You are visiting Liisbeth’s archives! 

Peruse this site for a history of profiles and insightful analysis on feminist entrepreneurship. 

And, be sure to sign up for’s newsletter where Liisbeth shares the latest news in feminist spaces.

Our Voices

How to Pitch to Boys With Money

VC Fest, which takes place four times a year in the heart of Manhattan’s Tech Hub near Google’s office, is, to say the least, a very big deal. The fest invites hot young entrepreneurs to venues such as City Winery to pitch to venture capitalists looking to fund new businesses or provide second-round funding to young companies that are hitting their growth targets. Business owners must take to the stage with headset, microphone, slides, lights, and in no more than 12 minutes, they must present a business idea and make a big ask for big money to secure the future of their enterprise. Big deal, indeed.

The audience is usually comprised of boys with money. That’s the VC crowd for you; only about four percent of women are in VC financing. At City Winery, for example, 120 men with money sat in judgment of the pitches, which can ratchet up the nerves of female presenters.

Yellow Bird Health, an incubator for startups, takes an active role in supporting and prepping young entrepreneurs to take the stage in front of the VC men. But the Yellow Bird team is all male. Most of the entrepreneurs going to them for preparation are male. The male entrepreneurs who present to the “boys” may already feel a kinship with the audience. After all, they look the same. They dress the same.

But what happens when Robin Hyde, a female entrepreneur with a brilliant new business called Health Jump, comes to Yellow Bird for support? Their all-male team is not quite sure how to coach her, even though they think they can. She’s certainly smart enough to know that when she takes the stage, she’s not in familiar territory and it may even be unfriendly territory. Understandably, that makes her nervous. Her knees feel like they might buckle. Also, she’s not so comfortable using a headset, slides, and lights. Given that I have expertise as a conference producer and presentation coach, she called me for help.

I met Robin at our studio and watched her deliver her Health Jump pitch. As soon as I heard her, I knew we had to put some “female” language back into her male-edited script. But as Robin rehearsed again, I detected a fear that was not about her script or her ask. It wasn’t about the lights, or the headset either. It actually wasn’t even about her opening line and assuring she had it down cold. She was unsure if her company would appeal to “the boys.”

She also didn’t know what to wear on stage. She didn’t know how to be memorable without being provocative. And she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to fend off any disruptive Q/A from the boys who wanted to challenge her business plan.

I was not about to let Robin’s fears derail her. This is what I told her.

Hey Robin, you’re a really smart girl. In fact, smart enough to create and develop a very cool company called Health Jump. You’re also a very experienced manager who spent six years running a huge division with a well-known pharmaceutical company and juggled more responsibilities than most. Getting on the City Winery stage is just one more exciting business challenge that has nothing to do with gender, yours or that of your audience. So focus on strategy and how you can tackle the challenge.

Here’s your game plan:

Reset Your Mindset: With a strong sound idea for a company, one that can scale and be a good investment, you should proudly take it to the stage. Anyone who doesn’t “get it” is stupid. Or arrogant. If it’s really an exciting idea that changes lives or people’s health, not only will it thrill the audience, but there’s a chance some will fight over funding you. What’s your mindset? “They’re sure lucky I’m giving them a chance to get in on this investment at such an early stage.”

Think Performance: When you appear on stage, remember it’s a performance. Always. No second-guessing on this. Make sure you’ve checked out the staging ahead of time. Ask for what you need to make you comfortable, whether that be a chair to sit on or a podium to stand. Or whatever. Ask for a quick tech run so that you know the backstage crew won’t let you down. And understand that what you wear is about enhancing your performance and not about being a woman. Don’t confuse the two. If you are Health Jump, maybe you should appear in workout garb, whether that be spandex or boxing clothes. If an outfit or a hot look “plays the boys” a little, that’s their issue. You are delivering a brand impression, and what you choose to wear should enhance that brand. It’s not really about you, personally. What’s your thinking? “My outfit gives me the power to sell this business idea.”

Control the Experience: Selling a business idea and asking for money requires grabbing the attention of the investor. Being memorable can require delivering the unexpected or being offbeat, so long as you control the experience. The best example of this comes from a well-known female business owner who, many years ago, was trying to launch a very sexy lingerie company. (Not divulging the name!) Some of her featured items were rather “naughty” or suggestive. She had to figure out how to grab attention—and funding—from the “boys” in the room and be remembered as a presenter of a serious business opportunity. But at the same time, she had to make sure they didn’t “diss” her or laugh her out of the room. What was her strategy? Before the VC presentation, she put a pair of red lace panties on each seat. No one forgot her. Or her business.

If you’ve done your prep work and you believe in your business idea, then you can ignore, or even laugh at, a question that’s meant to challenge your confidence or insult you. Anyone who tries to be disruptive or pushy basically enjoys hearing his own voice. And you surely don’t want him as an investor. Some VCs find power and pleasure in asking questions that show how smart they are. Let them! If the question is truly smart, your job is to learn from it. If it’s not in your wheelhouse, say so. If the men intimidate you, then you may not be ready to present. Rethink your timing. What’s your mindset? “I need smart partners and investors who want this business to succeed. I’ll be ready to show them how.”

#AskLiisBeth Our Voices

Are you “giving it away” for the right reasons?

The talented entrepreneur Casey Morris grew up in London, England with two great role models: her mother and her father. Both were exceptional weavers. Casey’s early memories include looms, threads, dazzling colours and a home studio where her parents taught her to weave at the very early age of three. She likes to say that weaving is in her DNA. Last year, at age 23, Casey decided to “break out of the nest” and launch her own line and business where she could run her own show, express herself as a woman business owner and take the art of weaving and fabric design to a more avant-garde place.

She burst onto the scene with bright orange palettes and quickly grabbed attention. Her work was covered in two edgy design publications. Next month, she is booked to speak at three design fairs in England and the US and has just been invited by The Smithsonian in Washington, DC to submit one of her fabrics for a new museum collection. The attention happened faster than she expected.

Coming with this attention were a swell of requests from promoters and industry specialists asking her to donate pieces and give away product as a “favour” or ostensibly as a way to promote her brand. Inundated by requests, Casey called for guidance. She wanted to know how to decide; when is donating product a good move? And when should you say “no”?

Here’s the skinny on giving it away:

It always feels good to see your name in lights or your product on a display table. Most people experience a momentary high when they’re asked to put their product in front of an audience. Few can resist the temptation, especially when, as with Casey, you’re a young businesswoman anxious to have your name and work become more recognized.

But when the request comes in for “freebie” product, a smart businesswoman does not just automatically say “yes.” It cannot be a willy-nilly decision to dig into the inventory closet to grab leftover merchandise or, better yet, get rid of product you may never need again. She has to determine the value of the product she’s giving away – and the value her business will get in return. A businesswoman should always evaluate freebies based on the following three criteria:

Criteria one: Does the audience for this product have the potential to be converted into a future customer?

The first question to ask is: Who is going to be in the room? The second thing to think about is: Who will see the product and what’s the purpose of the event or display? For Casey, if the room hosts design- or fabric-industry moguls, then showing her product is a smart move. Her product will garner attention and stir conversation. Casey also needs to find out the demographics of the audience to determine if they are potential new customers. It’s fair to ask! It must be part of the decision-making process. If no one can provide information on demographics, chances are giving away product is a waste of your resources and money. If, however, the demographics align with the giveaway, seize on it as a strategic opportunity to build new business.

The next step for Casey is to decide what product she wants to display in order to reinforce her brand, increase the buzz and generate potential new orders. If Casey decides to pass, she has to handle it with grace. Here’s the best way to turn down a request: Always thank the promoter for the opportunity. Make it clear that you took time to evaluate the offer and the audience. Explain that, as your company expands, you may consider participating again and your door is open for future requests. And keep in mind that it’s completely acceptable to say, “No, not now, thank you, as the company is seeking other opportunities that are a better fit.” 

Criteria two: Does the product cost less than the cost of a PR push?

It’s not wise to give away product without looking at the cost, not only of the product, but also of the delivery and potential loss of competing options. If you can determine that the giveaway has benefit (according to criteria one), then first compare it to the cost of a PR effort. Keep in mind that sometimes a small, but very strategic PR push is just the thing a company needs to get attention or entice a new audience. It might be more effective and less costly to place a good story about your brand in trade publications than agreeing to a giveaway. It may be more fun and strategic to participate in a panel discussion at the next industry symposium. Developing and promoting a hands-on workshop might garner more attention. Don’t be so quick to drop product if other approaches might serve you better – and cost less.

Criteria three: Will the product be displayed in such a way that gets due attention?

Display and presentation matter. You should always expect that your product gets the front and centre it deserves. Always ask where your product will be shown, what other product will sit near it, how many other items are being displayed and when the product will be distributed.  Too often, event coordinators are more focused on gathering many items to make a splash rather than thinking about how to curate the giveaway collection. If you’re giving product that will end up at the bottom of a gift bag, don’t do it! If, however, you can supervise the gift bag and be the lead product, then that may serve you well. If you can orchestrate where and how your product will be seen, with proper brand identification, the opportunity can be worth pursuing. Consider having your product custom-boxed, to give your company logo more visibility, a marketing coup!  But, if you ultimately determine your product will only be seen as swag, walk away.

Back to Casey, who was considering an ask from the Summer Design Expo in New York City to put 100 woven table runners into a gift bag. It would be exciting to show in New York, but she had to consider whether the circumstance really was right for her. I told her she’d know the answer once she filtered the request through the three criteria.

We quickly went through the checklist together: Was this a customer-driven expo or a fair that was open to the public with no required entry credentials? How much time and product cost would she be giving up to “play” and could her money be used more strategically to buy an ad? Could she control the placement of her table runners or would the expo manager be in charge of all product placement? As a business owner, Casey couldn’t justify anything on the checklist! She suddenly found it extremely easy to decide and called the expo team to decline. More importantly, she had discovered a newfound freedom in saying “no”, without guilt or regret.


Our Voices

Who Runs The Show?

A few weeks ago, Leila Sarkarian, a “force-of-nature” entrepreneur and exceptionally talented jewellery designer, came to talk to me about a problem that was keeping her up at night. Why? Because Sarkarian runs a fast-growing, successful enterprise, and the stakes are suddenly changing as she jumps into year five of the company’s growth.

Before launching her own firm in 2011, Sarkarian spent five years in the executive ranks at a well-known and very traditional clothing company. The experience did not make her a fan of top-down hierarchical structures. She believed they choked creativity. So she and two other founders created a workplace culture that promoted “inclusion,” where everyone felt at home, were respected for their opinions, and participated in all management decisions.

Quickly, their company garnered attention in the press, receiving high marks for their designs and also for being a great place to work. In just four years, the company morphed from three to 14 employees. And everyone still had a seat at the management table.

Now, Sarkarian has the opportunity to significantly grow the company and bring in more investors. But that requires setting up an executive team that will focus on driving the expansion. That changes the expectation that everyone in the company will steer the ship together. Sarkarian will have to establish (dare she even say it?) a tiered leadership platform. Uh oh! Now she’s torn. And sleepless. To grow, she needs to accept VC money. But she doesn’t want to quash the culture of inclusion the founders worked so hard to create. So what’s her next move?

Here’s what I told Sarkarian:

Congratulations! You’re about to grow a business you built from the ground up! You also have a chance to be an inspiration to those around you that depend on your business judgment. Here’s a guiding principle on growth: Once a company expands beyond 10 people, it’s no longer pragmatic or strategic to invite everyone to weigh in on major decisions, even if the team is accustomed to that intense participation. How you lead through this transition will matter more now than ever.

Consider the original goal. You chose to launch a business that promotes a culture of inclusion. That’s smart and contemporary. It invites employees to join your entrepreneurial mission and attracts talent tired of old-school structures, tiered-priority, and privilege. People love to feel heard and included in the building process. They’ll invest more time. They’ll show up with passion.

But keep in mind that you hired people with specialized expertise. You did not hire a multitude of CEOs. They’ve helped the company get to its present size and complexity, but they are not founders. They don’t have the same grit and vision you have to launch and lead. You’re the CEO, the entrepreneur whose name is on the door. And in this case, on the jewellery!

I encourage you to take your rightful seat at the head of the table, without trepidation, and define the terms for inclusion as the company evolves. You’re the one who must decide who sits at the executive table. Is it founders only? Does it include a CFO?

You can still continue as a creative, inclusive, and willing-to-break-boundaries entrepreneur. It’s time to create a new decision-making framework. Outline what decisions will be made by the executive team. Establish what you want from your marketing gurus, your design group, your business or product development group. Create a “collective break” time when (and you determine how often) all voices will come together for a report-in and brainstorm session. Set up an advisory board with representation from each department. Your “AB” can feed you. And, in turn, you feed them. Rather than violating the inclusive culture your business was founded on, this new decision-making structure will strengthen it. Everyone will continue to feel valued.

But the change is huge. Manage this so it gets off the ground in a good way. Stay involved during the shift. Set up a system to publicly acknowledge the strength of each person’s ideas. Solicit opinions on how the process is developing. Reward breakthrough thinking. Test-run each new design line so no one feels left out. In a broad sense, having an executive team shouldn’t make other people feel disqualified, but instead encourage the qualified to dig into what they do best. And then during the collective break, cheer each other on!

As founder and CEO, you remain chief collaborator, channelling the talents of your staff to steer the company to new heights.