It’s no surprise that my experience with VCs has been interesting, to say the least.
When I walked into a room of investors, the faces staring back at me not only looked different from mine, the first few minutes often felt like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The time and mental adjustment it took to make sense of me, a black woman, had me at a disadvantage from the get-go. Imagine psyching yourself up to give the best pitch of your life when the people across the table have no genuine connection with you.
After dozens of interactions like that, I decided there must be a better way. My solution? I let my resume precede me. I highlighted my grades, 20 years after I graduated college. (Who does that?) I removed my LinkedIn profile picture. I didn’t use gendered pronouns. I removed affiliations that revealed my race. I refrained from referencing up front that my audience was primarily women of color.
Essentially, I took away part of my identity. And it worked. Briefly.
With these changes, my investor meetings increased immediately. But do you know what didn’t? My confidence. Even though I made it to the pitch, the reaction was the same, except this time, they were also surprised. And through their surprise, they could barely comprehend my business model, scalability plan, audience segments, marketing strategy and leadership.
I realized that hiding my identity only delayed the rejection. This certainly wasn’t worth my identity crisis and all the emotional baggage (guilt) that came with the feeling of “selling out.” So I reposted my profile picture, added back my affiliations and changed my executive summary to show women of color.
Did I get fewer meetings?
Was it worth it?
By unapologetically being my authentic self, I met with fewer investors but they were the right investors. They were VCs who were genuinely interested in the potential of my business.
I used to not tell this story freely. I used to be embarrassed by it, afraid that I would be judged for hiding who I was. Then I shared it recently with a group of developers, designers and entrepreneurs — predominantly women with some male allies — at Women in Tech Demo Day in New York.
I knew that afternoon that I had to continue to tell this story, because of what the women and men there told me: The nodding of heads each time I referenced a micro-aggression. The questions about my decisions and what I would do differently. Most important, the wonder about the future of diversity in our industry.
I do believe there’s hope. As a black woman, there is no escaping the difficult realities of the current landscape. But there is also huge opportunity. Being a woman, and being a black woman, can be an asset if you focus on the right forums, the right partnerships and — I cannot emphasize enough — the importance of building community. Here are reflections based on my own experience as an entrepreneur and engineer:
To VC or not to VC. The ability to scale is on every founder’s mind. Black women founders struggle to raise enough money even to test their products. For black women, the average amount of VC funding is $36,000. I’d ask you to question when and whether you even need to raise money. Too many startups use VC funding as a measure of success and focus on raising dollars rather than the business. Timing is critical. Pursue funding when it makes sense, but don’t let dollars cloud your vision.
Choose wisely. As a woman founder, it’s critical to choose investors the same way you choose your partner. You must ask yourself: Are these people willing to stick with you through thick and thin — understanding you may have more “thins” than others? Do they understand the challenges you may face? What’s their reputation in the investor community? Do you have the same values? How will you handle disagreements? Once you’ve had a measure of success yourself, you can be that same kind of investor.
Board diversity is a business imperative. A lot of decisions are made at the board level. As a startup founder, once you have raised funds, you’ll be reporting to a board, which comes with a new level of responsibilities and issues. Just as studies have shown that diverse teams drive innovation and improve business outcomes, so do diverse boards. Be an advocate for boards in which the unique challenges we face as black founders isn’t taboo and can be talked about freely and genuinely.
Raise up the volume with a broad and bold network. I believe that it is a duty for every woman in technology to pull another woman up, identify another brilliant entrepreneur who is doing something great, or an engineer with visionary skills, and help her get the platform she needs to thrive. Without building community and amplifying our voices, we are not going to get anywhere. The reality of the tech and VC world is that there are more men than women of any background. We have to work with the men in our lives to make sure they become allies. As a founder, that means extending your own network to include men who are invested in your success. Inside a big company, it means developing and nurturing the ally environment.
I’m part of a small but growing networking group we call Visible Figures. It started with a handful of us and we are growing quickly. In some ways, it’s our call to the future.
My 3-year-old daughter’s generation should enter the workforce ready to make a difference on a massive scale — not worrying that others don’t see themselves in their faces during a business pitch or on their social media profile.
There’s no reason in 2017 that we shouldn’t be visible.
As an entrepreneur, Asmau Ahmed is one of only 12 black women to have raised more than $1 million in venture funding in the US. In 2010, she founded Plum Perfect, a visual search engine, in which one application is a mobile app that analyzes a shopper’s selfie to recommend her makeup shades. As a member of Capital One’s Digital Product Management team, she focuses on designing products and experiences that change the way people interact with their money.
This piece originally appeared as Guest Commentary on CNET on August 30, 2017.