A bold way to close the gen­der gap in rais­ing start-up funds

The Washington Post Sunday - - CAPITAL BUSINESS - BUSI­NESS RX Look­ing for some ad­vice on a new busi­ness, or need help fix­ing an ex­ist­ing one? Con­tact us at cap­biznews@wash­post.com.

A fe­male en­tre­pre­neur asks for ad­vice on how to suc­ceed in male­dom­i­nated in­vest­ment world.

— Dan Bey­ers

The en­tre­pre­neur: At 16, Ken­dall Tucker was al­ready in­volved in pol­i­tics, knock­ing on doors for the can­di­dates she sup­ported in her home state of Mas­sachusetts. By the time she was 19, she was man­ag­ing state Se­nate races. At 20, she de­cided to run her­self and was elected to lo­cal of­fice. Af­ter col­lege, she had to make a choice to stay in pol­i­tics or to pur­sue an­other path.

Frus­trated that most cam­paign dol­lars are spent on tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing rather than more ef­fec­tive door-to-door out­reach, Tucker took an­other path, join­ing the ad­vi­sory firm Parthenon Group to fig­ure out what was next. That road quickly led her back to pol­i­tics.

While in her man­age­ment con­sult­ing job, Tucker worked with some friends to put to­gether a soft­ware plat­form called Po­lis, which au­to­mated much of what cam­paigns needed to go door-to-door and win. Tucker got seven lo­cal city coun­cil mem­bers to use her plat­form and they all won re­elec­tion by at least 20 per­cent.

In 2015, the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns of the Lib­er­tar­ian Party’s Gary John­son and the Green Party’s Jill Stein signed on to use Po­lis, as well as 107 other po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions. Po­lis had trac­tion in pol­i­tics, but, af­ter speak- ing to a large se­cu­rity com­pany ea­ger to use the prod­uct, Tucker ex­plored an even larger op­por­tu­nity: sell­ing to cor­po­ra­tions that rely on door-to-door mar­ket­ing to make sales.

The pitch, Tucker, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Po­lis: “Po­lis bet­ter con­nects peo­ple with the or­ga­ni­za­tions they care about. Be­cause con­sumers to­day are bom­barded with im­per­sonal ads, re­la­tion­ship-based sales meth­ods such as door-to-door have never been more ef­fec­tive. Still, for or­ga­ni­za­tions that want to sell face-to-face, it’s im­por­tant that they pre­de­ter­mine who to con­tact and what to say so that they are pro­vid­ing value to con­sumers and form­ing mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ships, and not both­er­ing peo­ple who’d rather be left alone.

“Our plat­form takes ba­sic de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion, then over­lays it with in­for­ma­tion about how likely a per­son is to be re­spon­sive at the door, how well they are con­nected to other peo­ple in an or­ga­ni­za­tion’s cus­tomer file and what some­one should say to those peo­ple to have the most ef­fec­tive in­ter­ac­tions.

“All of that data is avail­able in our soft­ware plat­form, where our clients can mon­i­tor an­a­lyt­ics about their out­reach. Also, sales reps can down­load our app and see a map of their cur­rent lo­ca­tion with mark­ers show­ing them where to go and what to say.

“Af­ter click­ing ‘Get Started,’ Po­lis au­to­mat­i­cally gen­er­ates the best routes to go door-to-door, then of­fers dif­fer­ent ques­tions or guid­ing state­ments at each door based on what will likely make the in­ter­ac­tion with that in­di­vid­ual most ef­fec­tive. Sales reps can also sched­ule fol­low-up ac­tions through the app.

“We ag­gre­gate in­for­ma­tion to cre­ate our data­base. We sell clients door-knock­ing data at a flat rate per record, which varies based on com­plex­ity. We also sell sub­scrip­tion ac­cess to our soft­ware plat­form based on the num­ber of reps us­ing it. We brought on our first cor­po­rate clients in De­cem­ber 2016 and have on­boarded eight since then. We’ve iden­ti­fied tremen­dous growth in the door-to-door space and we’re ex­cited about mak­ing it the best it can be.

“We are work­ing on a build­ing a strong sales team now and rais­ing money to do so. As I go out to speak with in­vestors, I face chal­lenges as a fe­male founder. Of­ten, I find my­self as the only woman in the room and peo­ple say I re­mind them of their daugh­ter or they ask if I’m my in­vestor’s wife or they say I’m a ‘great cheer­leader.’ Of­ten I hear that in­vestors are look­ing for pat­tern recog­ni­tion and it is dif­fi­cult when there are few fe­male tech founder role mod­els who have tra­versed th­ese paths be­fore me. For ev­ery meet­ing, I won­der if it would have gone dif­fer­ently if I were a man.”

The ad­vice, Sara Her­ald, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor, so­cial en­trepreneur­ship at the Ding­man Cen­ter for En­trepreneur­ship at the Univer­sity of Mary­land:

“This is a real prob­lem for so many women who are start­ing busi­nesses, es­pe­cially in male­dom­i­nated in­dus­tries. You’re in the cool but ter­ri­ble po­si­tion of be­ing a trail­blazer.

“This is not talked about enough in the ven­ture cre­ation world. We talk about the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity and dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, but huge ob­sta­cles re­main to see­ing mean­ing­ful change.

“Re­search from the Kauffman Foun­da­tion shows that men are two-thirds more likely to ac­cess eq­uity in­vest­ments, and that women are start­ing com­pa­nies with half as much money as their male peers. You could eas­ily not raise the money a male founder would raise sim­ply be­cause you are woman, and that could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure.

“One of the most in­ter­est­ing ways I’ve seen to over­come this is ‘own­ing’ the sit­u­a­tion by ad­dress­ing it head-on. You can walk into a meet­ing and say some­thing like: ‘I’m a founder who is also a woman and I’m here to ne­go­ti­ate. Stud­ies show that you are go­ing to like me less be­cause I’m go­ing to ne­go­ti­ate. But I hope that now that we know that bias and ac­knowl­edge it, we can move past it and you can chal­lenge your­self to not like me less as I ne­go­ti­ate.’

“That’s been a re­ally in­ter­est­ing tac­tic. It feels awk­ward to a lot of peo­ple — who wants to start a con­ver­sa­tion that way? — but it seems to be work­ing in some sit­u­a­tions, at least anec­do­tally. Call­ing out the ele­phant in the room can help ev­ery­one move past it.

“An­other tac­tic that can help: Try to iden­tify male al­lies. A good ally will time and again give credit where it is due and de­fer to you in meet­ings as the founder and head of the com­pany. That can re­di­rect the fo­cus to where it needs to be and re­in­force your role as the leader and de­ci­sion­maker.”

PO­LIS

Po­lis founder Ken­dall Tucker seeks funds for her sales team.

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