With Harvard Business School and Wharton colleagues, Professor Fiona Murray, the MIT Sloan Professor of Entrepreneurship, Associate Dean for Innovation and Co-director of the MIT Innovation Initiative, did some groundbreaking Entrepreneurship research and found that video pitches (with identical scripts and slides) were 40% more likely to be "financed" when presented by male "founders." And, yet, "This is no knock on VCs," the article states. (?!?)
What needs to be done? Well, Professor Murray says VCs need to be aware of their biases, but advises aspiring female entrepreneurs to "play by the rules" and work on their weaknesses. Let's review:
1. Wear a Uniform
Murray suggests we female entrepreneurs develop fashion norms for ourselves. In this way, we'll help VCs "focus on our ideas, not our outfits," the article states. Hmmmm.
I'll leave this to the women who launched Fashion Tech start-ups Joyus, Moda Operandi and ModCloth, to name just a few; my only fashionable uniforms are gifts from my (Italian) husband. So, Fashionista Founders, please tweet us all the #FFuniform when you finalize it!
2. Use a Confident Voice and Assertive Language
Research has shown that men appear more confident, Murray says. "Their body language is assured and their voices are powerful. They say things like, 'I have a path-breaking approach that will solve one of the world's biggest problems'." (Woah, Johnny, take it easy there!)
Again, this is tough one for me, whether the true message is (1) grow some balls, ladies! or (2) learn how to BS. I've often conceded this point, thinking, "OK, let's hand it to the guys; they definitely know how to bluster better than us." But I wonder whether us women have this one backwards. Perhaps in the dawn of our "Second Machine Age," where brains > brawn... might there be intimidation among some men when they meet audacious and brilliant businesswomen?
3. Network As If It's Your Job
Research also shows that women tend to have narrower social and professional networks, according to Murray's piece. "Coming into investor meetings with introductions, via strong professional ties, can win you time and attention." While I haven't read all the research in this area, I find this claim hard to believe. How do we have 'narrower' social and professional networks? Smaller? Less powerful? Less wealthy? More narrow-minded?
Most professional women I know 'network' every day, but we call it 'helping people.' I, for one, 'network' with a vision to build a long-term, if casual, relationship; I rarely think of it exclusively for giving nor taking in a particular moment. This is probably the subtle, yet profound, difference: it's the motivation for -- not the width of -- our networking that might hinder us if simply "closing a deal" is the goal.
4. Watch Sports
And lastly, but not least, my personal favorite! This oft-repeated advice to female founders always makes us bristle, which is probably why men rarely dare say it. I don't have time to watch sports (recall I'm launching a new venture, plus raising two boys with my (also entrepreneurial) husband), but I did catch some hockey at the airport last week.
Like many women in STEM, I played a lot of (contact) sports growing up. And nearly every woman I know cherishes her "free time" for exercise -- whether it's Yoga or Crossfit or something in between. For my friend Melissa (creator of MooMotionSports.com and LP Ironman finisher) and I, it's triathlons and marathons now. So we'll go toe-to-toe on any lost toenail conversation an investor wants to have.
Given this list, I have a few suggestions for the MIT Sloan, HBS and Wharton professors who teach Entrepreneurship:
1. Be bold! Tell the VC community that their biases are hurting not just us poor female entrepreneurs, but the global economy we all want. (In a way that doesn't hurt the school's fundraising and your tenure efforts, of course.)
2. Keep lists to 3. 3s work best for memory recall. Put your least important point in position #2.
3. Teach entrepreneurs "money is a story." ("Cash is king" is just so 1990s!) As Judy Robinett said at a crowdfunding event, cash is the ultimate commodity and skilled entrepreneurs are the ultimate rarity. Entrepreneurs need to look deeply inward to understand what money story they are telling themselves long before they pitch an investor.
Our Money Story
The entrepreneurship ecosystem's common money story is fundamental to the societal narrative of our times: the "Economic Myth," as University of Texas Professor Betty Sue Flowers writes.
To paraphrase Flowers: We live in the Economic Myth the way fish swim in the sea -- unconsciously. It's medium is numbers and pictures, thus it's potentially the first truly global myth; it's egalitarian, and the ideal is growth. (In the tech start-up industry, growth intrinsically involves disruption as well.) And how well we'll embody the new story that is emerging -- an Ecological Myth of health as more important than growth -- will determine our shared future.
How about all of us in the entrepreneurship ecosystem look inward to understand our personal money story and shift the narrative of our time? Let's do the hard work of polishing ourselves, and our new enterprises, into the kind we want to be in the world.
So what's wrong with female entrepreneurs?
Niente. Nada. Nothing.