NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — In March, I attended the SXSWedu conference where my startup, called admittedly, was the runner-up in its LaunchEDU Startup competition. We lost to a company that flew a quad-copter during its presentation, and we are totally cool about losing to robots that teach students math and science.
However, what should be even cooler is that after I got back, my inbox was inundated with e-mails from investors, seasoned entrepreneurs and press — many of whom were women — looking to become advisors and help in any way they could.
But while I should be overjoyed, they kind of made me sick. A year ago, when I was desperate for input and advice, those same women were nowhere to be found.
Flashback to the same conference last year. I was 30 and had been running the first company I founded, The Edge in College Prep, since 2005. I was already a test prep and admissions counseling expert, but I had a big idea: leverage the power of algorithms to help students who couldn’t afford a private counselor.
So I went to SXSWedu in Austin to soak in advice. I remember going to the EdTechWomen dinner, and thinking that THIS was the community of supportive women I had been looking for. I thought I had finally found a group of women who truly cared about my success, and I was so excited to meet female investors and entrepreneurs who seemed, at the time, genuinely interested in what I was building. I collected more than 50 business cards and eagerly e-mailed everyone.
Not one person responded. Not. A. One.
Since then I founded admittedly, completed the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator program, raised a round of seed funding, built a six-person team and launched the site. Today, there are tens of thousands of high school students utilizing it daily.
Now, after this year’s success and grinding it out on my own, I’m beating offers of “coming on board as an advisor just for a small percentage of equity” away with a stick.
Frankly, I’d like to say, where were you when I actually needed advice? When I had no idea what a convertible note was? When I was wrestling with the decision of starting a new company or keeping admittedly a part of my previous venture? When I had no idea what the difference between a CTO and a Lead Developer was?
Last year, you read my emails and ignored me. This year, you want advisory equity and are all too happy to return an e-mail. I wholeheartedly thank you for your offers and I’m flattered that now that I’ve begun to prove myself and we’re crushing it, you want a piece of the pie.
I’m reminded of a recent report from Harvard Business School, Wharton and MIT Sloan, which found that when investors listened to the same pitch from a man and from a women, more than twice as many would invest in the man’s idea. But the key for me was that female investors marked down the female entrepreneurs as much as the men did.
It may be that women investors — the mavens, sharks and insiders who hand out business cards at places like the EdTechWomen dinner — are shy about investing in women-led ventures because they don’t want to appear influenced by gender.
But that’s no excuse.
I was a women’s studies minor and the president of the Organization of Women Leaders at Princeton. I couldn’t be more obsessed with women succeeding, but I absolutely despise women who want to get on board after the battle is won but wouldn’t give us entrepreneurs the time of day while we’re in the trenches.
Even though this experience has changed my views of risk and business leadership, I know what I’m not going to do — I’m not going to lie about the “amazing support I’ve received from women in the startup community” or the value of “female mentors.”
But I will be different. Instead of telling people how to change, I’m going to change. I’m going to help others more often and earlier. In real ways. I’m going to take more risks to help the next young person with a good idea — regardless of their gender.
I can only hope that next year at SXSW and other tech and business conferences, we can take a page from Cate Blanchett’s Oscar acceptance speech and be clear that female-led companies (just like female-led movies) are not niche. I hope I see more female-led companies presenting at these conferences, and that people — especially women – who have already succeeded start to understand the power of the “give-back” when others really need the help, not just when they can stand to earn valuable “advisory equity.”
By Jessica Brondo
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