity.
Nancy: ... making a pivot because when you said that, I remembered that, when we were raising money for a village, less than 11% of the people online at that point were women i.e. there were no women using the web. So we're raising money to create this huge thing for women on the web.
Leslie Feinzaig: I was using the web.
Nancy: Okay. Yeah. You're part of that small group.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yes, and I was your customer too.
Nancy: But the guys, the investors in the conference rooms will go, "Yeah, well my wife's not on the web, who's going to use this thing, because no women that are there?" So I would go, "Exactly. That is why there is such an opportunity here." And then I would say, "I don't care if you care about women or you're not a feminist, there is a lot of money here. There is money here." I said, "The women's magazines which are huge business. This is now the next generation of that." And so I just would pivot to money. I don't care... And that is the only time their eyes lit up.
Leslie Feinzaig: I don't know if you realize what you were doing at the time, but that's like the key. Because here's the problem. When we, as a community, use the language of nonprofit to go pitch ideas to the most capitalist capitalists in the history of capitalism, right? This is like the most free market venture capitalist, right? This is the most high risk, high return of everybody's portfolios. And we go to them pitching and sounding like a nonprofit, there's a giant disconnect there.
Leslie Feinzaig: We need to learn how to talk to them in their own language. And that even goes back to the Female founders Alliance itself, we are not a nonprofit. You cannot donate money to us. Yes, we want to have a giant impact in the world, but that's not how we pitch ourselves to investors. That's not how we talk about them to come on board. We talk to them about, "Hey, we have a community of overlooked, over-performing founders that are going to create the biggest companies in a generation and unless you are on board with us, you are going to miss out on those investment opportunities."
Nancy: That was good Leslie.
Leslie Feinzaig: Thank you, I've been practicing.
Nancy: Okay. You've been practicing. Practicing as part of it. And to underline, you can go change the world, you just don't do it in your pitch.
Leslie Feinzaig: Know who you're talking to.
Nancy: Just know who you're talking to.
Leslie Feinzaig: Know who you're talking to.
Nancy: Okay. So everyone out there, please listen to what Leslie said and do look at their website. It's inspiring. And you can read about all the graduates from their accelerator and also hear everything that Leslie has to say. Well thank you for joining us today.
Leslie Feinzaig: I am so honored.
Nancy: I am so happy you begun this thing.
Leslie Feinzaig: Thank you. And I should that anybody can be part of the Female Founders Alliance community. We don't charge to be a part of it. We run programs that are sometimes selective, sometimes open to everyone. So go to femalefounders.org and if you don't have a company that you're working on, just subscribe to the newsletter and you can participate in events.
Leslie Feinzaig: If you do already have a company that you're working on as a founder, then you can complete a little verification form and join the smaller circle that is for founders only. We feel so strongly that we need to work together and play the long game and rise the rising tide. So, whoever you are-
Nancy: Lifts all ships.
Leslie Feinzaig: Yeah, it really does. Just join the community and help us help each other.
Nancy: Absolutely. That's why we're here at the Confab.
Leslie Feinzaig: I know. That's why I'm here talking to you. I don't know if people tell you when they record, but you guys are pioneers. And I met you through Valerie whom I looked up to for a long time. And I'm grateful that people like you exist out there that trail blazed for me and for everybody that is in this new generation. So I'm really honored to be part of the call.
Nancy: Oh, thank you so much. Yay Leslie. Okay, have a great day.
Leslie Feinzaig: Thank you. It was so lovely to do this with you, thank you so much.
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Instagram & Twitter: @lesliefeinzaig
Leslie Feinzaig is Founder & CEO of the Female Founders Alliance, a grassroots network of startup founders dedicated to helping each other succeed. What started as an online group in Seattle has grown >10x in a year and runs Ready Set Raise, a national accelerator for seed-stage companies. Leslie’s background is in technology and strategy consulting, with a BSc from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Leslie was named one of Forbes Magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Women from Central America & the Caribbean, Seattle Magazine’s Most Influential People, and Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. She’s a frequent speaker and published author. She was born and raised in San José, Costa Rica, and now lives in Seattle with her husband and their two daughters.