There’s a huge problem with venture capital: It’s not going to startups founded by women. Companies run by women get only 2.2% of all venture capital dollars. So what does it really take to be a woman running a startup and dealing with the gender funding gap?
For our new “Women in Power” video series, we talked to entrepreneurs about how they overcame the very real struggles they faced getting their businesses off the ground — from the investors who were surprised they were women to the moment they almost walked away forever.
We couldn’t think of a better leader to start with than Sarah LaFleur, founder and CEO of fashion company MM.LaFleur. In our premiere episode, Sarah gets real about the industrywide fundraising “problem,” what it was like to buy her first rolls of fabric, and why she’s a financial feminist.
Sarah LaFleur on Building Her Business
My great-grandfather apparently always used to say, “Those who don't work don't eat.” If you weren't contributing to the family, you didn't really deserve to be sitting at the table. My name is Sarah LaFleur, and I'm the founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur.
I was quite fortunate that money was always a part of our dinner table conversation. In my 20s, I had saved up about $35,000, and then my parents loaned me $35,000. So I started with $70,000. And that really took me through the first year, which was hiring my designer, Miyako, who became my co-founder and business partner. Buying my first few rolls of fabric, developing a very simple site, and then actually doing some of the production for our first few rounds of customers. For the first two years, I did not take a salary. I was kind of working with all abandon.
“All Cash Is Green”
For our seed round, honestly, anyone who would invest, I would take their money. We weren't in the position to be picky. All cash is green, I continue to believe all cash is green. And we raised $400,000. It was the hardest, hardest $400,000 we ever raised. Nothing will ever compare to the first $400,000.
I would like to say that it was my sheer willpower and intelligence that got me all this VC funding, but the truth is entrepreneurship and venture capital, as it stands today, is a game for the well connected. I went to Harvard. I worked at Bain. And I thought it was really hard to fundraise.
I can only imagine how many women, who don't have these connections...It must be incredibly difficult. A lot of women think, "Oh my God. What is wrong with me? If I can't fundraise, what am I doing wrong?" And I want to shake them and say, "It's not you. It has nothing to do with you." It's a larger problem in this industry. You really don't know where the next opportunity is coming from.
People who are trying to start their business ask me, "It's so awkward to ask your friends and family." And I say, "Don't feel like you’re asking them for a favor. you're just presenting them with another opportunity.”
Find. That. Superpower.
Having worked in environments that were male-dominated, I always felt like I had to conform, like I was not being myself. When I see the women at my company, it’s a lot about, “Okay, how can you actually be yourself?”
We always say, "Find your superpower. Don't feel like you have to conform to the way things are supposed to be done.” I'm not in this for the short-term. I’m not looking for a quick exit. This is my dream job, and I would do it for the next 50 years if I could.
My name is Sarah LaFleur, and I'm a financial feminist because I believe the world is a better place when more women control more money.
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