Leslie Feinzaig, CEO of the Female Founders Alliance: “Less Advice, More Funding.”
We recently had the opportunity to speak to FFA CEO and Founder, Leslie Feinzaig, about her path to founding the organization as well as the unique opportunities and challenges facing women entrepreneurs. Female Founders Alliance (FFA) is an organization that works to address the “unique challenges faced by women and non-binary founders.”
Leslie served in roles in large technology companies as well as a number of startups where she helped scale fast-paced product teams. After her daughter was born, she launched a company aimed at teaching kids leadership and entrepreneurial skills. While the concept was praised, Leslie - a proven industry veteran - was dismayed by how challenging it was to secure meaningful funding.
“Before, I had been an established executive at an Andreessen-Horowitz company, I ran a large technology team with a budget in the millions of dollars. Suddenly, when I went to pitch my company, I wasn’t treated as an experienced professional. I was this mom, selling a “toy” and it was all so dismissive. The reaction was, ‘oh that's so cute. You're so charming.’
“I knew it would be difficult, but I didn’t think it would be so minimizing. I didn't realize any of this because I had never been a mom before, and I had never thought of myself as a woman in tech. It had never occurred to me that I would be seen differently when I had a baby in my arms or in my pitch deck storyline.”
It was shortly after founding her startup that Feinzaig created a Facebook group that would evolve into the FFA. From the beginning, the group was focused on taking concrete, actionable steps to support female founders.
What are the big challenges facing Female Founders today?
“In the past few years, in the wake of Ellen Pao’s trial, the Uber scandal, and the #MeToo movement in general, all of a sudden it became important for everyone in our industry to make women visible - on their website, on their stage, on their content marketing. So there’s certainly opportunities for women to be visible, but so many of those are just surface-level, even cosmetic changes. The actual funding hasn’t changed meaningfully compared to the rest of the industry.
“One thing I have learned is that, as a founder, advice doesn’t really get you anywhere. What’s lacking, still, are deals, dollars, actual investments. That’s why our community is focused on the active introduction that hopefully leads to the deal itself. As the FFA evolved, we discovered that women tend to be offered three things: peer support, mentorship, and help with specific business expertise. What they need, however, are intros to investors, intros to partners and potential customers, and intros to media.
“In short, men get deals, women get advice. What is lacking is action.”
You spoke about the mismatch between what Female Founders need and the actual support they are provided. Is that the main issue driving underrepresentation for Female Founders?
“I don't think that you get to a gap so big – such as 98% vs 2% in terms of investment for men and women - you don't get to a gap that big with a single, obvious, addressable issue. It is a lot of things. It is generations of ingrained beliefs and practices. There's no bogeyman here. This is not just about sexual harassment. This is not just about women giving birth and men not. It is a complex beast and I don't think that we solve it with a single solution, which is why I think it's so important to build an entire ecosystem that addresses every part of the problem that we identify. There is a need for all of these different people, organizations, and companies to attack their own unique part of the problem and then collaborate together.”
What advice would you give to people who want to support Female Founders?
“From the perspective of Female Founders, it can feel like there are too many people out there with really great intentions that can easily waste our time and lead us in the wrong direction, because they’re not focused on what founders need right now. It stems from the fact that people don’t understand the urgency involved in growing a startup.
“When you found a startup, there is a ticking clock until you run out of money, and it's a very real clock. You need health insurance, you need to pay for your family and if you're a woman, it's so much worse because chances are you also need to figure out how to take care of your kids. What people don't realize on the outside is the worst thing you can do to a female founder is waste our time - because we don't have it. Time is more precious than money in these very early days because founders need to focus our time on getting enough money so that we don’t get to the end of that road.
“So if you really want to support women founders, I encourage you to use your assets and network to help them move the business forward. If you have advice to share, focus it very specifically on the areas where you have hard-earned expertise. Don’t assume that you know their business better than they do. Instead, help them hire great people, earn media, develop partnerships and secure investment dollars - or better yet, revenue. That way you’ll ensure that your good intentions, time and efforts really lead to meaningful results.”
Applications for the FFA’s upcoming cohort close on July 9th. You can apply here, or check out the video below to find our more about their engagement with the startup community.