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Transformative Ideas

Progress or pinkwashing: Who benefits from digital women-focused capital funds?

(Photo by Vanessa Lee / Unsplash)

Along with crowdfunding, biometric cash assistance, cryptocurrencies, and mobile wallets, another growing digitally enabled source of capital is women-focused capital funds (WFCFs). These funds target women-owned, women-led enterprises, femme and non-binary entrepreneurs, and aim to level the access-to-capital playing field.

That’s the good news. However, a newly released study in Small Business Economics on WFCFs suggests feminist investors, policymakers, and entrepreneurs need to be asking more questions before resting their feminist boots. Professors Barbara Orser of Telfer School of Management at University of Ottawa, Susan Coleman of Hartford University, and doctoral student Yanhong Li recently examined the market positioning of 27 funds in the US and Canada. “We were curious to learn if women-centric investment pools, such as WFCFs, aim to alter exchange processes to support justice and gender equality. At the end of the day, we found that the majority of funds focus on fixing women. Few seek to address structural or institutional impediments,” said Orser. “The bottom line is that among the funds that we examined, only a minority sought to counter structural barriers associated with women entrepreneurs’ access to capital. Most were positioned to facilitate individual wealth creation.”

The study found that this kind of pinkwashing is most likely when funds are created as add-ons to mainstream programs and services, rather than as a central element of the organization’s mission of supporting women and non-binary femmes. In addition, few of the funds displayed third-party assessment or an audit of the fund. Opaque accountability and an absence of independent evaluations were common. This means we cannot always be sure that the funds set to advance women-owned and led ventures actually get to them.

According to the researchers, most WFCFs fall short of supporting a feminist agenda to address institutional and market barriers. The team concludes that, depending on the investment, some WFCFs challenge while some simply perpetuate bias and reinforce structural constraints that impede women entrepreneurs by not actually changing investment due diligence and approval orthodoxies. 

The study offers feminist investors insights to consider before assuming that all funds serve an inclusive economic agenda. This study also alerts LiisBeth readers that there are an increasing number of differentiated WFCFs, so it is wise to shop around—and keep your feminist boots walking.

To download the study (for free), click here.

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Feminist Practices

Forging a Path of Her Own

Christina Stembel, Founder of Farmgirl Flowers


Christina Stembel had a business idea: Bring beautiful, handmade floral arrangements to people who wanted a higher quality than supermarket bouquets and more personal than a floral distribution company. With $50,000 of her own money, she made Farmgirl Flowers happen.

“I used to get dejected about the fact that I couldn’t raise capital as a sole female founder without a pedigree,” says Stembel, who keeps a spreadsheet of the 101 investors and venture capital firms that have turned her down. “But I realized it was just my ego. There’s a myth that if you don’t get VC funding, you can’t be successful, but we’ve grown to $30 million in annual revenue with 50 percent or more growth year over year.”

Though Stembel has had to manage the growth of her San Francisco-based company carefully, funding it with her own savings and the company’s profits has meant that every choice about its growth has been hers to make. “I get to make decisions based on what’s right, not just what’s going to look good to investors,” she says. “My goal is to create a company that I would want to personally buy from, sell to, and work at.”

And that’s what she’s doing: She pays vendors on time, instead of asking for a 90-day payment term, so that the farmers who supply her flowers can pay their own bills; she waited until she could offer her staff of 150 employees full medical benefits and 401ks with a company match before drawing a salary; and she’s created hiring guidelines that don’t require employees to have a degree (high school nor college) or a home address.

Stembel’s story is a typical one for women entrepreneurs. A new study called “Beyond the Bucks”—sponsored by Bank of America and authored by Lakshmi Balachandra, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College and former associate at a venture capital firm—looks at why VC funders aren’t investing in women-led startups and how women manage to succeed despite that. The study tackled this disparity: Women own 39 percent of all privately held firms in the US, yet received only 2.2 percent of the $130 billion in venture capital invested in 2018. The situation is slightly better for women owning or leading startups in Canada; they received a measly seven percent of all venture capital.

The study interviewed 30 women entrepreneurs across North America who have achieved annual revenue of more than $5 million. That’s the rubber-meets-the-road spot, according to the study, where “revenue naturally plateaus and the toughest test comes.” All participants in this study soared past that mark; their companies boast average revenues of $43 million. The study’s goals were simple: understand the difficulties faced by women entrepreneurs in the male-dominated world of startups and identify the strategies women use to overcome those obstacles. Without an injection of VC cash, many of the women in the study found a different and perhaps more satisfying path to success through organic growth, which allowed them to explicitly consider the needs and well-being of their employees and communities—factors that male-driven companies tend to consider as second-tier metrics.

The study found that women entrepreneurs faced three major systematic roadblocks to success.

The first we know all too well: network exclusion. That’s the classic “It’s who you know, not what you know” world, otherwise known as the “boys’ club” where deals happen, usually in places men like to socialize, such as the golf course or over drinks.

The second is less well known but no less harmful: market misperceptions. That refers to the double disenfranchising of women founders. Investors discredit their ideas and leadership simply because they are women. Then investors fail to take women-led startups seriously due to gendered assumptions about the markets women entrepreneurs serve. Business guys call it the “the mommy market,” their blatant sexism blinding them to the fact that women drive some 80 percent of consumer spending. That’s a mother load of a market that women entrepreneurs are clearly positioned to tap into. Take for instance Spanx founder Sara Blakely, who had difficulty attracting investors for what would become a multi-billion-dollar business.

But it’s not just VC funders overlooking—or, more to the point, not seeing—women entrepreneurs. Balachandra points to the Forbes Most Innovative Leaders of 2019 list as an example. Out of 100 featured leaders, only one woman made that list. “How did they come up with the list?” she asks, laughing. “It’s written by two white men. [They] started with Fortune 500 companies, of which less than 10 percent are run by women. And at some point, the publisher, who is also a white man, saw the list and said, ‘Yep, this is who we want to highlight.’” In other words, their starting point to defining innovation left out half the population.

And that underlines the third major roadblock women founders face, which is the hardest to overcome: managing expansion with underfunding. Even women entrepreneurs who successfully hurdle over the first two roadblocks to launch a viable business still find themselves systematically locked out of the traditional venture capital system, according to Balachandra.

So how does a superheroine entrepreneur grow her company by leaps and bounds without the extension ladder of VC capital? Without outside investment to catapult strategy and development, women founders often bootstrap their firms, using their own personal savings to launch their enterprises. Then they pour business profits into growing their companies and sales organically.

While hugely difficult, following that strategy has a considerable upside for feminist founders. Through organic growth, founders can maintain ownership and control of their companies and embrace slow expansion, investing more consciously in human capital along the way. For the study, Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Her Campus Media, explained the approach her company took and how it worked well for her. “There were some years where we didn’t grow as much as we would’ve liked, but at the same time, we also were profitable for 10 consecutive years. We’ve never had to lay anyone off,” said Kaplan Lewis.

For all the benefits, that strategy rarely earns the industry respect that hyper-growth (grow big, sell fast) “unicorns” command, even though companies that grow organically, by definition, produce actual profits and have proven value in the marketplace, unlike investor favourites like WeWork or Amazon, who have enjoyed VC investment while operating in the red for years. Balachandra blames that credibility gap on our fixation with a “traditionally masculine way of thinking.” And there’s a big downside to that, as it “leads us to overvalue these unicorns or venture-backed startups because they were the ones who could get the support of these big investors, who are 94 percent men.”

Balachandra says the metrics that male-dominated VC firms use to target investments are heavily weighted towards financial performance and overlook other indicators of company performance and value such as employee retention, stakeholder satisfaction, and environmental impact. While women-led firms often perform well on the latter, their businesses often get passed over for initial investments that can spur rapid growth. And that won’t change, Balachandra says, until we have more women in decision-making roles.

So What’s A Women Entrepreneur to Do?

It will take time to infiltrate the masthead of business magazines and knock the sexism out of male VC investors; in the meantime, women entrepreneurs have found other options to grow their businesses.

If they can’t bootstrap a startup with personal savings, they can pursue debt, though that’s not without big downsides; while it does allow a founder to keep control of her company, debt can be expensive to service. And also difficult to even get if you are a woman. Balachandra explains that women founders often face that “having the right connections” roadblock, especially if their company doesn’t have sufficient assets to secure the amount of money that they need. Said Stembel: “I can’t get a bank loan because [Farmgirl Flowers doesn’t] pattern-match what banks are looking for.” She cites a lack of personal assets and big advance purchase orders (“Our orders come in within a week of when they’re delivered”). While government-sponsored lending programs exist, such as the Small Business Administration in the US, their interest rates are not cheap.

Women can also fund growth by trying to negotiate lines of credit with suppliers, though they often crash into roadblock one again: the boys’ club. “Women we talked to for the study told us that they found that people weren’t willing to extend those lines of credit to a woman or to someone they were less familiar with,” says Balachandra.

Another option for women leading startups is to find individual investors, sometimes called angel investors, but again, angel investors are more often men (77 percent), and male angel investors have considerable more wealth to invest (cutting checks 41 percent greater than their women counterparts, according to a 2017 study by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania). And roadblocks one through three suggest those deep-pocketed male angel investors are more likely to invest in male-led enterprises.

But men–and women—who avoid investing in women’s startups are missing out not only on the chance to back powerful, industry-shaping startups but to potentially get big returns on their investment. Take Aden & Anais. When Raegan Moya-Jones couldn’t attract traditional investors for her new baby product company, she was forced to build the business on her own. Now, she is able to reap all the financial benefits, telling the study she “ended up a very successful entrepreneur…[after] build[ing] a business from scratch that now generates over $100 million in annual revenue.”

Where there is considerable will, women entrepreneurs often find a way to succeed, as Stembel, Kaplan Lewis, Moya-Jones, and the 27 other women interviewed for the study show. But their paths were considerably more difficult as systemic, sexist obstacles slowed or blocked their progress and those of many others.

Interestingly, when women entrepreneurs do make it, against all the odds, they tend to pay it forward to the people and communities that made their success possible. According to the Wharton study, women who have made enough money to become investors themselves consider a founders’ gender to be seven times more important than men do. And women investors place more than twice as much importance on social impact as men do.

We think that means investing in female-led startups helps women make the world a better place. Double win.

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Mountains of private sector led studies and a handful of task forces over the past ten years on how to unleash the power of women entrepreneurs…and we are no further ahead. In fact, the 2017 McKinsey study on gender parity in Canada identified that Canada had “extremely high inequality in five out of fiftteen indicators.”  One of those was women’s entrepreneurship. According to the study, it will take us 180 years to reach parity in terms of creating an environment where women entrepreneurs can thrive as well—or as easily—as their male counterparts.

One of the reasons for this disappointing rate of progress, in my opinion, is the fact that we have allowed a handful of powerful, privileged people, girl-boss celebrities and Bro’ tech voices to have an outsized impact on how we view women’s entrepreneurship. The learning here is: women entrepreneurs are not mini-men entrepreneurs. A woman’s lived experience in a kyriarchal world is entirely different than a man’s and thus, not surprisingly, so is their approach to venture design and growth. Instead of developing programs and policies designed to homogenize and encourage women entrepreneurs to learn how to proceed like unencumbered, entitled tech-dudes, it’s time to recognize, celebrate, and amplify our uniqueness.

And here’s the good news. This might finally happen.

This summer, the Canadian government launched a competitive bid process to establish an independent Womens Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub fuelled by a hefty $8.62 million dollar budget over three years. The application must be be consortium based and led by an academic institution. The goal? Take off the Tom Ford aviators and see things as they really are. 

Grant opportunities like this don’t happen often so it’s no surprise that the competition is fierce. The assessment criteria includes points for things like research credentials, large project management skills, plans for long term financial sustainability, and the ability to leverage technology. Applicants must also demonstrate some level of prior engagement and knowledge of women’s entrepreneurship in Canada, the ecosystem that supports women entrepreneurs, plus experience working with diverse, intersectional groups of women.

All useful criteria on which to base a decision.

But…let’s face it. If we truly want to see different results from the past, it’s the leadership style of the lead applicant team that matters most.

When it comes to awarding big government contracts, we tend to go for thigh thundering T-Rex’s bearing gifts. The bigger and louder the better. We think someone famous, aggressive, with corporate connections who is chummy with the 1% will help get things done.

But if we want a different result, we need a different approach. Like Dandelion leadership.

In feminist and activist literature, the natural characteristics of the lowly dandelion is often referred to as a metaphor for the type leadership needed to advance social equity in any space, including entrepreneurship. Dandelion leaders recognize that innovation and leadership can come from anywhere, not just the tip of the economic iceberg. Dandelions are democratic, humble, agile, and responsive to their environment. They don’t care where they grow. They are everywhere. Farmer’s fields, a gated community lawn, or between cracks in sidewalks. They deeply understand the concept of inter-independence because without it, they die. They help nourish and ripen challenging ideas. They detoxify. They encourage others around them to flourish as opposed to expanding their own empires. And at the same time, they are not afraid of revolution. Imagine a field overrun with dandelions!

Imagine an economy fuelled by feminism. 

Canada has lagged in its ability to productively support women entrepreneurs because this diverse and heterogenous community is still greatly misunderstood and misrepresented. Moving forward, one way to avoid this is to ensure research and collaborations engage grass roots organizations, feminist leaders, and the kaleidoscope of main street female entrepreneurs in purposeful ways. No more tokenism.

This will take a leadership team that knows about creating safe environments. People who can harvest and include learnings from the fringe. An open minded team who is understands collective impact theory. Someone willing to challenge the current dysfunctional sacred cows of entrepreneurship and innovation—perhaps throwing them out all together.

The decision regarding who gets to lead the hub will be announced in October. I can’t wait. 

And I, for one, will be rooting for the dandelion team who is able to take root in depleted spaces and encourage generative growth.

LiisBeth Founder & Publisher


What We Are Talking About When We Talk About White Privilege: Themes From the White Privilege Conference in Toronto

What happens when you think of white privilege? Maybe it makes you angry. Perhaps it’s a subject you avoid. Possibly you become itchy and uncomfortable because if you are white (and privileged) you feel like you are to blame. If you are a member of a minority facing struggles because of race, how do you get someone to understand your barriers, challenges, and point of view?

White Privilege Conference has become synonymous with tackling widespread issues of inequality and 2018 marked the first time WPC has crossed the border for a Canadian version of the conference.

Dr. Golnaz Golnaraghi’s story is a moving and inspiring account of her time at the White Privilege Conference, and includes practical ways we can move towards solutions and change. Read it here.

The four Atlanta social ventures awarded a total of $200,000 by the Sara Blakely Foundation and Atlanta Emerging Markets, Inc. (AEMI) through the Civic Impact Loan Fund.

Change Makers: A unique residency supports women entrepreneurs on the front line of social innovation

Welcome to Atlanta, the city with the highest rate of income inequality in the US. Now, thanks to the vision of Rohit Malhotra who worked on civic innovation initiatives in the Obama administration and Sara BlakelyAtlanta’s most influential female entrepreneur and Spanx CEO and founder, The Centre for Civic Innovation is fostering startups who are addressing the root cause of why this inequality exists. From yoga practice for police officers to Civic Dinners bringing community members together, the centre provides financial and development support to entrepreneurs.

Adina Solomon explains how the one-year residency is measured by how much the entrepreneurs achieve – not by financial indicators. Check out the article here.

Above: Lido Pimienta, Venus Fest 2017

New LiisBeth Playlist! Time to Soar

September is here. Time to get back to initiatives, routines, and commitments sometimes left to languish as we frenetically try to enjoy our short summers.

To get back into the swing of things, Aerin Fogel, founder of Venus Fest, created a new playlist for LiisBeth to help get us back into gear! Have a listen here.

The playlist features ten artists performing at this year’s Venus Fest, a Toronto music festival and concert series celebrating feminism in the arts. It happens Thursday to Saturday, September 22-24th at various locations!

FEMINIST FREEBIE! VENUS FEST PASS GIVEAWAY!  LiisBeth has two festival passes to give away to the first two LiisBethians to complete our reader survey today on September 11th! Recipients will be announced on Twitter (and notified by email).

All LiisBeth subscribers are also invited to the Venusfest Pre-Party Show and Panel which happens at the Drake Underground on Saturday, September 15th. Tickets are $12 in advance.

Feminist campers

WTF is Feminist Camp?

You can find a camp for anything: music, archery, cooking…and now, there is Feminist Camp, a front-row seat to feminist work, activism, and action beyond classroom theories. Feminist Camp is the brainchild of two women on a mission to show (mostly) college-aged women what their futures might look like. Campers meet professionals like judges, police officers, and artists who practice feminism in their jobs.

No bonfires or marshmallows, but an impromptu sing-a-long could very well erupt on the streets of New York City, Seattle, or Zambia, along with a renewed sense of direction, confidence, and possibilities. Catherine Drillis shares her thoughts from Feminist Camp’s HQ, located at Ms. Foundation in NYC. Read the piece here.


The RAISE Collective

The weRAISE 2018 program featured seven women-led ventures seeking capital for growth from industries including technology and consumer goods.  The #womenRAISE campaign took place over 100 days with the cohort collectively raised $1M.

Entrepreneurs benefitted from the connections they made and to having access to the right types of capital for their specific needs.” – Jill Earthy, RAISE Founder

weRAISE is now collaborating with Female Funders, a program for women interested in investing and who are unlocking capital to support female entrepreneurs. To learn about the need to increase gender diversity within Canada’s investment ecosystem, check out the Women in Venture report.

The next weRAISE cohort launches in early 2019. Companies who want to learn more can visit

Thrive Podcast for Women Entrepreneurs

Brew yourself a cup and have a listen to this 30 minute podcast from Start Up Canada. Janice MacDonald chats with Petra Kassun-Mutch about everything from B-corp info, responsibilities of an entrepreneur, and the five values of the feminist business model canvas. Do you know what they are?

Pramilla Ramdahani, Founder of the Community Innovation Lab


Pramilla Ramhahani (pictured above), founder and CEO of Durham region’s Community Innovation Lab saw the economic and personal transformation potential of women entrepreneurs. So she created the Refinery, a  women’s entrepreneurship program that will provide technical advisory support, workshops, bootcamps, year-long intensive coaching, and co-working hub space to an estimated 1,435+ female entrepreneurs over the next three years.

The Community Innovation Lab (CiLab), is a not for profit organization currently led by an all-female staff.

On September 12th, CiLab is holding the first women-centric finance conference of its kind in the region where they will announce a significant partnership with the Business Development Corporation to advance startups and women entrepreneurs across Ontario.

If you are looking for women-led financing opportunities, don’t miss this conference! It will be worth the drive to Durham.

The Conference will be held at the Co-ilab hub on 600 Rossland Rd., Oshawa. To get tickets visit:

But how do you really feel? What do you really think?

LiisBeth has grown to over 1850 newsletter subscribers.  And we thought it might be time for us all to get to know ourselves better as a community. So we created the “un-reader” survey in that nu-uh, we aren’t going to ask you about what kinds of articles you like or advertiser-centric demographic questions. We don’t even advertise!

WE WANT TO KNOW: what you’re thinking about, what you care about, your views on feminism, and your take on how LiisBeth can improve.

This survey takes about 12 minutes.We also understand your time is super valuable. So in return for your generosity, we will be publishing a copy of our survey results on LiisBeth so that you too, can get to know this community better!

To take the survey now, click here.


Vivek Shraya’s poetry collection, even this page is white, is a bold and personal interrogation of skin–its origins, functions, and limitations. Shraya paints the face of everyday racism with words, rendering it visible, tangible, and undeniable. (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016) “A provocative meditation on what it means to grow up anything other than white in Canada, tackling institutional racism and sexual identity from a unique viewpoint, all delivered with astute observation and trenchant insight.” — Rollie Pemberton, former Edmonton Poet Laureate

Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times by Nick Montgomery and Carla Bergman is not what you might expect given the title. While this hard core left of centre book clearly advocates for change through activism, it has a unique perspective on this type of work and issues experienced by those working in the thick of it. If you have been growing tired of resisting Trump, Ford, and other various forms of oppression, injustice or new policies that create more barriers rather than remove them, this book serves as a bit of a pick me up.


  • Healing Solidarity Online Conference
    Eunice Baguna Ball, Founder of ATBN (African Technology Business Netowork) will be speaking at Healing Solidartiy’s week-long conference about reimagining international development. Get your free ticket here.
  • New Women’s Cannabis Entrepreneur Accelerator in Oregon! The state’s first cannabis accelerator program and co-working & events space is dedicated to boosting women entrepreneurs and their weed businesses #womeninweed
  • YMCA Launch Women’s Empowerment Exchange Traded Fund — Impact Shares and YWCA US now offer an exchange traded fund (ETF) on the New York Stock Exchange enabling investors to invest in companies whose practices are aligned with gender-equality standards. Now that’s pretty cool. Will Canada’s YWCA be next?
  • Size doesn’t matter! Supporting membership to the Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC) is free and open to any organization that supports its objectives. To join, find out more here.
  • As the hype winds down from the federal government’s August 31st release of the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy ( Co-creation steering group’s recommendations, you can still make some noise! Email your MP or tweet about it using #sisfs #innovate4impact
    Read the full report here

That brings us to the end of our September newsletter. The next website refresh and newsletter is scheduled for October 15th, 2018.  
Did you read something of value in this newsletter?

LiisBeth is the only media voice in the world which supports the work of feminist entrepreneurs and innovators. We are 100% reader supported. If you love what we do, become a subscriber to LiisBeth! We humbly remind you that subscriptions are $3/month, $7/month or $10/month.

We are now also on Patreon!  You can choose to donate to us there!

Funds go directly towards paying writers, editors, proofreaders, photo permission fees, and illustrators. Building a more just future requires time, love—and financial support.

Enjoy September. Peace out.


Petra Kassun-Mutch                                                  Lana Pesch
Founding Publisher, LiisBeth                                  Newsletter & Associate Editor



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.”


The Future of Accelerators and Incubators?

Sean O’Sullivan believes that 90 per cent of the world’s 7,000 incubators and accelerators will fail, close down, or be absorbed by their hosts within the next few years. As someone who has worked in an incubator, this prediction caught my attention.

O’Sullivan, founder and managing director of SOSV, a large venture fund with its own privately run accelerator program, and who has invested in 400 companies over 20 years, gave a keynote speech at Montreal Startupfest’s Premium AcceleratorFest (held a day before the main festival) on July 13. And while bullish on the importance of entrepreneurs in innovation-dependent economies, he did not think the future was bright for hybrid incubators or accelerators in particular. This was not good news for the attendees—the majority of whom manage or work in these organizations—or for the entrepreneurs who depend on hybrid incubators and accelerators to succeed.

But let’s start at the beginning. In order to understand O’Sullivan’s predictions for the sector, it is important that one knows some basic industry terms.

What Is an Accelerator and Incubator?

While their operational practices (length of program, terms of engagement, level of pressure, sector focus, philosophy) vary, they both aim to improve an entrepreneur’s odds of success by providing programming, mentoring, space, and facilitating access to funding. The main difference between the two is in legal form and who pays their operating costs. Incubators are primarily non-profit organizations (or hosted by them) and are funded publicly or by donations and grants. Accelerators tend to be private, for-profit organizations, often backed by a private equity or venture capital funds.

For-profit accelerators or incubators are in business to make a profit for their shareholders or venture fund partners as quickly as possible. Non-profit equivalents are generally in business to diversify the local economy, provide new opportunities for struggling demographics, build out new industries, and create local jobs. They generally take a longer-term view with a focus on social benefits.

So What Are Hybrids?

The hybrids are a combination of incubator and accelerator. They are funded by public money and donations, and are charged with the mission to achieve economic development and social goals for their area. However, they’re increasingly expected to reduce their dependence on public money (and the uncertainty that comes with that) by also aiming to make a profit on the companies they incubate. Many university incubators serve as examples.

And therein lies the rub. Hybrids essentially have two masters and dual missions: serve the public policy agenda, and make money while doing it. In O’Sullivan’s view, it’s like trying to mix oil and water. You can be one or the other, but not both. “Trying to combine social goals with profit-making is very unlikely to succeed.”

O’Sullivan also suggested there was an oversupply of incubators and accelerators generating increasingly mediocre results. High potential startups will gravitate to the best, or not bother with incubators or accelerators at all (like entrepreneurs used to do before they came along) because they will be perceived as either a waste of time or money, or both. This will result in a much needed shake out. “And that’s okay,” said O’Sullivan.

Many in the audience nodded in agreement with the prediction that hybrids are likely the first to go. Those that don’t close down entirely will most likely be absorbed by their institutional or corporate hosts and be re-configured (for example, marginal university incubator programs will be reclaimed by academic councils).

In O’Sullivan’s view, ultimately, only venture-capital-backed programs will be left standing.

But as we consider this prediction, we also need to remember that this “who will survive” divination is coming from the perspective of venture fund managers and venture capitalists like O’Sullivan. Making money for shareholders or partners is what they are paid to do. For them, doing anything else would just amount to a mandate to fail.


For more reading on accelerators and incubators, visit International Business Innovation Association or Canadian Acceleration and Business Incubation.


Activism & Action

The Problem with Bro-preneurship: On Display at Montreal’s Startupfest

Too often we talk about entrepreneurship as if it were one community, one culture. In reality, it is a kaleidoscope of philosophies, approaches, and cultures. But the bro-oriented, Silicon Valley tech culture sucks up all the media oxygen and, with it, too much of the venture capital. And the celebration of that narrow aspect of entrepreneurship is getting stale.

Take Montreal’s Startupfest, now in its sixth year. An estimated 3,500 entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, accelerators, incubators, policy-makers, consultants, and bankers (mostly from Canada and the U.S.) paid between $300 and $800 per person to attend what were often puerile, shoddily prepared presentations interrupting what seemed to be the main event: big money boys trying to out dude each other on stage and at festival parties.

The event is a marquis summer event for Montreal, a city trying to position itself on the global innovation map as a world-class startup haven. It currently ranks 20th behind Toronto at 17th.

This year, the festival featured 70 speakers and three separate circus tent stages set up in the Old Port of Montreal. Many came to compete in pitching competitions awarding anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 in seed funding. Apparently, they also came for loads of free drinks (sponsored by Osler and Shopify), and the chance to play with “grown-up” toys such as foosball and snag pink beach balls and free pairs of Parasuco jeans, giveaways by various sponsor booths. The event billed itself as “unforgettable and unconventional.”

Beware: What Sells as Unconventional Is Actually Deeply Conventional

I attended the fest, on the lookout for the unconventional. Other than a pitch judging panel called The Grandmothers (retired women entrepreneurs) and pop-up child care, most of the event was the same old celebration of tech/VC-centred bro-preneurship.

For those who have never been, these conferences work hard to craft a cool, anti-establishment experience. But look beyond the nifty swag, red sneakers, and neon lights, and what you really see is raw, 300-year-old capitalism at work. Large venture capital firms and accelerators, hip as they try to be to scoop up young talent, are really just organizations with age-old biases and management processes, freighted with old-boy politics and rules. Startups that win their backing quickly become traditional corporations. Winning big VC backing requires fitting in and doing things their way. So much for following your own authentic path that fired you up in the first place. So much for rebelling against big money and “the man.”

The speaker lineup was touted as first class, but session topics were narrow in scope and short on depth as well as respect for the audience. There were no sessions on social entrepreneurship nor on the now estimated $3 trillion impact investing space, a scale that surely deserves some attention at an event like this. Several headline speakers tried to come across as unconventional and unscripted but were simply unprepared. A few rogue panelists seemed more interested in using air time to fortify their personal brands rather than sharing useful information. No one interrogated the space itself or asked the audience to reflect hard on important questions such as how many jobs their ventures are creating, where those jobs are located and for whom. Or even how to address growing structural unemployment some new ventures accelerate with next-stage robots and artificial intelligence. But a presenter just showing up and being mildly entertaining was celebrated. The casualty? Audience learning and value for money. Though, sadly, too few bros in the audience seemed to care.

Fuck That: No, I Really Mean, Fuck That

Tech culture tries to pass itself off as unconventional, rebellious, and youthful by celebrating a culture of cussing, but that quickly became old as presenters over 40 seemed in full-out competition to drop as many f-bombs as possible. It must have felt dangerous for them, a little like swearing in front of their mothers for the first time. I can say “fuck” deliciously and often, but when it comes to using the f-word on stage, I take my lead from uber-orators like Tony Robbins who swears, but strategically and not at the expense of substance. Full of dude-itude, these guys dropped bombs as if on auto-repeat rather than using their words to say anything informative.

What’s lost when organizers cuss on stage themselves? Or when a Master of Ceremonies counsels audience members to count the times they hear the word “fuck” and suggests awarding prizes to the speaker who drops the most bombs? Let’s just say it was a distraction from the obvious—that those who used it most had the least to say.

A Chance to Meet “The Man”: But He Doesn’t Care About You

Too typical of the event were speakers like Dave McClure. Now McClure has an enviable reputation as a celebrity angel investor. According to his website, his venture fund (co-founded by Christine Tsai, who is never mentioned) has made investments in 1,500 companies in 50 countries. Not surprisingly, the tent he spoke in was packed with eager conference goers of all genders and ages hopeful to bag some of that venture capital. I hoped he might have something meaty to say. I turned on my recorder just in case.

As he settled into his speaker’s chair, the first thing he told the audience, with a strange pride as if anticipating we would be impressed, was that he didn’t have time to prepare his 30-minute talk. He had planned to write one the night before but he got drunk at the festival party instead. (Everyone laughed knowingly.) So the paying audience would have to make do with festival staffer interviewing him on stage.

A competitive type, he began his talk by reciting comedian George Carlin’s “seven words you can’t say on television“, (circa 1972) and added that he didn’t understand why the last word, tits, was a problem. “Afterall, even girls like tits”. The crowd laughed and followed with a rousing “ya man” applause.

When asked about diversity, he noted that African Americans and Hispanics add up to 30 per cent of the population and were definitely an under-indexed population (people, anyone?). He said he started his 500 Startups diversity program “not because we’re wonderful or good Samaritans but because (and his voice lifted excitedly) we can make a lot of fucking money!” After a few in the audience hooted, he elaborated, “We’re just greedy blood-sucking venture capitalists who just want to make a lot of fucking money…arbitraging racism and sexism for our own selfish fucking benefit and the globe.”

If you can stomach a minute and 20 seconds of his rant, you can listen to it here.

Apparently, being offensive was part of his celebrity shtick for a reality TV show he had been cast in. (It was cancelled before starting.) I questioned whether I was a humourless bitch or had landed in an Animal House full of frat boys. Guess I can ponder the question further as 500 Startups is opening up shop in my home city of Toronto and nearby Waterloo. Can’t wait.

His talk lasted only 20 minutes, thank God. Still, the audience clapped and several even whistled appreciatively. Later, I asked more than 15 entrepreneurs—of both sexes and a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds—what they thought of his talk.  The majority were nonplussed by his shock-jock style. They considered it part of a salable celebrity personality. To them, he was still a hero and model. “After all,” enthused one 20-something South Asian entrepreneur, “he gives a lot of money to entrepreneurs.”

Only one person expressed what I was thinking, that his talk was disgusting and disappointing and you can listen to that response here.

WTF? But the Networking Was Fun

Montreal Startupfest does many things well, especially facilitating networking. There were lots of long breaks, free Nespresso, the bar was open all day, tech demo tents and mentor tents hummed with people, and they rocked social media. Others could learn from them on this. But they blew their opportunity to stand out from other conferences like this by not broadening the scope of topics and by not professionalizing their management of panels and speakers. Positive change might start by choosing speakers who represent where the event wants to go, not where it has been. Efforts to be gender inclusive by ensuring gender balance on stage was actually laudable. You could tell organizers were really trying. But still, the overwhelming majority of attendees were male (by my eyeball count it was more than 80 per cent). Many experts understand that real inclusivity has to address culture as well as rosters, and that means changing the adolescent, bro culture that so dominates the tech/venture capital entrepreneur space, which not only diminishes inclusivity but inhibits real learning and dampens the festival’s potential for growth and meaningful impact.

Thankfully, times are changing. And events like this will have to evolve to stay relevant—or others will replace them. As for me, I love a good time as much as any bro-preneur. On that basis, I would totally go again but next time, I won’t bother with a notebook. I’ll just pack my party shoes—and Tylenol.



Follow up readings:

Another good article about the impact of bro talk:

The Best Presentation?

By Ooshma Garg, founder of Gobble, prepared and amazing, instructive story.

Other perspectives and articles about Montreal Startupfest:

About the founder, Phil Telio: