Owning Your Moment in the Hot Seat: How Women Can Tackle Pitching Challenges

At some point on their journey, most founders will need to ‘enter the dragon’s den’ and pitch potential investors to raise funding to scale their businesses.

Regardless of how experienced or confident a founder is, and how great their product or service is, pitching investors tends to be a nerve-wracking experience. No one likes being placed in the hot seat, and the pressure is especially high when a founder knows that their product roadway — and ultimately the survival of their company — is dependent on convincing others to invest in the potential of their company and their team.

And while pitching is a challenge across the board, experience has shown that it can be especially challenging for women. According to research by The Harvard Business Review, there are clear biases in how men and women are treated in boardrooms, which could have something to do with the fact that less than 3% of venture capital went to female-founded startups in the US last year.

Based on my experiences running the Female Founders Initiative, and my work with a global accelerator program, I have seen some pitching trends that are far more common among women. While the issues of bias and diversity in tech are bigger problems that need to be tackled on a cultural level, there are some ways that women can take steps to improve their skills as presenters, as well as push for the playing field to be leveled.

Here’s how women can get over the hurdles of the pitching tradition and push back against bias.


1. Stand your ground

Unfortunately, bias is still a huge factor in pitch rooms. A 2014 study suggests that investors favor pitches voiced by men over women, even when the text of the pitch is identical. These problems will only truly be uprooted through a deep cultural shift, and by injecting more diversity in investor firms and throughout the business industry as a whole.

Especially for first-timers, women need to be aware of some of the differential treatment they might come up against. Female founder after female founder has told me that the types of questions they get asked in boardrooms are heavy on the negatives (“What are the risks for me investing with your business?”) and hint at their personal lives (“How will you find balance in future?”).

It’s clear what your interrogators mean, but the antiquated view of women staying at home while the men bring home the bacon is their problem, not yours. If you come across those sorts of questions, dismiss them unfazed and clarify your importance and commitment to the company, without falling into the trap of discussing your personal life. Bring the conversation back to the product or service. If the person persists, be polite but resolute, but also ask yourself: are they really a good fit for my company?

These types of scenarios may happen often, but don’t be discouraged. Practice makes perfect, and there are many female mentors and role models that can encourage you to stay the course. There are a multitude of women-focused organizations out there to help you overcome those hurdles as part of a huge community that’s fighting hard to fix the same problems. All Raise is one organization campaigning for more diversity in investment, while offering mentorship to women founders. Founders for Change also pushes startups to opt for more diverse investment firms. Our Female Founder Initiative prioritizes female mentorship in our accelerator program and hosts female-centered business events globally.


2. Be  affirmative, but don’t go overboard

I’ve learned from experience that women sometimes have a recurring difficulty in driving their message home with conviction, myself included. That’s because we can be more reserved in how we present ourselves and cloak our statements in unnecessary caveats like “in my opinion”.

This tends to be something men in business are a bit more prone to – putting out information as fact, inherently telling their audience that they should believe them.

Women can follow a few training techniques to come across as more  affirmative. That can just be a mental exercise in getting rid of “I think that” from your speech (we know it’s what you think, you don’t need to remind anyone), and “ums” and “ers.”

Here are three great exercises that could help:

  1. Record yourself pitching your startup, this will make you more conscious of the language you use when you watch the video again.

  2. Practice pitching with groups of people you feel comfortable enough to give you honest feedback.

  3. Try the “buzzer” exercise. Practice pitching with a group, and every time someone uses a prohibited phrase, make a BZZZ noise. You will have a good laugh, and it will break the nerves a bit in preparation for the big day.

Another thing women should remember is to showcase their best case scenario. Women are more likely to present the most realistic forecast for their business, yet hide their ideal outcome behind a cloud of hypotheticals – “if the company makes good progress” … “if everything goes well …” We can forget the disclaimers, and show them just how successful we can be.

But remember, while it’s important to present confidently, don’t overcompensate. There’s a thin line between being confident and overestimating your capabilities, which is a danger to investors and a clear put-off.

As HBR states, women’s performance is typically less showy because they’re actually more likely to use data to support their argument. That’s far from a bad thing. It shows that you have rational expectations and that you’re less likely to be selling them a risky prospect.


3. Be bold about your personality

Most importantly, be yourself, get your personality across powerfully and convince your audience that it is a driving force of your business.

For example, if you are emotionally intelligent, don’t try and hide it because people have told you that it can be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Firstly, that’s just not true, emotional intelligence is an increasingly valued trait in any company, and secondly, you have no way of knowing what the investors on the other side of the room value in an entrepreneur. If you’re a perfectionist, let your audience see that you can control the situation and have an eye for detail. If you’re competitive, give people proof that you’re a cut above the rest, rather than just telling them you are.

Don’t forget to showcase the story of how you got to where you are. This is something I’ve seen female founders do less than men, but it’s a huge part of making your audience believe that you’re the right person to bring your project to fruition.

Package your strongest traits so that people can see just how much of an asset they are to the company. Ultimately, your character and personality got your business to where it is today, so that’s what you should be selling. Chances are, they’re looking for someone who doesn’t fit the same mold they’re used to seeing day in, day out.


4. Be part of the solution

Prioritize diversity in your hires, mentors, speakers, the investor firms you pitch to. Change what people expect to see in boardrooms and business spaces.

Some companies try to avoid bias by playing into it, and making women sit out important pitches while men take their place. That would be an unfortunate decision – not only are you showing your investors you don’t trust your own team members, you’re undermining values within your company, and likely just shooting yourself in the foot.

Diversity begets more diversity, and if startups serve as examples by reflecting the hybrid society we live in, more will follow.

We don’t need to retreat to protect ourselves from bias in the industry. We can speak out, whether it be over a coffee with a friend who’s not getting it, or on stage speaking to hundreds. The more people are aware of the situation, the more the needle will move. There’s strength in numbers.

It’s not just up to us. If we want more women (but also minority groups, LGBTQ+) founders and executives, we should all be open to new and bold ideas. Such as replacing the pitching tradition altogether, as HBR suggests. Why keep pitching around if it clearly perpetuates bias?

One alternative is to use a data-driven strategy that just looks at an early-stage business’ metrics like traction, marketing, sales, team management, etc. to decide who to invest in. This approach has led to investment results that are far more balanced in terms of women vs men CEOs.

We can also campaign for more diversity across the sphere. More diverse investors firms are more likely to support more diverse companies. That means not just big financial institutions. Angel and early-stage investors are crucial in promoting diversity from the start of companies’ journeys.

Don’t shy away from changing the trend, whether or not it’s clear to see, this is the direction the industry is going in.

Rachel Sheppard is the director of global marketing at global pre-seed accelerator Founder Institute and co-founder of the Female Founder Initiative, a program launched in 2016 as a means of offering support, funding, and visibility to female founders.  

  • Originally published February 25, 2020