Running a startup requires me to lean in every single day, even when I feel like I'm going to fall over.
When I started trying to raise institutional capital for SchoolChapters, I had already built the company with my co-founder, cultivated relationships with clients, and developed a licensing agreement with a national organization. I assumed raising capital would be a breeze. Why wouldn’t it be? I met most of the criteria investors look for. And I saw news stories every day on people who raised millions on a half-baked idea. This should be easy, I thought. I was incredibly wrong and naïve.
I started by putting together a deck and going to venture events. I can’t tell you how many more men than women I encountered. I’m not sure why, but women don’t do this. Of all companies that go for funding only 2% are successful, and of them only 1% (of the 2%!) are founded and run by women. I was determined to beat the odds, so I asked a prominent venture capitalist about this gender gap. He told me women in technology don't network in and are often nervous to project big.
His words stung, but they stuck with me. It’s a risk to think big about a market. I think as women we’re taught to think small – to be good. I pushed myself not to fall into this trap
But thinking big wasn’t my only barrier. I once went to an event in NYC that was filled with high level venture capitalists. I was literally one of two women at the event, and several of the people in attendance came by to ask if I was the person handing out badges. One even referred to me as the “blonde.”
I had already felt out of place. Being spoken to that way made me feel like a fraud for being there. At a moment like that, it would have been easy to go home — to lean back and say, "I will never be able to succeed in my environment. I should go get a job working for someone else."
Instead, that’s exactly the moment I started leaning in. I made my deck better. I kept focusing on what was possible. I honed my business plan. I accepted making less money — and in certain months, no money — while I leaned in to my long-term goal.
I also accepted that done is better than perfect. I used to get so caught up in what perfect looks like. Now I do my best, finish it, and then improve where I can.
Once you lean in, it becomes a habit. When I was told there was a problem days before the deal was scheduled to close and I needed to include another group, I road-showed across the state to get that investor. When a year into the company I realized I needed to raise more, I found grants. When I went for a second raise to grow the team and ensure the continued happiness of our client base, I talked with everyone I could. And in 2013, I found lead investors in Global Publishing Company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Today, I’m running a company that’s working really well. But I’m not done yet. I continue to grow. And I've got to lean in to do it. Once you start, there is no leaning back.