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Female founders speak out—about speaking out

May 21, 2021, 12:59 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Ro acquires Modern Fertility, five women sue Amazon, and Fortune MPW convenes female founders to talk fundraising, engaging with social issues, and more. Have a great weekend.

Today’s essay comes to us from Fortune senior writer Maria Aspan:

– ‘We had to decide who we wanted to be.’ The past year has been a difficult one for female founders, in terms of both funding and harsh public scrutiny, as Claire discussed last week and I covered in a Fortune feature last year.

Sometimes that scrutiny can be self-inflicted—especially when startups publicly embrace feminist or social-justice causes and then just as publicly fail to live up to their stated missions. (Meanwhile, prominent male founders at Coinbase and Basecamp have proudly disavowed this type of broader engagement.) But some female founders still argue that embracing larger social or political positions can give them a business advantage.

“What people expect from companies today is quite different than even a few years ago. We had to decide who we wanted to be—and then we had to be it unashamedly,” Alexandra Waldman, co-founder and chief creative officer of size-inclusive fashion company Universal Standard, said on Wednesday, during a Fortune Most Powerful Women virtual event devoted to female founders.

Universal Standard, for example, regularly supports Planned Parenthood through various sales and collaborations, because “providing health care to women was something we felt very strongly about,” Waldman said. “It’s a controversial thing, because people have very strong feelings about it one way or the other,” but once her company started publicly endorsing Planned Parenthood, “there was almost no push back.” Instead, she credits that public mission for building customer loyalty—and says that Universal Standard now sees 80% of customers returning.

“We’ve really learned that the new consumer, this new consciousness, is absolutely starving for something more from the brands they support than just the products they buy,” Waldman says. “This has definitely been something that I think made us just a better company.”

Much of the discussion Wednesday was devoted to the grim fundraising dynamics still facing female founders—who last year landed only 2.2% of all venture capital, despite an overall boom in VC spending. Amira Yahyaoui, a Tunisian human-rights activist who founded and runs the San Francisco financial-aid fintech startup Mos, last year raised $13 million from investors led by Sequoia, and is aiming for “a really big” series B. But Yahyaoui said Wednesday that she’s recently gotten a lot of “very well-intentioned” advice not to pitch investors right now—because she’s pregnant.

“‘Don’t tweet about it. Don’t tell anybody,’” is how Yahyaoui characterized the counsel she got from friends and allies, including other women in Silicon Valley who have gone through fund-raising while pregnant. “’Maybe you should just wait until you get back your body,” some of these allies told Yahyaoui, who concluded that, when it comes to investors: “There is a huge bias.”

Still, she and the other panelists saw cause for optimism. “The thing that is the most exciting for me is that there are so many new paths to creating successful businesses that don’t have to run through, ‘First I raise money, then I have to raise more money,’” said Gina Bianchini, the serial tech entrepreneur and Fortune’s Most Powerful Women veteran.

Despite her advice, Bianchini’s current startup, community platform Mighty Networks, has indeed just raised more money; it announced its $50 million series B in April. But Bianchini is hoping that her company, which pandemic-yoga star Adriene Mishler and others use to create virtual communities (and sell things to their fans), can provide one alternative for entrepreneurs looking to finance a new venture.  

“The over-emphasis on fundraising is just stupid. …And I just don’t think, for the vast majority of businesses, it’s necessary,” said Bianchini. “There are a lot of different ways through the desert besides having 100 meetings that all end with, ‘Eh, no thanks.’”

Maria Aspan
maria.aspan@fortune.com
@mariaaspan

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe

ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- No easy fix. The most recent episode of Fortune's "Leadership Next" podcast features Jennifer Tejada, the CEO of PagerDuty. As a leader, Tejada says she realized there was no "one-size-fits-all solution" to helping employees through the pandemic. Listen and catch up on past episodes here: Fortune

- A modern deal. Ro, parent company of Roman, acquired Modern Fertility—a deal worth around $225 million that signals growth in the women's health sector. Modern Fertility CEO Afton Vechery will become president of women's health for Ro. She told Fortune's Beth Kowitt: "We have to be able to admit that the state of women’s health today still needs a lot of work." Fortune

- On a winning streakCoaches for Chelsea's men's soccer club are rapidly hired and fired by the team's billionaire owner. But on the women's side, coach Emma Hayes has outlasted eight of her men's counterparts. Her secret? Winning titles, from the Women's Super League to, potentially, the Women's Championship League this weekend. Wall Street Journal

- Honor of a lifetime. Jane Goodall, the legendary conservationist, yesterday won the Templeton Prize, an award granted to individuals "whose life’s work embodies a fusion of science and spirituality." Past winners of the award include Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. AP

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, promoted COO Cassandra Lichnock to CEO. Initialized Capital promoted COO Jen Wolf to president. JPMorgan Chase's Jennifer Landis joins Citi as head of investor relations, succeeding Elizabeth Lynn, who is becoming lead finance officer for banking, capital markets, and advisory. Square GM Alyssa Henry joins the board of Confluent. Bright Machines promoted Victoria Libin, an SVP, to general counsel. 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

- Against Amazon. Five women sued Amazon this week, alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation in jobs ranging from HQ roles to logistics operations. The plaintiffs include Black women alleging racial and gender-based harassment; human resources employee Tiffany Gordwin, for example, says she was treated like a "second-class citizen" on her team. Lawyers say the wide range of jobs and employees point to how systemic a problem this is at Amazon. The company says it is "investigating each of the incidents detailed in the lawsuits and has found no evidence to support the allegations." Bloomberg

- 3% gap, 59% of the time. Women face a wage gap in tech. Men were offered higher pay than women applying for the same jobs 59% of the time, according to new data from Hired. Those salaries were an average 3% higher than women's offers. Bloomberg

- Dangerous implants. Poly Implant Prothese, or PIP, made breast implants that were used by 300,000 women between 2000 and 2010. But the silicon was industrial-grade and not cleared for human use, leading to long-term health consequences for thousands of women. A French court ruled that the German firm TUV Rheinland was negligent in awarding safety certificates to the PIP, clearing the way for women to seek damages. Reuters

ON MY RADAR

Where would food be without Padma Lakshmi? The Cut

Kacey Musgraves is in her feelings Elle

Why is Nike still backing Alberto Salazar? Outside Online

PARTING WORDS

"I consider myself a beginning, not a token." 

-Eleanor Sheldon, a rare female board member for companies from Citi to Mobil to Heinz in the 1970s. Sheldon, a sociologist, died at 101 this month

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