Only about 7% of venture capitalists in the world today are women. We were lucky enough to talk with one, Danielle Strachman of the 1517 Fund, at Pearl Hacks to talk women in entrepreneurship and why it’s important to support young founders.
Who are you?
My name’s Danielle Strachman. I’m a co-founder and general partner of the 1517 Fund. Myself and Michael [Gibson], my colleague at 1517, were over at the Thiel Foundation for many years. We wanted to expand our work working with young makers and entrepreneurs and we thought the best way to do that would be to start a venture capital fund.
Why is it important to support young founders?
We’ve seen some amazing companies come out of young founders and so that’s why we’re just so bullish on supporting them. We have founded about 19 companies to date. We like to give out very small amounts of funding very early, so we’ll give people a $1,000 grant sometimes when it’s just an idea. We’ll say, “Hey we think this person has the ability to start something here. It’s an interesting idea. It’s not something we hear all the time. Let’s check that out.”
We’re really about working with people over particular products. When we’re funding teams we look for great teams who are working on unique things that have interesting market opportunities. Then we’ll help them with everything from getting feedback on their product to fundraising.
What are common mistakes founders make?
One is not researching the space. Especially things that are really crowded. For example we hear a ton of food delivery on campus pitches– tons. So at that point, when it starts becoming something we’re hearing all the time, that’s less unique to us.
I love to see people working on things because they’re truly passionate and interested and not because they think it’s a popular idea. You know especially with a company, that’s anywhere between a year and like a ten-plus year commitment. So you have to be really passionate about what you’re doing and wedded to it and not just kind of okay. This is a 24/7 thing.
What traits and skills make up good teams?
Well I’m going to use your word: driven. You have to be ready to just go full time on things. It’s really great to have some of the skillsets to build whatever it is that you’re making. It’s important for the team to have different skill sets from each other too. You don’t want like a replica of yourself all over the place.
We see a lot of founding teams where the people have known each other a long time. We really like that because then you sort of know what you’re getting into before hand. We always recommend to teams–especially if they’re green to each other–date before you get married. Don’t do a full time hire of someone until you really know like, “This is what we really need right now.”
There aren’t many women Venture Capitalists
I almost gave a stat today about how many women founded companies are VC backed and it’s less than ten percent. Twenty-five percent of 1517’s companies have a female founder as part of the team. But yeah there are not very many women who are venture capitalists.
So what’s your life like as a female VC?
It’s busy. I’ve always run in social circles that tend to be more male centric so I’m kind of used to it at this point. It’s been great to see things in the hackathon community like they’re getting closer to 50-50.
But I would love to see the industry change. I think it’s a shame when you see venture capital groups that say, “Oh we can’t find anybody or they’re not applying.” It’s all about outreach like you have to go out there and find people. You can’t just be passive and say well they’re not applying so it means it’s not our problem. That’s just not right.
How would you suggest that a woman who’s going into entrepreneurship navigate a very male-centric world?
I think mentors are really important, and I don’t mean just female mentors. You need people who will help you and guide you and bring you into certain networks or get you into certain groups. Especially if you’re new at something anyways, having someone else vouch for you and say, “Hey you should come to this conference or you should be here or be there.” I think mentorship is really powerful and really important.
I mean I think the other advice I have is: just do it. If you’re like, “Oh I’m a woman, so I guess founding a company will be harder. I guess I shouldn’t.” Wrong attitude. If anything, it means get out there because if you do jump all the different hurdles you need to, people will see you had to do it under different circumstances than other people. I think that’s respectable.
Are there differences in how young female and male entrepreneurs present themselves?
One thing that’s really interesting that we see–even at hackathons–is that we’ll do office hours somewhere and guys will come in and they’re just, “Yeah here’s my new pitch, here’s this thing i just thought of like ten seconds ago and i’m pitching you.” They’re totally confident about it. It can be the worst idea ever, but they’re just like “I’m going to do it.” And oftentimes when we have women come to office hours, they’ll want to ask us a lot about what we do. Then towards the tail end of the conversation, they’ll say things like, “Oh well i have this little thing i’m doing.” and then they’ll finally bring it up. So now oftentimes when a woman comes in we’ll say first, “Hey, what are you working on?” Because we realize we have to really pull that information out. So I would say to women who are starting things: ask for what you want, don’t be afraid to lead with that in the conversation and just make asks of people.
Do you have any final tips for people who want to be entrepreneurs?
There are just a lot of tools at people’s disposal today. Especially for young people it’s great because it’s really hard to say no to like an 18 year old face or a 15 year old face. So cold emailing someone who you see as a role model or a mentor and saying, “Hey I really want to do these things and I’d love to pick your brain about it.” Or learning online, taking free moocs, going to Wikipedia, trying to build things out really quickly and scrappily is really doable whereas a long time ago it wasn’t.
You just want to think about what is the lowest hanging fruit you can reach for in that thing you want to do. We see a lot of people who have a really big vision–really big. They’re like, “I want world peace.” We’re like, “Yeah me too, but how do you get there? What are the steps?” Then just doing it and doing little little tests and getting feedback on those tests and then stepping forward from there.
Edited for length/clarity
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