Karen Cahn Struggled with Raising Capital So She Pivoted to Help Other Women Get What They Deserved
STARTUP
May 27, 2021
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Karen Cahn, a veteran of Google and YouTube, has had a career of ups--being a Google Intrapreneur for 10 years and launching the branded entertainment portion of YouTube (her team was the first to connect brands with content creators--ie what we call native video advertising today), and downs--getting fired for making too much money (yes, you read that correctly), and, launching a company post Google that was a bust.

But it was her experience raising capital for that last venture--a very hard, frustrating one, that made her pivot and launch IFundWomen, a funding and coaching marketplace for women owned businesses. Here she shares how WOC can bypass traditional and biased funding pipelines, attributes the most successful entrepreneurs have in common and her 'outsourced' productivity hack.

Most of us have heard the bad news: that women on average get far fewer investment dollars than their male counterparts for startups, and the number gets worse for WOC. Instead tell us the good news about women crowdfunding and starting their own businesses. What is working?

IFundWomen is the go-to funding marketplace for women-owned businesses and all the people that want to support them with access to capital through crowdfunding and corporate grants, access to expert coaches to guide them through the fundraising process, and access to connections to follow-on capital and lucrative relationships to fuel their businesses.

We did not invent crowdfunding but we most certainly made it accessible to women-owned businesses across all sectors. Previously, crowdfunding was seen as something that was reserved for artistic projects, films or consumer products, for example the Pebble Watch, The Veronica Mars movie, or the Speaker Cooler. In fact, when we started IFundWomen, 94% of the highest grossing crowdfunding campaigns were run by male creators in gaming, film and consumer tech. Just by starting a crowdfunding platform for women’s businesses, we changed the conversation and made debt-free funding more accessible. It worked from day one because there is such a need in the market for funding for women-owned businesses; at the time, it was a total white space.

Through 2019, IFundWomen’s WOC founders, who make up 75% of our member base, had raised just 30% of the total funds, and our non-WOC founders, who make up 22% of our member base, had raised 70% of the funds. As a company that has embodied DE&I since day one, these stats were truly devastating—so we did something about it.

What’s also working is the tactical, practical coaching that IFundWomen offers through our eLearning platform, IFundWomen Coaching. The women who invest in the coaching raise 27x more money vs. the crowdfunding industry average! That’s a massive difference. It’s still challenging to get women to invest in themselves and their businesses and actually buy the one-on-one coaching, but what ends up happening is that they see an ROI on the coaching on day one of their crowdfunding campaigns. The product works.

If you can find it, you can fund it: IFundWomen of Color, our funding platform for diverse founders, was developed by founding team member Olivia Owens and launched pre-pandemic. The problem Olivia was solving was the deep disparity between the volume of funds raised on our platform by WOC founders and non-WOC founders. Through 2019, IFundWomen’s WOC founders, who make up 75% of our member base, had raised just 30% of the total funds, and our non-WOC founders, who make up 22% of our member base, had raised 70% of the funds. As a company that has embodied DE&I since day one, these stats were truly devastating—so we did something about it. I am extremely proud to say that one year after the launch of IFundWomen of Color, we have achieved funding parity.

The most interesting trend we've seen over the last couple years is that enterprises like Visa, American Express, Diaego, and Unilever are disrupting venture-capital for women-owned businesses. Out of the hundreds of billions of VC dollars that were deployed last year, female-founded companies received a mere 2.3% of that. Knowing VC is not an option for most women, in 2019, we built an end-to-end enterprise grant logistics solution to make it seamless for brands to deploy immediate funding to entrepreneurs. The fact that we had this product built two years ago and already had millions of dollars committed from brands was a critical blessing for our members when COVID hit and the need was so great.

Are there unforeseen/under-the-radar challenges women face in getting their businesses backed and off the ground?

When we started IFundWomen, we were originally fighting back against the VC system, which primarily funds white male-led startups. We learned pretty quickly that the funding gap problem was not just relegated to VC—it was pervasive up and down the financial services system, which is riddled with biased, dated algorithms that completely disadvantage women—in particular, women of color. We realized that this is a massive, systemic issue and it has many layers.

Even though women are starting businesses at 5X the national average and women are better entrepreneurs, we still don’t get the funding we need. So an off the radar challenge we are now trying to solve is what we call the “give a shit” problem. When you think about it, because women drive a higher ROI for investors and their companies are run more fiscally responsibly, you would think that it would be a “no-brainer” for VCs to double down on investing in women-owned businesses, but it’s just not happening. In fact, we’ve literally gone backwards. So, as the CEO of this company, I’m now battling the “give a shit” problem which is proving to be my biggest challenge yet. It’s one thing to build products and services that start to move the needle, but it’s a whole other challenge to change hearts and minds, even if you have empirical data showing the success of women entrepreneurs.

In the past few years, have women changed how they approach creating a startup? Has your company changed its approach in how you help them?

The pandemic put a lot of things in perspective for folks. In my experience, women—who were the most adversely affected by the pandemic—rose up like never before and crushed their business metrics, even in the worst of times. Necessity is the mother of invention and I was witness to so much innovation. It was beyond inspiring!

At the beginning of COVID, we had a large number of businesses who thought about putting their crowdfunding campaigns on hold because it didn’t seem like a viable option to raise money during a pandemic. But our members persevered. Their big funding energy and the support of our corporate partners during the pandemic actually ended up being the catalyst for the growth of many of our most successful startups!

Because we are known for our award-winning coaching program, we were set up to advise our members on how to pivot their marketing messaging to be on point with what the larger population was going through, and to speak directly to them vs. trying to sell them something that wasn’t a “must have” during COVID. We used Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to drive our coaching methodology. Our strategy focused on how businesses can shift their focus based on the basic human needs of populations, especially those in crisis. This innovative approach to coaching in a pandemic resonated deeply with our customers and helped them not only survive but thrive during COVID.


[Credit: IFundWomen]

Where do you see the most growth in the next year? The next five?

Healthcare, wellness, innovations around brain science in particular, remote work solutions, business services, B2B SaaS, FinTech, childcare solutions.

Do you find that most successful founders you back have certain common instincts or attributes?

YES! Great question. I get asked a lot “which business sectors perform best on IFundWomen?” and my answer is always that it’s not about the business sector, it’s about the entrepreneur. Here are the qualities of a successful entrepreneur:

  1. People: Who is on the founding team? Who do they surround themselves with? How engaged is their network in what they are doing and have they brought their supporters along for the ride?

  2. Product: How good is their product or service?

  3. Preparation: How prepared are they to raise money? Did they use the IFundWomen Method (our proprietary coaching methodology) for their raise? Did they engage with the coaches and do the homework?

Describe your leadership style: Lead by example. Get dirty and be able to do the work that you are asking your most junior employees to do.


Describe a specific turning point in your career that drove your current success: Leaving behind the golden handcuffs of Google and YouTube, where I worked for over a decade. I set out to create a video platform for female creators, which was a spectacular failure because we burned through too much cash and built a product people didn’t want. When I thought about the fact that a company started by someone like me—a privileged, white, Google-pedigreed, highly-connected person with a supportive network—couldn’t raise venture capital, it was my “aha moment.” Imagine how hard it must be for other women who lack all of the access and all of the privilege. To date, IFundWomen has built an entrepreneur member base of over 100K entrepreneurs, 70% of whom identify as women of color.

Favorite part of your job: Coaching entrepreneurs.

When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business? Always. Our brains are functionally built differently—women have longer synapses that go from the different quadrants of our brains making it so that women are more thoughtful, take more time to make important decisions, are more strategic—all qualities that do make a great startup founder or business leader.

What’s missing in your line of work or one thing you would change? How would you fix it?

More debt-free solutions for women just starting out in business. That’s what we’re building everyday with IFundWomen.

A business mistake you made and what you learned from it: Launching my first startup, VProud, without doing my research. Coming out of Google, I thought everything I touched would turn to gold. As an entrepreneur, it is important to just start, but starting SHOULD mean: start doing your market research and customer discovery process to see if the problem you are solving with your product or service idea is even a problem, and how many people are affected by it. You will never know if your business is viable without the data. But what we did was build and ship an expensive product before we had the proper customer discovery data. (Don’t do that.)

Career highlight: Definitely the day when we closed the books on 2020, looked at the funding raised on our platform and found that the cumulative funding volume over four years had reached parity between founders of color and non-WOC founders (actually it’s 51% to 49%). In one year of IFundWomen of Color’s existence, we changed the ratio over our entire four year history.

A business culture priority for you now is: Making sure we continue to innovate as fast as we did when we were six people now that we are about to be 32 people. As you grow, the company's rate of innovation can slow, but I’m fighting against that.

Your advice on how to give and receive feedback: Giving and receiving feedback is a practice, like yoga, and it’s taken me 25 years to get good at it. I used to take everything so personally because my career, my work, was my life, and to me, everything was personal—my wins, my failures, and the feedback I received from my superiors. Spoiler alert: It ain’t personal. It’s business. So, here’s my advice: listen intently to what the person is saying. Don’t talk, just listen. Take a beat or two. Take notes if you need to. Try to process the feedback and think about where this person is coming from. Ask qualifying questions if you are confused. If the feedback is coming from your boss, the best course of action in the immediate moment is to say, “I appreciate the constructive feedback and will give it some good thought as to how I can do/say/act differently next time.” That will immediately disarm the other person, and build a bridge in the relationship that will only help both of you grow. Try it and report back! I’d love to hear if this works. Slide into my DMs and let me know if you try this and the outcome!

Was there ever a time your career was at risk? If yes, how did you overcome it?: I was fired from a corporate job for “making too much money.” I was in sales. It was my job to make money for the company and get paid for said job. I was good at it. I made a lot of money. And for this reason, I was fired. Literally this is the entire story. The message was delivered by an HR person, whom I did not know. That was a special time, and by special, I mean devastating. I loved my job and I was a top performer in the company. I knew how HR handled it was totally illegal, so I kindly let them know that, countered with an outrageous “exit bonus,” they wrote me a check immediately, and I was home, in my house, alone, crying over my lost career. So, even though I “won” from a money perspective, I was totally lost as a person who identified so intensely with my career, my performance at work, and my brand in the marketplace I was working in. That was my last job in that field because I was so embarrassed by the whole scenario. That’s when I became an entrepreneur and here we are.

Women on your radar: Margaret Anadu, Head of Global Sustainability and Impact at Goldman Sachs Asset Management. She’s running the One Milion Black Women $10B investment. I’m a huge fan of what they are doing for Black women in the U.S.

Productivity hack: It would be disingenuous to give one because I’m not as organized as a CEO and a single mom needs to be. There are simply too many tasks to do in one day than this one person can handle, so I bit the bullet and finally hired my very first EA and a PA, both of whom are starting in two weeks! Wish them (uh, I mean me) luck getting organized.

What motivates you? Our customers' success. Period. Their success is my success, so that’s what drives me everyday.

Find Karen on LinkedIn .


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