Darja Gutnick On Overcoming Bias And Building The Future Of Leadership

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is comprised of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

As a psychologist-gone-rogue, Darja Gutnick quit working toward her Ph.D. to start her first company, and she’s now a third-time founder. After working for corporations like BMW, being a researcher in the field of organizational innovation, as well as a strategy consultant and leadership coach, she is on a mission to change the way we develop the new generation of leaders with Bunch.

In this Q&A, Gutnick speaks extensively on lessons learned while raising the seed round for Bunch, and her vision for the future of leadership. She provides tactical advice for choosing the right investors, putting your pitch together, and supporting your loved ones on your crazy entrepreneurial journey ahead. 

Darja Gutnick, co-founder and CEO of Bunch
Darja Gutnick, Co-Founder and CEO of Bunch


Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I grew up explicitly not wanting to be an entrepreneur. I grew up with a mother who owned her own business and saw just how much energy it took–how draining it could be. That’s why I dove into consulting for BMW, then a consultancy in Germany, and then a stint in academia. I couldn’t find my tribe in any of these spaces and it wasn’t until I was nearly done with my Ph.D. that I realized entrepreneurship was the home I’d been searching for. I’m a total convert, now.


Q: What problems were you trying to solve with your company?

Our mission at Bunch is to help anyone become a better leader: We believe that leadership is about positively influencing yourself and others. It’s a mindset, not a title. In order to see better leadership, we need to make tactical knowledge more accessible to all–that’s where Bunch comes in. 

We deliver two-minute leadership tips that are completely personalized to the individual. It’s engaging to learn through Bunch, and the results drive more meaningful collaboration and human interaction both at work and beyond.


Q: In the first half of 2021, women-only founded companies received just 2 percent of the record *$137 billion invested in U.S. startups (according to Crunchbase Diversity Spotlight data). Do you feel welcome and accepted as an underrepresented group in the VC space?

In the VC space, I always feel a bit like an underdog and I never know whether it’s because I’m a woman or because it’s who I am. Of course, there are times when I’ve seen blatant discrimination in the startup world–in fact, I recently wrote about a situation in the valley on Sand Hill Road, where I was mistaken for a hooker at a VC meeting event, and wasn’t allowed to enter because people didn’t believe that I was an actual entrepreneur. 

I definitely have the feeling that I’m constantly trying to break through the boy’s club barriers. It just motivates me to keep going at it in order to remove these barriers and open doors for the generations to come. 


Q: What are some ways you see bias against you as a female founder manifest in your business?

I do notice that we sometimes get less funding. We don’t necessarily have lower valuation as I’m pretty good at not letting that happen, but at the same time I think what’s typically challenging for us is to pull off the same size of rounds. 

We often have implicit bias going on when we have pitches. When we actually talk to male and female VCs, we find ourselves in a defensive position (for example being asked “why do you think you can manage this risk and how will you manage that risk” instead of looking at the opportunity). 

This sometimes actually leads to smaller rounds, which impacts the whole team. It means that we always have fewer resources than we might need to have, and that is not beneficial for the business or the team. That worries me sometimes; that people working with me have this disadvantage, that we always have slightly less funds than what we were actually going for. It makes me reflect a lot, and feel that much more honored to work with a driven and talented team. 


Q: What is your advice for other female founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

It boils down to trusting yourself, and trusting your intuition, even though it’s really hard and people always tell you it’s bullshit. Working hard is something that we forget to stress, but if you want to change the world, it’s a lot of work. If you like what you’re doing or believe in it, I think working hard toward a specific goal is not a bad thing. 

Another piece of advice is to make hard decisions early so that whatever follows is easier. Making the hard decisions up front means you can deal with the consequences early. It may feel impossible, but you’re doing yourself a massive favor by frontloading it. 


Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the founder of your own company?

It is always Day One. You’re never ready, complete, or perfect. You’re always a work in progress. 


Q: What is your advice for other entrepreneurs trying to scale their own company?

One thing I’ve recently learned is to always think ahead. Always work in the future as if you’re already there. It’s not about scaling as much as it is about investing in infrastructure, because it will grow faster that way. 


Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company structure?

Bunch was born out of my own consultancy and my vision for helping managers become better leaders, so its origin story is very closely tied to what I believe the world needs. Leadership is not something you’re born with; it’s something you wake up and decide to do every day. My mission is to help people grow and develop to their maximum potential. 

In the Bunch team, this looks like hiring hungry team members who have a mix of book smarts and skill smarts. We enable anyone to take ownership, and try not to over-structure in the “how” when it comes to achieving goals. We value underdogs–in our user base and also in our team. 

This also means that we value humility and embrace the idea of “not knowing” as a challenge to find out. We try to live that “Day One” mentality, stay grounded and go back to basics as often as we need to and are able to. 


Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned from raising your seed round of funding?

Be ready and do your homework. Control the story and be completely prepared to tell the history of the company and paint the future story, too. Have a solid pitch deck that you really believe in–even if it takes 40 rounds of iterations. Six months in advance of the funding round, think about that story. Write it down to iterate on it weekly.

Also, involve your team. Tell your team exactly where you stand in the journey and how you will actually do it. Even if you are not available or responsive while working on the pitch, they know what you’re doing and why. This alignment will work wonders for the team.

Look for excitement on your audience’s faces. If you don’t see a positive response to results (and get those in your deck early) you may not have the right people in the room. Never underestimate the power of research. Make yourself a checklist, share it with the team, and then work every week toward specific KPIs or results that you’re trying to achieve. Use this as an anchor to get the results you need to get those positive responses.


Q: How did you know you were choosing the right investors? What have they brought to the company?

Investors will be your partners for a very long time. They are not as active operationally as the co-founders, but they are very similar. You’ll need to align with them on the values and motivation they have with your company (e.g. same exit scenario, working toward the same future, etc.).

I always like to look in the portfolio of the investors because from that you can discover very intuitively if you admire recent companies: Do you like them? Do you support them? Do you see yourself being one of them? Really evaluate it from the perspective of being part of that legacy. That way you can also give opportunities to new investors that are not so known yet, but invested in a few businesses recently that align with what you want for your company. 


Q: How has your experience as a founder impacted those around you?

Any founder will tell you that embarking on this crazy adventure requires a lot of sacrifices. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the support and understanding of my friends and family. But the people in my life get my why. They understand that what we’re doing at Bunch has a real, meaningful impact on people. 

Being exposed to the mission behind the madness has helped–especially on the date nights I’m late to, or the time that passes between catching up with friends. That said, it’s really important to make time for those people and be present when you have it, which is something I try to practice as much as I can. 

Also, a major impact I see in my loved ones is that passion is contagious. Despite the fact they may have thought I was crazy in the beginning, I see so many of them diving into their own entrepreneurial dreams–inspiration spreads like wildfire when you nurture it. 

*Funding includes seed, venture, and private equity to venture-backed companies with founders associated. Data is based on announced funding to companies from January 2021-June 2021.

Curious about the AI Coach that Darja and her team are building? It’s currently available on iOS in the App Store.

  • Originally published September 20, 2021