Oh, I’m so sorry. Forgive me. You take the good seat. When women communicate with each other, they often lead with humility and unintentionally give their power away.
But the underlying assumption is that the other women appreciate, have even come to expect this and will give their power back—which they generally do. There’s no need to apologize! No, you take the good seat—I’m perfectly comfortable here. Women have been socialized to support each other and build each other up.
This conversational dynamic works well when everyone in the room is a woman. But it can work against women when they’re raising capital. The financial world is still a male-dominated environment. Men generally don’t give their power away to each other the way women do—because the other men won’t give it back. Women may find that this style is seen as weakness by investors who are more accustomed to chest-beating and self-promotion.
I give a lot of thought to the nuances of communication that work for, and against, women when I run our venture fund, Crescent Ridge Partners. As an investor, I have one major goal: to find the right companies for our portfolio—those that will generate high returns and are aligned with our mission. But I am also mindful of the fact that less than 2% of the venture capital raised in this country went to all-female founding teams in 2021, according to PitchBook, and of the fact I have the opportunity to bring about change.
So how can women develop a communication style that helps them raise the funding they need? This is one of the questions we address through our bootcamps at Ad Astra Ventures. Trying to pitch like a man—the approach taught in the many programs run by men and populated by men—usually doesn’t work. Men and women are socialized to speak in what amount to different languages. We have our own styles of communication and interaction. A woman who speaks exactly like a man will almost always come off sounding forced and unnatural. It goes back to the playground. Boys can get away with saying, “I’m the best!” but if girls say the same thing, no other girls will like them.
The women who are most successful in pitching, in my experience, embrace their authenticity and their natural leadership style as women. They acknowledge what is expected of them in this setting and draw on certain masculine strategies that they are comfortable using, such as being direct and confident. But most importantly, they understand that it’s not likely that leading with politeness or vulnerability will be reciprocated, so they don’t start with that right out the gate. They are strategic about their dialogue—first building credibility and earning the respect of the investor on the other side of the table, and then incorporating humility, vulnerability, and politeness once that upfront dynamic has been established.
Establishing credibility doesn’t require elaborate prep work. Often, it’s about finding a natural point in the conversation to mention you once worked for a well-known company the investor will know or speaking in a tone that conveys you know the subject and are confident about what you’re saying. It also means avoiding habits that make you seem hesitant, like ending a statement with an upward inflection that makes it sound like a question.
Ultimately, investors want to know that what a founder says rings true. We want to know who you are and what values drive your decisions —and, ultimately, whether those things match what we are looking for. Your delivery will tell us if your words match who you and your company really are.
Pitching investors isn’t easy for anyone, and it can be particularly challenging for women in an industry that’s the same old boys club it always was. But as I’ve seen many times over, the more you pitch, the better you get at it, and the easier it is to sell your idea without trying to be someone else. That’s just as true for women as it is for men, and I hope more will stick with it until they rustle up the money they need to scale.
Allison Long Pettine is the managing partner of the private-investment firm Ridge Group Investments and founder of the venture fund Crescent Ridge Partners. She also co-founded Ad Astra Ventures, a fund that focuses on investing in female founders, to address the gender imbalances in society, in 2018. She is a member of YPO, which sponsored this commentary on Times of E.