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:



8 Financing Resources for Women* Entrepreneurs

All businesses need money to turn the wheels. Here are eight venture funds that target women entrepreneurs.

Article written and submitted by Ellie WainainaKenyan Freelance Writer

It’s 2016 but women still struggle to obtain financing for their businesses. Research shows that companies headed by men will receive over 95 per cent of all investments made in business. Given it’s 2016, this is highly disappointing.

Perhaps one of the major reasons why funding for women-owned businesses is so difficult to obtain is the number of women in senior positions. Women only make up 15.4 per cent of CEO positions and hold 33 per cent of senior management positions. Fewer women in senior positions means fewer women with the means to become future angel investors or partners in investment firms.

Based on the law of averages, men are more likely to find it easier to get the financing they need from investment companies than their female counterparts.

As a female entrepreneur, starting and operating your business may end up being an uphill battle. However, you can get the financing you need by taking advantage of financial resources more readily available for women. Here are some of the resources:


1. The Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant Program

The Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant Program awards $120,000 for up to 12 recipients each year. Therefore, the minimum you can get from this grant program is $12,000, which will greatly help your cash flow. To qualify for this grant, your business should:

  • Be majority-owned and majority-led (51 per cent qualifies as the minimum).
  • Have revenues of less than $1 million the year preceding your application.
  • Have been in operation for three years prior to your grant application with financials to show.
  • Be founded upon the goal of creating social and environmental change.

Applications are open every year in April and May.

2. Kabbage’s Online Loans

Kabbage is an A+ rated online lender that cares more about the health of your business than your gender or even credit history. If you have been in business for at least one year and have $50,000 or more in revenue, Kabbage is a good financial resource to explore an open line of credit.

In order to enjoy the benefits of financing from Kabbage, you will need to open a free account, then link to the online services that you use to run your business, such as Amazon or PayPal.

Once your application has been viewed and approved, you will get access to the line of credit that you need. The loan amounts range from $2,000 to $100,000. You will then be able to access the money on the go—whenever you need it.

You will have the choice of getting your loans on either a six-month or 12-month plan. In order to qualify for the 12-month plan, you need to borrow at least $5,000. The interest fees vary from 1.5 to 12 per cent, which is quite reasonable.

3. Plum Alley Crowd-Sourced Funding

What better way to find financing for your business than from other female entrepreneurs who know what it’s like to struggle?

Enter Plum Alley. This is a crowd-funding site with a difference. It specializes in helping women obtain financing for their businesses from other women or men who want to advance the cause of women in business.

In order to obtain the funds, you will need to open an account, create a project on the platform by providing basic details such as your location, funding goal, and category in which your business belongs. There will be instructions along the way to help you create an effective campaign to get you the financing you need.

In exchange for the money you’re given, you will offer rewards to your investors. This can be anything from a thank-you note to a pre-purchased product that you create with the financing you get.

You definitely should consider crowdfunding via Plum Alley if you are looking to avoid punitive interest rates associated with loans, but are willing to give away something for free.

4. The Union Bank Business Diversity Lending Program

While there are traditional lending institutions that will make it difficult for you to access funding for your company, Union Bank is not one of them. Through Union Bank’s Business Diversity Lending Program, you can access financing of up to $50,000. You can apply online for this loan if you run a woman-owned business and actively manage at least 51 per cent of it.

In order to ensure that your business has access to the diversity loans, your business should have annual sales of less than $20 million. The company you own and manage should also be two years or older and have borrowing needs of less than $2.5 million.

Once you have determined that you meet all the set requirements, you can go about applying online for your business loan.

5. 37 Angels Funding

While the odds of you making it to Dragons’ Den are very low, you can still access investors via 37 Angels, which specializes in seed stage investing. Because it’s made up of over 50+ women investors, you have a higher chance of getting the financing your woman-led business needs to operate and expand. You can then pay it back with interest or offer equity to the investors.

In order to have a shot at getting funding, you need to use the Gust platform to pitch via video. The 37 Angels investors will then call you to determine if your business is a mutual fit.

If that’s the case, the company, as a network, will invest anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 into your business. Angel investors in this network can also help you raise between $500,000 to $1 million.

The decision on whether 37 Angels will invest in your business or not will come through in four weeks, which is a relatively short time. To increase your chances of getting positive feedback, be sure to apply when your business earns $50,000 to $500,000 in revenue. It will be much better for you if your company is valued at $2 million to $6 million, and if you’re able to make the pitch in person in New York City.

6. Kickstarter’s Crowd-Sourced Funding

If you are looking to dip your entrepreneurial toes into the creative arts or technology industry, then Kickstarter is the online funding resource you should explore. Kickstarter is one of the largest crowd-funding sites online. In 2013, Kristen Bell, the star of the Veronica Mars TV series, and director Rob Thomas, took to the platform after getting rejected by Warner Bros. Through Kickstarter, they sought alternative funding for the Veronica Mars Movie Project and requested people to help fund the film.

Guess what? People did!

The Kickstarter project ended up raising over $5.7 million from more than 91,500 backers. The fact that the movie ended up being made is a testament to the power of crowd-sourced financing for entrepreneurial projects. So, what’s stopping you from doing the same? Why shouldn’t you enlist the help of internet strangers to fund your business dreams?

Make sure you take the time to familiarize yourself with the Kickstarter platform. Sign up, create a project, and determine which category your business lies. Then go about writing details about your business product, state your funding goals and deadline, and wait for donors to fund your entrepreneurial ventures. Most successful projects tend to raise under $10,000, so no dream is too small.

You can offer rewards in return for funding that is given to you. It could be something as simple as a copy of the product item you end up creating, or something intangible in the form of unique experiences.

You will only be charged a fundraising fee for a fully funded project, which is always a good thing if you fall short on your financing goal.

7. Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative

Your business doesn’t have to be in the U.S. for you to enjoy funding resources from that country. There are financing programs like the Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative (WGWEEI) that will stand you in good stead.

The WGWEEI aims to source at least $20 billion from women-owned enterprises in the U.S. and abroad. It also aims to launch and operate a dedicated marketplace for women-owned products.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the Walmart empowerment initiative for women is the grants that will be made available to you. Walmart aims to provide $100 million in grants toward women-owned businesses over a period of five years starting from 2011. Though this is the tail end of the initiative, you still have a chance to get on the funding boat.

If you have a business that will empower women in your country, and that country is covered under the WGWEEI, then you qualify for Walmart grants. Grants can range from $250 to $250,000, so there’s money to be had for your business if you require financing. However, you have to submit a final impact report when applying for grants. Be sure to read the updated guidelines before you take any step in that regard.

8. Requested Donations from Reddit or Similar Sites

Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, there are also as many ways to obtain financing for your business.

Take Reddit, for instance, one of the most popular online social forums out there. In March 2016 alone, the platform had over 243.6 million unique visitors from 212 countries. That’s impressive! Prior to 2009, whenever Redditors wanted to share their images, they would use all manner of platforms to do so, which resulted in compatibility complications. That was until one Alan Schaaf decided to do something about it. He created Imgur, an image hosting and sharing site that was compatible with the Reddit platform.

Originally, Imgur was meant to be a gift for the Reddit online community. However, Schaaf got serious with what he had deemed a side project and decided to develop it further for all internet users. Money was an issue. But because Imgur offered a service that Redditors really appreciated, they donated money to keep the site going until Schaaf was able to get financing from Andreessen Horowitz, a $4 billion venture capital firm. And that is how the modern version of Imgur was born.


Are you wondering why this story is relevant? It’s simple really.

If you have an idea of how to meet the needs of a large group of people, financing should not be a problem. Just the thought that you will be able to solve a major problem is enough to inspire people to finance the development of your product.

Online communities like Reddit are a good place to test your entrepreneurship skills. The very people who donate funds to your growing business will also provide constant feedback for your product. This should help you refine that product until you have something good enough to present to major venture capitalists for more financing. Alternatively, you can use the donations you get from Reddit or other similar platforms to operate your business until you can monetize it effectively.

If you have an online product that will appeal to large audiences like Reddit, don’t be afraid to ask for donations. The worst that can happen is you will get no for an answer. That’s not a life and death matter, is it?

Just because the odds are against you as a female entrepreneur does not mean you should give up. Each day is a new day. As time goes by, the financing options for women in business will continue to increase. You should, therefore, take advantage of every funding resource that comes your way to start, run, and expand your business. The aforementioned resources are just the beginning.



Those Britches are Too Big For You, Young Lady

Where to look for quality investment and financial advice as a female entrepreneur.

Dear LiisBeth,

When I was looking to hire Bay Street financial experts to review pro formas for my $1.5-million enterprise, all they did was try to talk me out of it. They said, “What about the impact on your family, ovaries, and work-life balance?” They wondered why I would want to risk my hard-earned net-worth to “chase a big dream.” They couldn’t see that I saw this venture as a terrific investment that was well within my risk tolerance. Besides, it’s my call to make. They even suggested that if I wanted to run a business, I should start a quaint little retail store instead. I could not believe what I was hearing. Where can I find top-notch financial professionals and investors who believe in me?

Fed Up


Dear Fed Up,

Don’t you just love it? Many of these same players complain women don’t go “big enough” and then refer to statistics that less than three percent of women entrepreneurs in Canada have enterprises with revenues of $1 million or more. Policy-makers see this economic opportunity, but suggest we can close the gap by giving women “more training.” Seriously?

Meanwhile in the real world, when women entrepreneurs are ready to launch a fast-scaling enterprise that needs significant capital, investors and lenders look at them like they’re crazy. In fact, they even try to talk women down into something “more their size” (read: gender).

Can you tell we’ve been there, too?

The short-term solution is to seek out other women entrepreneurs who have founded scalable, larger ventures and ask them to refer you to investors or lenders they’ve dealt with. We also recommend you contact one of the many new women’s venture capital funds like SheEO in Toronto or Women’s Venture Fund in the U.S. and ask them for referrals. Also consider applying for their funds as well.

In the long-term, we need to all work together to change investor and lender perceptions about women entrepreneurs. We suggest you carefully consider whose advice and money you use. It’s very important to find the right financial advisor who is also a strong supporter and believer in your plan, someone who will confidently introduce you to potential partners or angel investors at the early stages. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs, but it will be worth it when you find the right fit.

Take your time. And run far, far away from people who think women entrepreneurs are only investable if they are launching early childhood centres, jam companies, or hair salons. They’re likely to be the ones who question your every move as your business grows.

Good luck and we look forward to an update!


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The Rise of Gender Capitalism


LiisBeth is proud to re-print this amazing interview with Sarah Kaplan, Professor of Strategic Management at the Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto) by Karen Christiansen, Editor-in-Chief of Rotman Management magazine at the University of Toronto.

Sarah’s recently published article, The Rise of Gender Capitalism, published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2014, can be found here:

Karen: You have been researching an emerging movement that lies at the nexus of gender and investing. Please describe it.

Sarah: What we are seeing is a variety of initiatives that are examining ‘how capital is deployed’, and making sure that it’s done in ways that help to achieve economic justice for women and girls. All sorts of loosely-connected organizations and individual actors are involved, but they’re all aligned around making progress in this area.

These initiatives recognize that only six per cent of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses; that only a small percentage of participants in start-up accelerators are women; and that there are very few women in leadership positions in large financial institutions — or any companies, for that matter. The fact is, around the world, women have much less access to capital or even basic banking and financial products than do men, and this is hurting the global economy. The goal of these
initiatives is to create growth, prosperity and economic value by rectifying these problems.

Karen: What does it mean to invest ‘with a gender lens’?

The way we see the world affects what we do in the world, so the lens aspect is about shifting the way we see things. The gender part of it is about making sure we consider how what we ‘see’ is influenced by gender. When you put the two together, investing with a gender lens means using a gender analysis to uncover hidden opportunities and recognize bias in the deployment of capital. Clearly, it can’t be true that only six per cent of potential start-ups should be led by women. There is a bias there. Recent
research shows that if you take an identical business plan — same PowerPoint, same content — and have it narrated by either a man or a woman, 60 per cent of investors will choose to invest
in the man’s business plan.

It’s not that anyone is trying to be sexist; these are implicit biases,and both men and women possess them. So, this approach says, why not recognize that these biases exist and begin to deploy capital towards opportunities that are being overlooked? It can also apply to the creation of products and services. Companies across industries should be thinking more carefully about the different requirements of men and women. For years, car companies tested their vehicles with female crash test dummies in the passenger seat; only recently have they started putting them in the driver’s seat. It was as if, somehow, women weren’t driving cars!

In some industries, like pharmaceuticals, there are very high stakes. In the drug-approval process, firms have been required to test on both men and women, but they have not been required to report the gender-disaggregated data. As a result, we don’t know if men and women should be taking different dosages, or if interactions might occur due to different hormone levels. We’re only learning now, for example, that some sleep drugs have radically different effects on men and women. Paying attention to
gender-disaggregated data would enable pharmaceutical firms to provide much more effective products — and reduce their liability. There are all sorts of similar hidden opportunities just waiting to be found if you look at investments through a gender lens.