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Tips from the top: the female founders breaking the mould
The secret to securing capital? It starts with Facebook friends and a cup of coffee.
In support of International Women’s Day and this year’s UN Women’s theme “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, our founder Jules Miller spoke with Lori Cashman, managing partner of venture capital firm Victress Capital (who invested in The Nue Co.), and new mom Babba Rivera, founder of clean Latinx haircare brand Ceremonia.
Jules, Lori and Babba discuss the challenges faced by women, especially mothers and women of colour, when it comes to recovering from the pandemic and getting their businesses off the ground. Statistics say that less than 100 Latinx women have raised more than $1 million in funding for businesses. Additionally, women of colour, or from minority backgrounds, are disproportionately underrepresented in funding—only 0.4% of capital is invested into businesses that are founded by Latina women.
Keep an eye on our Instagram to watch the conversations, but here are some of their top tips and learnings that we hope will inspire you to get the cogs turning.
How do I get investment for my business?
“It’s never too late,” Lori advises female founders thinking of launching their own business. She founded Victress Capital in 2016 with Suzanne Norris as a fund to back female founders, providing a much-needed solution to the alarming fact that women start 40% of the businesses in the U.S. but receive just 3% of venture funding.
When it comes to getting things moving, she says “You should always be actively working on your network and investing in your network—that should start at a very young age and never stop. I think you need to really be intentional in expanding your network and you need to be creative; think back to every affiliation you have, whether it’s folks you went to college with, people you know from childhood or a summer camp or high school, or in the field that you worked in up until this point, or an adjacent field, your customers, board members... you need to think about who is knowledgeable or who might be in a path or environment that they can connect you with the right types of people.
“You can break it down and say ‘I’m going to reach out to 10 people this week. I’m going to try and get two coffees and Zooms or whatever it is out of that’. You really must create these metrics for yourself around how you’re going to implement this plan of expanding your network and getting in front of the right people and doing your best to get introductions to the investors that you’re seeking out.
“Depending on where you live, there are other avenues like the venture capital association in your area, or plenty of accelerators, incubators, pitch competitions, and universities that will likely have some venture echo system and a willingness to connect you. You just need to do the legwork and figure out how to navigate that.”
Lori Cashman, co-founder of Victress Capital
Who should I ask for help?
It can start with anyone, from a founder of a business you admire or someone you meet who’s working in a field you’re interested in. Jules says “I think a lot of women assume that the help isn’t out there. One of the things I really learned when I moved to New York and only knew two people there is the ability you have of reaching out to somebody and saying, ‘Hey, I’m trying to launch this business, I really value the way that you’ve done XYZ. Do you mind meeting me for a coffee and giving me some advice?’. I was so surprised that I was receiving responses and that people would give up their time to give me advice or introduce me. That’s how I came across Lori. I cold-emailed the CEO of Equinox who for some reason agreed to meet with me, introduced me to his friend, who introduced me to Lori. And that’s how I got my first bit of funding.”
It’s that inquisitive nature that allowed Babba to break out of gender- and culture-based expectations and showed her that other opportunities were available, eventually leading her to launch Ceremonia: “Growing up, the wildest dream I could have was to work in an office because anyone I looked to in my family or my family’s friends didn’t have office jobs. They worked in restaurants, or my mom cleaned schools and toilets, my dad used to repair cars—very hands-on physical work, so to think about a job that was more about your intellect than your physicality was a wild leap. It wasn’t until I started to talk to my white friends’ parents about their jobs and what they were doing that I started to open my mind to professions that I didn’t even know existed.
“I actually had never heard of marketing when I was 17 and working in an eyewear store alongside my studies. We would have international distributors present brands and wine and dine us and I remember asking one of them, ‘What’s your job? What did you study?’. Now with social media, people can get exposed to a wide variety of career paths but I literally went home and Googled what marketing is. One of the reasons why I’m so open on Instagram now is because I want to show other people that there can be a different path for them."
How do I get the answers I need when it comes to my questions about business?
It’s important to remain focused and conscious of the other person’s time: Lori says, “You have an obligation to try to be fairly narrow and specific. It’s not just ‘Can we go for coffee and can I pick your brain’—it’s what is it that you actually want to talk about. I always find that’s really helpful as if you’re the recipient of the request you can very quickly assess whether you can help that person with that specific need.”
How do I get started in business if I’m from a minority background?
“I really believe in peer mentoring and peer networking,” says Babba. “I’ve got some of my best advice from some of those people. Is there anyone who has a relatable story to yours who has literally just done that journey? Ideally, if its someone who is a couple of steps ahead of you versus someone who did it 10 years ago, the contacts and the relevancy in the advice you’ll get will be so much more valuable than from a big-shot who might have forgot about their journey in the beginning.
“I got a lot of help from a friend whose company I had invested in as an angel investor so she had just done her fundraising and when I kicked mine off she gave me all these introductions which put me in a better position of negotiation. If you have a lot of optionality for investors as a founder, you really get to dictate the terms versus going after one investor and hoping that they’ll say yes. Understand that part of the process is getting a lot of nos so treat outreach like a full-time job in itself and take on board feedback to look at your business holistically.”
Babba Rivera, founder of Ceremonia
How do I select the right investors?
“Surrounding yourself with strategic investors or partners who have your best interest in mind is really important,” Lori says. “If there’s an investor who keeps pressing a founder to do something that they’re resisting because they don’t believe it’s fundamentally right for the business, that conversation’s only going to get more stressful and intense after that investor has written a cheque and has a seat at the table in the boardroom. It’s easy to confuse that with the fact that it’s a meaningful cheque from a firm that has a great reputation. You do have to weigh those trade-offs very carefully before you take investment.”
Jules reiterates, “You need to really make sure that you’re aligned on the plan and that you get on on a personal level. Having that ability to communicate is one of the most important things.”
What do investors look for in a founder?
“At Victress, we look at the founder or the founding team and we like to identify certain qualities,” Lori says. “First off, what’s the reason they’re the right founder to win in this business. Is it domain expertise, passion, or an issue that they’ve confronted personally or in their family and now have the resolve to go an address it?”
Babba’s passion for business stemmed from her upbringing. Growing up in a small town in Sweden in a Chilean household, she recalls the trauma of not seeing herself represented in her community until she moved to Stockholm and discovered a melting pot of cultural backgrounds.
After then moving to New York and running her own brand marketing agency, she realised that all the brands she worked with were founded by white founders targeting white millennials and the people she hung out with were white millennials yet the US population accounts for 20% of hispanics. Talking about her Latin heritage uncovered Latinas in her network, yet she questioned the lack of brands founded by Latinas and brands that represented the Latinx demographic and celebrated the richness of the Latin culture with pride. “Before I knew Ceremonia was going to be a haircare brand, I knew it was going to be a brand that was going to empower and celebrate the richness of the Latin culture. It started with that value and then we decided to tap into the haircare category.”
“We look for grit, scrappiness, resilience, and a growth mindset and we like to test that too,” says Lori. “We want to see a founder who is tenacious enough to really lock in on the mindset that they’re going to win at this, but also be able to consider feedback or shift certain assumptions if conditions in the marketplace change. You need to be able to pivot; you need to be able to let go of certain aspects and move in a direction where the opportunity is stronger.
“We look at the size of the market; it has to be a really big, addressable market. We look at the business model and unit economics. Over time as you scale you have to be able to make a profit and so that path to profitability is very important to us. We also talk about timing, because ultimately we need an exit; we make an investment but we need to realize on the investment and return the capital back to our investors. We will talk about what the opportunities look like in terms of an exit, acquisition, possibly an IPO (intial public offering). It’s important to think about what the market dynamics will be at that time. If we’re talking three, five, seven years out, are there shifts happening now that might make that window of opportunity close and therefore you can’t bank on that exit being as exciting as you hope it will be?”
How do I set financial goals for my business?
“Get comfortable with talking about money long-term,” advises Jules. “I remember talking about the business with Victress who were already sold on the brand and product and market fit. We got into a room and they were like, ‘What’s the goal, how much money do you want to make out of the business when you exit?’. The earlier on that you define what your end goal is, whether that’s realistic or not, being able to work backward and developing a financing strategy that you can really stick to really allows you to make the decisions at the right time.
“Something else I always say to female founders is that capital is always there but getting investment from the right individuals—people you can call and cry to when something goes wrong, or people who are really going to support you and make the introductions—is having people that feel like an extension of your team, which is what you really need to be aiming for.”
Jules Miller, founder of The Nue Co.
Lori agrees: “You have to have a bold goal. For women in particular, when you break it down into building blocks, think about where that money’s going to come from—is it going to come from selling X amount at Target or Walmart? How much is coming from your own website? When you can work backward and visualise, that’s the path. I do think it helps founders clarify their priorities.”
I’m a founder. How can I help women who have been held back by the pandemic?
“One of things I’m passionate about is flexible working,” says Jules. “I think we need to think creatively about how we’re running our companies, how we can get the most out of people and how we can best support our employees. I think that making space for women, particularly black women and women of color so that they can really have a seat at the table regardless of what they’ve been through in the last year is going to be something that we focus on at The Nue Co. and talk about openly to hopefully inspire other companies to follow suit. Some of the statistics about how its going to take women in the workforce decades to recover… there’s a lot of work to do.”
For more from Jules, Lori and Babba about their journeys, the benefits of motherhood with work and the impact of coronavirus on business, follow our Instagram.