One thing I’ve realised is that too many investment decisions are made based on judgments influenced by widely held beliefs about someone’s age, gender, education, and race.
Yang Liu, the founder of JustWears – a high performing men’s underwear company – and a former a VC, shares her experience of how she defies gender bias when facing investors.
“First impressions matters as some investors like to bucket founders into two groups: ‘promising or not promising’.
In my case, I ticked every box. As a young Asian woman, I was questioned not by only investors but also by male founders.
Before starting JustWears, I worked for the biggest early-stage venture capital fund and accelerator called 500 Startups. I was operating their pre-A accelerator program (Distro Dojo) in London, where we helped nearly 20 companies scale their growth to get around funding within a year.
During that time, I saw dozens of companies build their growth team, break even during the program and close a round of funding.
A year ago, I had the idea of JustWears and decided to quit my Venture Capitalist job to do it full-time. It was after the change that I experienced gender bias for the first time as a female entrepreneur.
Different from most startups, we took an alternative fundraising path and was bootstrapping for 7 months before we were approached by VCs. We started from equity-free crowdfunding to finding the first 1000 paying customers, then moving on to raising money from VCs with great tractions.
When we initially started, I used to pitch the business myself to some angel investors, acquaintances and friends within my network.
Interestingly, I would be questioned on how well I knew about men while my co-founder would be given positive comments like ‘Brilliant. Such a great idea’ or ‘We can’t wait to see your product.’
I felt upset but I thought it was a normal process for any entrepreneur to be challenged. So I had to learn to be comfortable with it.
A couple of months ago, while preparing a public pitch to 300 investors, a friend suggested to my male co-founder to headline the pitch instead of me.
I had spent days preparing for the investment pitch, doing some mock interviews with some of my VC friends and watching hundreds of pitches. I had a strong confidence in myself to deliver a great pitch until my co-founder was messaged to pitch instead of me.
The reasons were – JustWears was creating a male-targeted product and the majority of the investors were male. It was suggested that investors would find my co-founder more appealing because he was an Oxford graduate, male, Caucasian and had an excellent work track record.
Since I was not a native English speaker, this would have thrown up a red flag for some of the investors.
I then thought what if he was right and we lose the investment opportunity just because of my English?
A lot of questions popped into my mind and I started to feel that maybe I should let my co-founder lead the pitch.
I was shocked that someone confident like me would be defeated by such an unreasonable suggestion like this. Not just because of the bias suggestion that was made, but because it had become a fact that there is a strong stereotype preference against female founders.
To ensure that we get the best result, I had to compromise. Although it didn’t go as well as we expected, we were fortunate enough to still get the chance to move on to the next stage.
This time around, I did the presenting myself because I didn’t believe in such logic.
I know I’m not alone and there are several other female founders who have gone through this and experienced this period of self-doubt when people turn them down.
I’ve learned not to hold myself back. I have every single reason to be confident with the amount of work and preparation that I’ve put into building my company.”