The White Elephant in the Room

The White Elephant in the Room

This post originally appeared on Medium.

white el·e·phant
noun
a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of.

The White Elephant in the Room
Photo credit: Thomas Hawk [CC / Flickr]

This weekend, I was at a 3-day event for Project Entrepreneur — an initiative from UBS and the founders of Rent the Runway to find, fund, and support women entrepreneurs. Black Founders is a Community Advisor for Project Entrepreneur and we facilitated some of the weekend’s sessions on product iteration, legal, and pitch critiques to the mostly female crowd.

I met brilliant women founders who are starting companies that create biometric sensor systems for clothing, help you self-manage hypertension, and plan for end of life. Despite the supportive environment, all of the great discussions, and wonderful connections made between women founders over the weekend, we’ve all latched onto one moment — The White Guy Question™.

I’ve heard The White Guy Question™ from men of color and women of all backgrounds, but I hear it most often from women of color.

This weekend, the question came from a black woman with a PhD who is the inventor of a medical device and holds a patent. So yeah…she’s always way smarter than most of the people in the room.

Should I bring a white guy to my pitches to give me more credibility with investors?

This time, The White Guy Question™ had an answer…and it was the wrong one. The response from keynote speaker and Skinnygirl CEO Bethenny Frankel was an affirmation that ‘yeah, maybe you should bring a white guy to investor meetings if you feel that is what is holding back your business’.

It felt like a suckerpunch to women of color and counter to so much of what we’ve all been working toward in supporting women entrepreneurs.

I tell founders all the time that lots of smart people are going to give you bad advice and this nugget from Bethenny was epically shitty advice.

Why the White Guy Question™?

The White Guy Question™ is bred from acknowledged cultural bias and wanting your startup to succeed by any means necessary. Women get less than 5% of venture capital funding and according to a recent Project Diane report, only 11 startups led by black women have raised over $1 million in funding.

Outside of that data, we pass along the stories of showing up at a VC firm and having the investor you’re pitching think you’re there to take notes or set up the laptop for the ‘real’ founder who must be pitching.

Many underrepresented founders feel that while they can have the confidence of a mediocre white man, bias will still keep them from succeeding.

Solution: bring in a white sidekick and investors will make it rain.

But here’s one very practical reason why you don’t want to find a white guy to be your mouthpiece.

The way you start it is the way you’ll end it

Let’s just say that you decide to bring the white guy who’s just there to be the white guy and you do indeed get funded.

  • Now you have to trot out this same white guy every time you have a board meeting.
  • When you have to make a hard decision about hiring or firing a member of the executive team, the board is going to turn to the white guy and ask for his opinion on how to structure your team.
  • You been working for weeks validating a new product line? Guess who they’re going to ask to explain how this affects the economics of the current business?

You’ve given away your power and agency in the company you started.

Some investors are just always going to feel more comfortable backing and believing in a person who looks like them — often another white guy. This isn’t the investor you want. You don’t want the investor who automatically turns to the man in the room when it’s time to answer a question about finance or the underlying technology.

You want the investor who you can count on in the hardest of hard times and you’ll find those investors by never introducing the white guy in the first place.

The collective ‘nah’

There are a lot of events where Bethenny’s comment would have gone by unchecked.

But not on this day and not in this room.

Dear White People
Photo credit: Dear White People (Lionsgate)

Throughout the room and at every table, there were women of color. The four black women at my table weren’t going to ignore the comment. The women like Mary Pryor who stood up and succinctly told Bethenny just how wrong she was were not going to give her a pass.

At this conference, we had a voice.

That was able to happen because Project Entrepreneur made it a priority to have women of color in the audience.

We didn’t need a white guy in the room that weekend and we don’t need one when we go pitch.

5 Comments

  1. This is the first satisfactory answer I’ve read concerning the “white elephant” question. Thank you, Monique. I wondered how do you go around the issue of using white men to validate your business. Simply do not go after investors who prefer to deal with white men. Stay true to that. Who will be most comfortable with YOU? My husband and I have a business we want funded. This greatly helps our approach.

  2. Thank you so much for giving a fulfilling answer to something I was very curious about. I’m 22 years old and I’ve always had an entrepreneur mind set and hustle. I’m working on starting one of my first successful business’s. It’s really good to know that I can research some of the questions I have and find the answer! What you’re doing is fabulous and I love the definition option(my mother has one on her site as well ). Peace and blessings to all that’s reading!

  3. I am loving this! The white elephant issue is so true. I have heard people tell me how excellent my business is but I need a white man to get me there. This is an insult to my entrepreneur mind. Thank you for clearing this up. I hope to be able to obtain funding to help achieve my business goals. Thank uou!

  4. This is beautiful yet touchy convo to some. Most people tend to think that you have to ” white wash” your business to get capital or to get to the next level with your start up. I do not believe that. I was asked when creating my website why am I using a ” Black Faces” on my coupons, advertisement etc. I simply asked them were they blind? My business is a reflection of me full circle. And I feel like if someone doesn’t want to do business with me based on the fact that I am black woman, then they do not need to. Identity is very important to me. And you are correct when saying ” how you start is surely how you will end”

  5. I am absolutely motivated by this article!

    In the past, I mistakenly used this approach, and found that it made the “white males” feel like I couldn’t be successful without them, to the point that I was bullied in my board meetings, and failed to raise the necessary capital. When an investment firm did express serious interest, the firm wanted to work with only ME and one other Founder, of my choice. At the time, I had four “Co-Founders”, and one was a Latina Doctorate. Unfortunately, the Latina Doctorate eliminated herself, and she was my first choice. Truth be told, I had done most of the work alone, and my team was in place to give MY HARD WORK AND VISION, credibility. The problem was, although it was a great team, no one was wiling to invest in the VISION, beyond “sweat equity”, which was a requirement of the firm. All had a wonderful network of contacts and could’ve gotten us funding long time ago, but they didn’t.

    When investors, who loved the concept, inquired about the team’s investment, I didn’t have an answer suitable to substantiate the cohesiveness and responsibility of a “true” team, which caused them to question our ability, as a whole, to make it happen.

    It was an investment firm of young white males, who stepped up, told me how to make the offer more attractive, educated me on the venture capital process by suggesting I read a book entitled “Venture Deals”, but still gave me a term sheet…A young woman of color. The team I had was completely uncomfortable with the requests of the investment firm, because they were NOT involved. Things began unraveling with the team, right then.

    At that point, I learned everything I was led to believe in the beginning was not true. At that point, I realized MY true value to MY company and it had nothing to do with race, gender, credentials, or anything else for the RIGHT investment firm. Unfortunately, so often other Founders believe these things and are often discouraged by them.

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