Pitch perfect: tackling gender-related hurdles in funding

Jury member Adam Quinton shares five tips on how to address the unconscious bias when pitching to a male-dominated investors panel.

By Adam Quinton | Founder and CEO of Lucas Point Ventures

Like anyone who has built a portfolio of early-stage investments, I spot patterns. In my case, focusing on gender-diverse founding teams, some of those patterns are pretty glaring.

Here's an important one: a clear gender-based disconnect exists between "form vs substance" in startup fundraising. What I mean by this is that investors can get swayed by a founders’ pitch delivery (form) instead of their performance (substance).

Investors typically rate founder-conviction, ambition and even bravado (or form) high on their checklist. But some women founders find it challenging to deliver these. The result? Startups with female founders get much less access to funding, especially at the venture level. This is politely referred to as unconscious bias.

On the other hand however, evidence about female startup performance (or substance) says a different story. Startups with female founders perform relatively strongly. According to the Kauffman Foundation, women-led private technology companies are more capital-efficient, achieve a 35 percent higher return on investment, and when venture-backed, bring in 12 percent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies.

So what seems to be at stake in this dissonance between women’s startup form and substance?

Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to building women-friendly workplaces, offers one possible answer. It has found that women leaders are evaluated against ‘masculine’ standards of leadership and thus fall into one of the following three categories:

1. Extreme Perceptions: Women are perceived as too soft or too tough but never just right.

2. The High Competence Threshold: Women leaders face higher standards and lower rewards than men leaders.

3. Competent but Disliked: Women leaders are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both.

So for those women startup leaders who have the substance under their control, how can they work on their form and deliver a pitch that resonates with VCs?

Here are my five pieces of advice for a pitch that aligns form with substance:

1. Think about what the audience needs to know, not what you want to say

Always frame a pitch from the perspective of the investor. At its most basic, that means not spending too much time extolling your product and doing a demo. Demos are usually a bad idea, by the way. The investor is not buying your product or service, the investor is (maybe!) buying your equity. Different investors need to know different things, so the more intel you have in advance about an investor's perspective or biases, the better.

One pitfall to be aware (especially in Q&A) is spending too much time addressing the challenges you know you have (which you, as a good founder, obsess about of course.) Rather, your messaging, and answers to questions, should reorient towards positives with the aim of keeping you "on message" about your opportunity, traction and awesome team.

2. Don’t forget: you are pitching you, too

In my experience, investing is more emotional than most people realize or want to believe. A great pitch doesn’t only require good content on your slides, but it also requires the investor to cross some psychological barriers in order to believe in you and trust you. It’s about achieving a balance of substance and self.

3. Think story and narrative

Humans react to stories, so make the presentation less a procession of facts and more of a story. The most powerful piece can be your creation story. It can be risky, but opening a pitch (after the one-liner intro that encapsulates what you are doing) with your creation story can be very impactful. It allows you to share why you care, the strength of your domain expertise, your team's complementary skills, and more. The creation story demonstrates the differentiated passion and energy that investors look for and helps you grab and keep their attention. Crucially, it can make you much more memorable. Memorable matters.

4. Most decks are just too busy

A Slideshare I like that captures this idea and takes on the issue of "verbal vomit" among other things is: You Suck at PowerPoint. Remember that the point of your deck is not to give ALL the information the investor needs to make a decision. Rather, the purpose of the deck is to get an investor interested enough to ask for a follow-up meeting or call to learn more.

5. When pitching to a large angel group or at a pitch competition, you can ask for contacts, not just money

When pitching to a big group, in my view, you can make an ask beyond money: "Does anyone here have a good contact on the XYZ team at ABC Corp?" On any first pitch, an angel group is statistically pretty unlikely to vote to continue to pursue an investment; they see so many. But individuals in the meeting may have great leads that they are willing to open up for you - the startup community is typically open to sharing contacts, even when an investor's wallet stays closed! So, don't be totally tied to your deck and the single ask about money in this context!

Finally, even though a founder may not want to hear this, there is no single ‘correct’ answer to the question: "How do I make my pitch deck perfect?". For the founder, I think this is another case of "take advice, don't follow advice." Absorb inputs yes, calibrate what makes sense, yes, but ultimately, do what feels right and deliver your pitch in a way that you are most comfortable with.




Adam Quinton is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and member of the Management and Gender & Public Policy Faculties as well as Faculty Advisor to the SIPA "Women in Leadership" student group. As the Founder/CEO of Lucas Point Ventures he invested in and advised a number of early stage companies with a focus on diverse founding teams. Follow him on Twitter and on LinkedIn.