Want to Build Your Startup Skills? Pitch and Pitch In

If you’re looking to develop your startup leadership skills, try volunteering for a non-profit or attending a pitch conference. 


Having spent most of my career in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, I can tell you that there isn’t much reward for risk-taking. Two of the smartest things I ever did to build my leadership were: go to a pitch conference and volunteer.

Six months ago, I attended Launch. It changed my perspective on everything about my work. Specifically, it made me more focused on profitability and more fearless about playing with the boys. (Sorry to admit it, but seeing them get up there and struggle with pitches made it seem a lot more accessible to someone like me, a working woman new to startup culture.)

Last weekend, I got to walk the talk. I pitched an idea at SF Startup Weekend Women’s Edition. Out of 41 pitches and 14 finalists, our team came in third (with a product to offer impact investing to young professionals). The experience was crazy and awesome – totally out of my comfort zone. I went into it not really knowing anything about the process; at Launch I’d only seen the final result of what happens when you join a team of strangers for 36 hours to make a dream tangible.

What was so special about this Startup Weekend? For one, it focused on women entrepreneurs. And, it created a space where we could be in the majority, doing something that we do so well naturally – collaborate and problem-solve. It also made me think about another ecosystem that has been central to my career success: nonprofits.

Nonprofits offer a safe place for women to build leadership skills. The U.S. Dept. of Labor says that in 2012, “women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than did men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics.”

Let’s face it, we like to roll up our sleeves, get involved, and give back. Yet there’s another, more personal, reason for women to volunteer – it builds leadership skills that can launch our careers, especially in male-dominated professions.

No one tries to solve big problems on limited resources like a nonprofit. Volunteering – especially on a committee or board – is a great training ground for public speaking, budgeting, project management, and sales and relationship building (skills key to fundraising). Points of Light Foundation (which also has a Civic Incubator – how cool is that?) and VolunteerMatch list thousands of opportunities to get involved.

Women bring unique skills to the table. We knew that even before Lean In. If you’re not getting the leadership opportunities you want at work, get them by volunteering. And then bring them back to your company.

Your success may depend on it.

By Melanie Hamburger (CEO & Founder, Catalytic Women)


This article was originally posted on Women 2.0 on September 20, 2013.


Angels Investing in Women

As a woman, it’s hard not to like the sound of something called angel investing. You know, that idea that someone may be watching out for us.

I keep my curiosity focused on what we can do with modest amounts of wealth (admittedly, a relative term) and I’d always heard that A.Gipsangel investing is that first round of VC funding, say at $50,000 instead of $5M. Fifty grand is still a lot of money. But I learned that, by joining an angel group, individual investors can pool smaller sums — even $5000.

A few amazing women I met recently — Amy Gips, Sharon Knight, and Marie Jorajuria — opened my eyes to M.Jorajuriaanother side of angel investing, one that focuses on women-led startups. My curiosity was piqued.

In May, Catalytic Women had the opportunity to ask them some questions on how women can fund women social (and traditional) entrepreneurs without investing a bundle. I hope you enjoy their Q&A.

Q: What are the nuances between impact, angel and venture capital (VC) investing?

A: Impact investing is a focused investment strategy to gain market rate ROI and social impact. This is not the below-market, corporate social responsibility screens of yore but rather a strategy that Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 8.06.32 AMcreates value for shareholders and society. Marie’s firm, Equilibrium Capital, offers impact funds for institutional investors, and they consider a variety of social impacts: resource use, jobs created, etc.

Angels and VC both invest directly in promising entrepreneurial businesses in return for stock in the companies where they invest. The Angel Resource Institute distinguishes between angels, who generally invest their own money in start-ups and very early stage companies, and VCs, who provide capital they raise from others to invest in later-stage businesses for growth.

Nuances among the investing options include opportunities that can look different on the east or west coast, or even within regions. (Marie splits time between offices in SF and Portland.) The panelists agreed that the west coast offers more opportunities for women entrepreneurs, is more entrepreneur-friendly, and attracts attention from global investors.

Q: Why invest in women? What’s the big deal?

A: Marie shared her experience as CFO of the Women VC Fund, which actively looks for teams lead Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 8.10.13 AMby women or where women have a strong voice with the men on investor teams. See their great research on women entrepreneurs, and also Criterion Institute’s resources on Women Effect Investments. We’re all new to this! It’s only been 50 years since women could earn an MBA at Harvard.

Q: What are you most excited about in your work?

A: They all spoke of a global vision for growth and access — for entrepreneurs and investors.

Amy talked about Astia’s model: men and women investing in women-led businesses. Astia Angel logostarted in January 2013 and just closed its first two investments. In the spirit of women’s collaboration, as a founding member of Astia Angel, Sharon invests in one of them.

Sharon talked about why it’s a great time to be a woman founder. There are lots of resources only available to women entrepreneurs, including Alley to the ValleyProject EveWatermarkWomenCentricWomen 2.0 and others listed on her website. (More, too, in the Catalytic Women blog archive.) Sharon also sees startups led by women representing a diverse range in ages, from 21-60, who participate in these different kinds of networks. Women need unique tools for success — and are increasingly stepping up to help one another change the status quo.

Marie mentioned the ability to focus investments. While this panel didn’t dive into the topic of impact investing (her firm, Equilibrium Capital, offers sustainability driven investment products and strategies for institutional investors), being able to zero in on a particular market, gender, type of social impact, or geography has never been easier.

Q: How can our attendees get involved in these issues? How does it look in terms of money and time?

Resources on impact investment for individual investors: ImpactAssets 50 lists top impact fund managers, HIP Investors (Human Impact + Potential) is a local impact investment advisor that offers tips online. The Omidyar Network is looking at the nexus of government funding, philanthropy and capital. RSF Social Finance and ImpactAssets offer great funds where you can start: $1000 for a 90-day Social Investment Fund or $5000 to invest in a donor-advised Giving Fund.

Angel investment groups focused on women-led companies include Astia Angel ($3000 is the annual fee to participate in regular investor meetings, with no minimum first-year investment), Golden Seeds, and Pipeline Fellowship offering training to small cohorts of women contributing $5000.

Attendees mentioned other great research on investing in women-led business from Dow Jones, McKinsey and Packard Foundation.

Q: Where can an investor new to this world learn about early stage high-impact investments that support women?

They also shared their journey of how they got to this work. I couldn’t possibly do that justice (you’ll just have to join us in person next time!), but a here’s a bit more on their impressive backgrounds.

Amy Gips is the Founder of Astia Angel and Director of Investments for Astia, Amy aids in the investment activity of all Astia companies — including deal flow management, due diligence and investor relations. As an experienced investor, Amy has invested in debt and equity in companies at various stages across multiple industries. Amy has focused on investing in women-led ventures as an angel investor with Investors’ Circle and a Fellow with Criterion Institute.

Marie Jorajuria is the VP of Finance and Chief Compliance Officer of Equilibrium Capital Group and is also CFO of the Women’s Venture Capital Fund. She has worked in senior management and compliance with a number of innovative financial startups and, as a woman founder, launched, built and sold a company in Madrid, Spain. Marie’s social impact extends to her role on the board of directors and finance committee for public radio station KQED.

Sharon Knight created Avik Ventures, an angel investment vehicle, to partner with entrepreneurs and investors in providing both capital and expertise to help early stage companies. As an investor, her focus is healthcare solutions that promote improved patient access or consumer education. Her current portfolio includes Seed and Series A investments. In addition to involvement with Astia Angel, Sharon is a mentor to Springboard Enterprises, an accelerator for women-led startups, and Rock Health, an incubator for healthcare startups.

Launch for Social Impact?


I just spent three thought-provoking days at Launch2013, a San Francisco conference of 5000 startup founders, and was struck by the parallels between those involved in startups and those of us in social impact: the messy, not-quite-sure-what-will-work challenges combined with our crazy optimism, intellect and creativity.

First of all, I need to give a huge shout-out to keynote speaker Chamath Palihapitiya. After taking Facebook from 30M to 850M users, he’s bringing the same extraordinary vision to Social + Capital Partnership, his new VC firm whose aim is to “use tech to break barriers and solve big problems.” When he asked the key questions, “What’s the value?” he meant value the same way nonprofits mean value. “It’s not the exit check,” he said, “it’s the legacy. If I spend every bit of my Facebook money trying to cure cancer, I’m OK with that.” He was a remarkable speaker, both charming and sincere. And he has the means to make a very big impact. I hope for more people like Chamath on our side.

Launch is a big conference, and I expected to be surrounded by 5,000 super smart young men who had already figured out the elements of creating a successful business. Indeed, I was surrounded by about 4500 men and most of the ones I met were smart, but the rest came as a surprise.

A major part of the conference is the “pitch” sessions, where entrepreneurs have 20 minutes to present a concept and convince a tough panel of judges (from the venture cap or angel investing worlds) that their products can fly.  Far from what I expected, most of the judges on the panel, along with the presenters, were … old guys. Some may have been a little younger than myself (just shy of 50), but I didn’t see any 20-year-olds up there. That was a huge surprise and it made me feel like “one of the guys.” I mean, I could have been up there with them. My fear of feeling outdated among gads of youthful, confident startup geniuses was completely unfounded – from an age standpoint, I fit right in.


Shock #2: Although their vision seemed crystal clear, many of the “pitchers” struggled with concrete metrics for the initial tests (aka betas) of their products. No bold, audacious vision was lacking. They knew what they wanted to do, just not how to do it. So like nonprofits! Most of presenters hemmed and hawed about the number of actual users, average revenue per user, and so on. But while the judges may have been frustrated by these responses, from my perspective, it was refreshing to hear (and a little funny). Again, I felt like each of them was one of us.

Lastly, I was stunned by the enormous gap between creative ideas and concrete action. Less than 25% of attendees had taken steps to try to bring their vision to reality.  Few of them had created an actual demo or applied to an accelerator (boot-camp for startups). Most of them came with little more than a dream.

As I sat there, I realized that the people behind these startups may not be all that different than the rest of us.

In another regard, a special kudos to Jason Calacanis, conference organizer and host of This Week in Startups, for his efforts to get more women in the room. Judging from his opening comments and the women speakers he invited to the Launch diversity panel, I believe his efforts were sincere. But in terms of the attendees themselves, there was only a smattering of us – maybe 10%.

Finally, I could feel the humility when Vivek Wadhwa, who writes about the tech world and is an advocate for more inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups, admitted “I used to be so adamant that Silicon Valley was the ultimate meritocracy,” because he saw so much ethnic diversity. True. It doesn’t look all white when you have so many shades of East Asian. He humbly admitted that diversity includes a breadth of perspectives that aren’t (yet) mainstream in tech: women, blacks, latinos. It’s all in how we choose to see it. And I thank his wife, whom Vivek credits with helping to expand the lens through which he now sees these issues.

After three full days of Launch2013, I’m left with a tremendous sense of hope, possibility and camaraderie. Social entrepreneurs like myself and other Catalytic Women aren’t the only ones who haven’t figured it all out.

Women Innovators and the Freedom to Fail

I recently listened to the Bloomberg Women to Watch interview with women tech leaders at Facebook, SurveyMonkey, Stella & Dot, and Accel Partners.

cw_NewsLtr01_WtW365_01Midway through the interview, they talk about comfort with failing. Or, as the organizer of the annual FAILFaire conference puts it, “if you’re not failing, you’re not considered to be innovating enough.”

Women who are funding social impact share much with entrepreneurs, tech innovators and startups. The models are evolving. The outcome is unclear. There is a very high risk of failure.

Catalyst has fascinating studies showing that women, in particular, feel a lot of pressure to educate ourselves – especially when forging ahead into new territory. I think it boils down to this: women want to feel credible. And we want good resources and advisors to help point us in the right direction.

women + financial influence + community = social impact

The formula is straightforward, but the available information is not. Women now own the majority of private assets in the US. (See sidebar infographic.) Consider the impact of this emerging demographic of wealth: women influence most financial decisions, yet make decisions differently.

Catalytic Women is building a dynamic community of women who want to leverage their intellectual and financial resources for social impact. This new community is free, by application only. It takes 5 minutes to apply online.

If you know women – friends, clients, colleagues – who are curious about peer learning networks, please share this email with them. If you advise women learning how to fund social impact, let us share our resources with you. And if you’re already a believer, invite me to speak at your next event. As you can see, I’m passionate about this topic.

For those tackling a new business, big idea or a major social issue in 2013, best of luck with your failures.