A bold way to close the gender gap in raising start-up funds
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 founder Kendall Tucker seeks funds for her sales team.