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A Man and A Woman Pitch a Start-Up . . .

By Vanessa Douyon ‘15  |  april, 2014, Issue 2
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Vanessa Douyon '15

Scratch that. A white man and a black woman pitch a start-up. You can probably tell where this story is going. And if you're like most people, conversations about race and gender make you a little uncomfortable, which is precisely why I would ask you to keep reading.

I arrived at Booth in hopes of launching my start-up. Months later, I was slightly jaded and much more realistic, but unwavering in my ambition.

Yesterday evening I attended my umpteenth social impact pitch night. The organizer asked me to go first.

I jumped up and made eye contact with the all-male, all-white panel of angel investors and swallowed nervously. You've got this Vanessa. It doesn't matter.

At the end of my pitch, they ripped into me. The first judge stood up, moved me aside, and physically showed me how I should have presented. His tone was condescending. The rest of the panel followed suit. I nodded gracefully, took notes on their feedback, and while something felt very wrong, I brushed it aside.

The next presenter stood. Solid pitch. But I couldn't help but notice that he fell into many of the same traps I had. And then the judges' reaction—all of a sudden calmer, a feedback sandwich of both positive and constructive comments, but most importantly, they took a different tone with him—a more professional, respectful tone.

Yes. Much of their constructive feedback for me was valid. For that, I am thankful and look forward to the opportunity to step my pitch up. That said, the difference in both tone and body language was unnerving. The response to the second pitch showed me that they were perfectly capable of communicating harsh feedback without being condescending.

It would be easy to say that I was being sensitive, that my pitch was simply not as good. But, consider this: according to Fiona Murray, MIT professor, "Women-led businesses probably only receive between 5 and 10 percent of all the capital that's allocated to startups in their very earliest phases." Curious, she teamed up with HBS to test the funding gap. They wrote identical pitch scripts, recorded voiceovers to norm public speaking ability, and had venture capitalists judge the pitches. The results were overwhelming. Judges found male pitches to be more "logical" and "fact-based," ultimately choosing male ventures nearly 70% of the time.

For me, there is a fine balance between digesting tough feedback and discerning when Murray's study is coming to life in front of me.

This has larger implications for our community at Booth. With 35% women and, by my count, less than 2% black women, we are a clear minority. And given the grossly inadequate diversity training at orientation, I think it is incumbent on the Booth community, both as a whole and as individuals, to be mindful of our attitudes and biases.

Fittingly, this is exactly what my start-up was built for: to develop the EQ (social) skills of girls from low-income communities in order to increase their long-term earning potential. I walked away from that pitch night with more fire than ever- knowing that this still happens and that now, more than ever, my start-up is necessary. Here's to our kids living in a world where gender and race have very little to do with what you can accomplish!

Vanessa is a first year at Booth and the CEO of Moxie Leadership Academy, an SNVC not-for-profit teaching girls the 85% of tools for success they don't learn in school.

Last Updated 4/22/14
Last Updated 4/22/14