Fundraising While Female

11/01/2016 03:03 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2017

i want to apologize to all the women
i have called pretty
before I've called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry I made it sound as though
something as simple as what you're born with
is the most you have to be proud of when your
spirit has crushed mountains
from now on I will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because I don't think you're pretty
but because you are so much more than that

- rupi kaur

Some background.
A little over a month ago I went through an unusual breakup - it was kind, loving, and rooted in mutual admiration and respect - we just weren't right for each other. While reflecting with a friend and getting used to being single again I was surprised to hear myself say, "you know one thing I am excited about? I'm excited to have someone tell me I'm beautiful."

Though an extraordinary human of many talents, verbosity was not a trait my recent ex possessed, and "you're beautiful" were not words I was accustomed to hearing. They were also not words I had previously realized I wanted so badly to hear.

When I imagined being told I was beautiful I hoped it would come from a crush or a lover who knew me well and was referring to a beauty that was rooted in more than physical appearance. Maybe this would take place over coffee at sunrise, during a spirited conversation over dinner, after a long run during which we got hopelessly and blissfully lost in the hills, or halfway through an elaborate self-constructed obstacle course or scavenger hunt - but I mean whatever, I'm not picky...

Be careful what you wish for.
What I didn't expect was that the first time I would be called beautiful post-breakup would be at the beginning of a professional meeting with an older man who I was approaching for funding for my organization.

I founded Resonate when I was 26 and I have spent the last 3 years slowly building up my confidence in these types of funder meetings. It took me a while to get comfortable enough to truly spend the first part of a meeting connecting with and getting to know the person I was sitting across. I know now that it's more enjoyable for everyone if there is time to connect as individuals. After all, whomever the funder is has chosen to dedicate their profession, time, and often their own wealth to supporting causes that we both care about. Talking about Resonate's work with someone else who cares as much as I do is one of my very favorite things.

But I'm not always totally at ease; these meetings are high stakes! I care deeply about the work that I do and spend every day thinking about what we can do better, how we increase our impact, and how I can support my amazing team that works tirelessly to build the capacity and leadership of vulnerable women and girls in East Africa. There is pressure to make the most of the short time I have with someone who has the power to provide Resonate with the resources we need to keep the lights on.

My expectation in building relationships with funders is that the connection is rooted in mutual professional respect for one another. But when a meeting starts with a remark on my physical appearance, it reinforces the power dynamics at play - especially the gender dynamics.

Let's talk about power.
It's lovely what they sometimes say about fundraising: the funder may have the money, but you as the fundraiser are giving them the opportunity to invest in something they care about! While there's truth to this, it's irresponsible to deny the power that comes from access to money and resources. This power dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that I am young and female.

I feel an incredible pressure to avoid the many societally ingrained habits that can make women be perceived as less credible. I cringe every time I hear an undercutting, "I just," or "I think," slip out of my mouth. I make a mental note if I apologize for something for which I am not sorry, or detect upspeak or vocal fry at the end of my sentences. In many ways when it comes to attracting donation dollars or investment capital the odds are stacked against female entrepreneurs.

The thought spiral.
In the case of this particular man (and many others who have made similar comments), I don't think he had any intention of making advances on me. He probably thought he was being polite. But it doesn't matter. Because once he said those words he unlocked in my brain a spiral of self-doubt that goes a little like this:

The only reason he is meeting with me is because he thinks I'm pretty.
Does he even care about our work?
If I make it clear I am upset or uninterested, will he be uncomfortable and withhold funding?
If he does give us money, is it based on his belief in our work and not attraction?
If it's not based on our work, do I even want the money?
If I walk away from this meeting or this money, will I be able to find it somewhere else?

I am confident that this is not a unique experience. Every female founder I spoke with has stories of inappropriate behavior ranging from a passing comment, to a lingering hug, to unwanted pursuit or sexual assault. But what I realized when I brought this up with male colleagues is that they were surprised to hear how often these interactions were happening, and the negative implications they have on the confidence and career of women.

What not to say.
There has been plenty of research about how companies with women in leadership outperform those that don't, and yet only 3% of VC funding goes to women-led startups. The business case for investing in women entrepreneurs makes sense - but we also need to look at the human case. We need to carefully consider the experience of what it's like to be a woman trying to raise money.

Here are a few things not to mention when in a meeting with a female entrepreneur:
• Physical Appearance. Even if you think you're being nice. Just don't do it.
• Relationship Status. Not relevant, not appropriate.
• Work-Life Balance. Would you ask a man how he finds time to take care of his kids and run a business?

An alternative.
A few days after the meeting in question I sat down for another conversation with a potential funder. We didn't talk for long but the funder listened intently, asked me complex questions that pushed me in my thinking, and was enthusiastic about our aspirations for impact.

At the end of our conversation the funder looked me directly in the eye and said, "I've really enjoyed having the chance to talk with you. Thank you for your important work."

Whether or not the meeting results in funding, that individual has already made a contribution to Resonate. I left and practically skipped away feeling reassured, proud of my team and what we've achieved, and encouraged to continue with even more conviction. I left the meeting feeling respected, confident - and beautiful.


Do you have a story about what it is like to be a woman trying to raise capital? Share it with us in the comments, or on twitter using the hashtag #FundraisingWhileFemale