15 Jul 2020

In Virtual Fireside Chat, Laura Huang Advises Female Founders on Finding—and Utilizing—their ‘Edge’

Laura Huang

by Shona Simkin

What if, as a woman entrepreneur heading into a pitch meeting, you knew that the very stereotypes that might interfere with securing funding could instead be transformed to ensure your success? Taking control of commonly held notions and perceptions, says Harvard Business School (HBS) Associate Professor Laura Huang, allows you to flip them in your favor and create an advantage—the “edge” referenced in her latest book, Edge: Turning Adversity into Advantage.

In “The Female Founder’s Edge: Flipping Barriers into Building Blocks,” a June 17 virtual fireside chat organized by the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship and the Gender Initiative, Huang led more than 50 women through her research and findings around the central concept of turning adversity into an advantage. Participants included HBS alumni founders and CEOs, as well as venture capitalists, investors, and some non-HBS affiliates.

“There are a lot of reasons that women, and particularly women of color, don’t have the access to funding that their male peers do, and investor perception is a key one,” said Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative. “It’s important to help investors overcome their biases, but it’s also critical to equip women founders with tools to navigate an unequal playing field.”

Women entrepreneurs, explained Huang, are often taught from a young age that success is the result of hard work—keep at it, work hard, be tenacious and determined, and you will reap the rewards. That, however, has not been a common experience. Huang’s research, which was inspired by her time in investment banking, showed that successful fundraising in the venture capital world often came down to investors' gut feelings and intuition, and commonly held perceptions and stereotypes.

These perceptions and stereotypes are found throughout employment spaces and across ethnic and gender divides. Equity is elusive. While we wait for meaningful system-wide solutions, says Huang, we can tap into the research and empower ourselves.

For example, when responding to a prevention-oriented question—those that ask about barriers to success, which are more frequently posed to women than men—you can shift the focus to a promotion-oriented response. “If you're getting asked a question about competitors, answer the question by saying, ‘Yes, we have a lot of competitors in this market,’” explained Huang, “but then flip it to say ‘But our product is able to do all of these things that the competitors are not, which allows us to capture a bigger market and different opportunities.’” This redirection not only levels the playing field but also creates an advantage that results in women being more likely than their male counterparts to get funding for their ventures.

“HBS women founders and VCs are redefining success for startups,” said Jodi Gernon, director of the Rock Center. “This success starts with overcoming the types of questions that Laura mentions, which put you on the defensive, and training venture capitalists to recognize the bias in their questions. Laura’s research has shown many founders how to overcome this innate challenge.”

Huang took questions from the participants on topics such as how to flip common perceptions of mothers who are also entrepreneurs (a current research area for Huang), how women venture capitalists can help to grow equity in their own workplace, and how to recognize and flip stereotypes in other business settings.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” concluded Huang. “There’s no one recipe. As women seeking equity in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it’s critical to understand your basic skills and circumstances, so that you can hone them to show how you enrich and provide value, guiding and redirecting these perceptions so that your hard work and effort are the tailwinds that help you create a sustainable and unique edge.”

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