“Are you the marketing girl?” – Velocity alum Emilie Cushman on fundraising as a female founder
Cushman says overpreparation is key to raising funds as a young, female entrepreneur. As part of our investment fund launch, Velocity is sharing insights from founders and their capital raise journey.
Velocity Founders Fundraising Series (Part 1): Emilie Cushman
Emilie Cushman, Co-founder & CEO of Kira Talent has made a name for herself in the startup world. Forbes Magazine recently named her as a 2019 Forbes Top 30 Under 30 for Education. Cushman is no stranger to being recognized by her peers and judges, as this honour came after she was named one of The Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network. Cushman began her entrepreneurial journey back in 2011, when she applied and got accepted to The Next 36, an initiative that looks for the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs. During this program, she met her co-founder, Konrad Listwan-Ciesielski, and Kira Talent was born! In 2012, the co-founders joined the Velocity Garage to incubate and scale Kira Talent into today’s one-stop shop for universities and colleges seeking to offer a holistic admission process. The startup launched from the Garage in 2013.
“When you are a 21-year-old girl and you walk into a boardroom filled with old white men, that already presents itself as a challenge,” says Emilie Cushman, Co-founder and CEO of Kira Talent.
Cushman challenges investors to take her seriously
Similar to other startups, Kira Talent faced numerous bumps on the way to success. Cushman told us that her biggest struggle was having people take her seriously as a young, female founder during her investment pitches. “When you are a 21-year-old girl and you walk into a boardroom filled with old white men, that already presents itself as a challenge. And you could almost hear them say, ‘Oh, are you the marketing girl?’ That’s a no. I’m the co-founder,” says Cushman. Moreover, some investors were probably too well-meaning and inadvertently viewing her pitch as a show-and-tell. “They would be like parents watching their kids giving a show-and-tell,” Cushman reveals. Of course, this is not what Kira Talent is about. Cushman’s vision is to give every student a chance to shine holistically beyond test scores and transcripts and every higher education institution an opportunity to identify and select the best and the brightest.
Over time, she realized that she needed everyone in the boardroom to know that she was there to raise money for her startup and that she meant business. Therefore, she would always enter investor meetings over-prepared for pitch presentations and was not afraid to challenge investors to take her seriously.
Fortunes favour the bold and funded
The importance of overpreparation and standing ground on the merits of a startup’s early success cannot be overstated, especially for female founders.
Cushman on #GRLTalk with Valeria Lipovetsky
For example, even though Crunchbase data shows us that the total number of female founders grew from 9.5% to 18% between 2009 and 2014, global venture funding and seed funding in female-founded startups only sat at 10% and 15% respectively when looking at a similar period (2010 to 2015).
Data for Venture and Seed Funding in Female Founded Startups (courtesy: TechCrunch)
While the state of women entrepreneurship in Canada is better when compared to many other advanced economies, the situation can improve even further. At Velocity, 100% of the winning teams at the last Velocity Fund $5K pitch competition were founded or co-founded by women. At a broader level, initiatives such as the federal government’s $20-million Women Entrepreneurship Fund and BDC Capital’s $200-million Women in Technology Venture Fund. “We can do so much better as a country. Countless other women like myself have gone out and built businesses that demonstrated initial traction. More opportunities to get funded will go a long way,” states Cushman.
Find your fundraising champion and community
A key moment for Cushman was getting an angel investor to act as a champion. The angel investor spent a lot of time educating Cushman and her team on the whole fundraising process, understanding term sheets, and the difference between a good and bad deal. “In our early days, [the angel investor] came with us to every single meeting and after everyone left, there was a sit-down and a debrief. We would go over the play-by-play, like you would in sports,” recalls Cushman. Having a mentor was definitely a big win for her, but she also learned a lot from her friends in the startup community. She found it extremely helpful to have a community of founders in funding rounds ahead of her, and many of whom were happy to share their “do’s and ‘don’ts” of presenting.
A Blast from the Past: Kira Talent co-founders Konrad Listwan-Ciesielski and Emilie Cushman (on the far right) winning
the 2012 VF $25K Grant
The roadmap to profitability
The most important question is perhaps not how much to raise, but to focus on how to get to profitability. If founders trap themselves in a vicious cycle of having to continuously raise money every few months, they will lose focus on everything else. That is a dangerous spot for founders. One that may force founders to make the wrong decisions for their businesses, which could ultimately lead to an untimely demise.
“Instead of going out to raise as much as possible when you are early stage, you should try to raise less and focus on how you can make the business profitable faster. Once you’re profitable, then you can go out and raise a big round,” says Cushman. “The best thing to do is get profitable.”
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