I keep coming up on these points in the startup journey. A feeling of burnout. The burnout is partially related to the hardships of making a hardware product (global supply chain, the fine details, etc.), but it is mostly a cause of the “startup scene.”
The experiences start to accumulate. You don’t realize it’s happening until you're screaming, crying, or venting to your partner for hours (and then looking at their shocked face and wondering where your word vomit came from).
At this point in my journey, I have painfully learned that the startup world is filled with sexism and misogyny. It could be likened to a mold that is slowly growing but not evident until you take a close look. There are obvious cues it exists, like when you walk into a startup event and it’s a sea of men. But you walk in, shrug your shoulders and keep it moving. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter. You set up your table, put your breastmilk product out and hope for the best. Some men approach the table and quickly say, “this doesn’t apply to me” and walk away. Some men approach the table and are intrigued by the technology, the IP, and the journey. You have meaningful engagement with them. You tell yourself, “see it’s not all that bad.” One man approaches, there’s always one, and exasperatingly asks: “you’re not selling breastmilk, are you?!?!?” and when you say “no,” he sighs a sigh of relief, and walks away. You don’t know how to categorize or process this experience, so you ignore it and keep it moving.
You hear that one of the other female founders has left to care for her baby. You talk with the only other female founder (besides yourself) and are not shocked to hear that a man made an inappropriate comment to her.
It’s time to pack up your table and move on to the next part of the event: hearing from a panel of men who have received investment from the firm sponsoring the event. You’re interested because some of them are hardware product founders. It makes you feel like you’re not alone in this long arduous journey to bring a hardware product to market. But at some point, you look around and realize how alone you really are (all-female founders have left at this point).
It takes about a month and a couple of investment meetings, with rooms full of men, to put these experiences together because that’s how it works. Our brain doesn’t catch up with the cumulation of experiences until the anger is white-hot. That’s why sexism and misogyny still exist. We don’t always realize it’s happening when it’s happening. Or we are aware but have been taught to ignore it, “be nice” and move on. Another common response is the act of “freezing” while it’s happening (happens to me all the time). I could write a whole other blog post about that.
I have found that in-person in-the-moment confrontation doesn’t work for me. I need time to process and time to write. I have started to send post-event emails with my honest and critical feedback to the individuals organizing these events. The mold will continue to grow if we don’t target the roots (my analogy is waning, but you catch my drift). I have learned that men are not always aware that sexism and misogyny are happening or that they could be perpetuating it. When I write “post-event emails,” I am often met with defensiveness but once this initial burn wears off, there is usually room for problem-solving and improvement.
I’m getting tired of these experiences. The burnout is real.
If I had a hierarchy of issues to target, I would start with: DON’T BE THAT GUY! Don’t be that guy asking intrusive questions about breasts, making indirect sexual comments, or asking a founder to use their breast-massaging device for a “social media video!" That last one is a true story.
Second on the hierarchy is the investor that says: “you should talk to my wife about your product” or, “you should really pitch to investors interested in female founders and fem-tech products.” These comments perpetuate the problem and minimize female entrepreneurs.
I want to leave you with a different story about the startup scene and how the predominant male investor can interact with the female entrepreneur. I recently had a meeting with an investor who asked about my “background.” I told him about my career as a mental health professional and how this enhanced my ability to run a business, engage with consumers and manage people (a bit scripted…). I didn’t realize I was apologizing for my background. He stopped me and said, “don’t apologize for your background. Your background is what will make you and this business successful. We have worked with people much younger and with no prior career. Who you are, will make you and this business successful.”
See the difference?