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Dec 17, 2019

Diverse Start-up Founders and Funders on the Rise

By Claire Shaw T’20

In November, with generous support from the Center for Private Equity and Venture Capital, I attended the Founders + Funders Conference presented by Seneca VC, Women 2.0, and SheWorx. The event was a convening of several hundred women and other underrepresented groups within the New York start-up ecosystem. Throughout a series of lightning round panels and start-up pitches, expert entrepreneurs and venture capitalists spoke on the essentiality of investing in enterprises catering outside the white male consumer archetype. Their unique stories underscored and demonstrated real traction in the current movement to make the industry more accessible.

One such speaker was KJ Miller, co-founder and CEO of Mented Cosmetics. Miller shared her and her co-founder’s frustration to find makeup that suited their skin tones when products marketed as “nude” were typically only available in lighter shades. Marrying their personal experience with a significant market opportunity (women of color spend 80% more on beauty products than the average consumer), they taught themselves how to make and market lipsticks themselves. By religiously capturing customer input through surveys and social media, Mented’s strategy has evolved to rapidly satisfy consumers, who now expect a full range of products from Mented and new releases every season.

Founders Diverse Startup Conference

Photography by Founders + Funders NYC

Another successful entrepreneur, Lindsay Kaplan, spoke of her experience growing her business and fundraising while pregnant. Kaplan opened up about pitching her latest venture to prospective investors on Sand Hill Road while experiencing a bout of mid-morning sickness (in a word, “worse” than otherwise) and the importance of adding teammates and mentors with different and complementary areas of expertise (“don’t clone yourself”). Kapan’s start-up, Chief, a private network of professional women with VP/C-suite positions or ambitions, closed a $22 million Series A in July, one of the largest rounds raised by a woman-founded company in 2019.

Other featured speakers emphasized the diligence, occasional tedium, and data-based insights required to start a successful new business or investment fund. Catherine Dockery of Vice Ventures sent 500 personalized emails to LPs to secure her first fund, a process that took her 6 months but yielded an impressive 90% response rate. According to Dockery, “writing cold emails might be the only thing I’m superior at.” Dheerja Kaur, Chief Product Officer at theSkimm, noted the importance of concentrating on delighting power users, i.e. “Skimmers”, rather than satisfying passive consumers. Her team jettisoned a focus on growth in metrics like the total number of subscribers in favor of aligning their product roadmap with Skimmers who read their newsletter every single day.

Statistics on diversity within the start-up ecosystem remain sobering: less than 3% of VC funding in the US went to women-led companies in 2019, and just 0.32% went to Latinx women-led startups and .0006% to black women-led start-ups within the last decade. Events like the Founders + Funders Conference serve as important sources of camaraderie and inspiration for those looking to increase those numbers in the years ahead.