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All Boats Did Not Rise...Do Not Let Them Sink Now

by Melissa Withers

“National reports predict funding overall for startups will dry up for some time; how do you anticipate this will affect the viability of existing startups and prospective ones?”

This question came to me by email last week. It wasn’t the first time. In the last month, I have been asked by founders, journalists, panel moderators, and even my family, if the Covid-19 recession means the end of startup funding as we know it.

Everything about this question alarms me. The glib reference to unspecified “reports.” The casual assertion that startup capital is a monolith. The fallacy that raising money is a singular experience, a road that all founders climb, ants on a log.

The capital we use to build companies isn’t from a single source. Different forms of capital respond differently to market fluctuations. In a recession, some will invest more, some less, and all behave differently. More to the point, access to capital isn’t a singular journey along a line drawn between company and investor. Some lines are longer than others. Some don’t connect at all. Who gets funded, and how connections get made, is less about economics and more about who you are, where you live, and who you know.

The proof is in the historical pudding: women, people of color, those in secondary geographies, etc. get a dismally small amount of total funding. This is despite ample research showing these founders deliver superior returns with greater capital efficiency.

Yes, I’m worried about startup funding. But my fear isn't that the mythical monolith of startup funding will suddenly dry up--it’s that funding for some founders will dry up much more quickly than it does for others.

The biases that pervade startup investing are omni-present. If there have been victories, they have been small: a tiny uptick in stats, the permission to discuss race and gender in slightly less hushed tones, jaunty trips to scout for unicorns in secondary markets. Be real: the work to create a less biased startup funding system is in its infancy.

This is why the question about declines in “overall funding,” angers me. The insidious whitewash of the question. The conceptual simplification that obscures what startup investment really is: already unavailable to most.

Here’s the question I wish more people were asking: Who will be hurt the most if investing in early stage companies decreases? And what can we do to protect them?

In the last month, I’ve seen plenty of investment come into companies I work with. My fund wrote a check last week. These are companies that are well positioned to grow, even in a turbulent time. They are good companies. But, they are also run by founders who have access to high quality networks of support. They were mostly white, very few women, and living in top tier geographies. People who know people, if you catch my drift.

Women, people of color, entrepreneurs in small towns and rural places...these are the people who will be left behind. Again. As meetings go virtual, networks become more insular, and people travel less from their home networks—literally and figuratively—investors will turn to the comfort of old patterns even if they are wrong.

Then, we’ll blame this behavior on the recession, not on what it is: a systemic pattern of bias. A retraction to old norms, the ones we were just beginning to challenge before a viral pandemic put the global economy on ice.

If a recession is going to tighten our investment belts, or change the flow of capital, now is the time to shine a light on those most likely to bear the brunt of this adjustment.

I can’t tell you if these are the right things for you to do, but these are three things I am doing as an investors to resist the entrenched biases that seem well poised to thrive in the shadows of the Covid-19 crisis:

  1. Restate my commitment

Through my fund, RevUp Capital, I launched Operation Athena, a program meant to provide support for women-led companies. Offering quiet or “spiritual” support is just not good enough. I hope being more overt in our decision to direct resources to these founders will encourage others to do the same

2. Work harder to create new connections from home

So much of my work to increase diversity in the RevUp portfolio has been tied to in-person events and travel to places where I could tap into new networks. The end of this activity has been a huge adjustment, personally and professionally, and I can already feel my universe contracting. I have challenged myself to keep building my reach into communities where I can participate as a mentor, champion or investor. This means a few hours each week dedicated to meeting new people online.

3. My time is my weapon

I am lucky to mentor companies, even if just for 20-30 minutes. Some of the most rewarding exchanges I’ve had came from these random collisions. Pre-pandemic I held meetings in Chattanooga, Nashville, Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, D.C. Miami, Pittsburgh. You name it, I got around. It is unlikely that travel will resume anytime soon but the time I would have spent at those events is still mine to give. I’ve designated 6 hours a week for meeting with founders who are female, non-binary, a first-time founder, a military veteran, non-white, or like me, the first person in their family to graduate college. You can request a meeting by emailing me at Melissa at revupfund.com.

Most importantly, there are others out there doing much more than this, and I will do what I can to pitch in and help them go farther, faster. I hope you will too. The work to transcend bias in investing is the work of a generation, and we can't let it be undone by Covid-19.

All boats did not rise, but that’s no excuse to let them sink now.

Melissa Withers is Founding Partner of RevUp Capital, a non-equity investment fund for B2B and B2C companies that are moving fast up a revenue-fueled growth curve. An experienced fund manager and biz builder with 100+ investments under management, Melissa is committed to driving innovation in investment and building new ways to help founders create big, successful companies. With a background in customer experience / customer development, go-to-market strategy, and company storytelling, She began her career at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT, working the intersection of biological sciences and public policy, before starting her own entrepreneurial journey as a founder.Aside from being a strong advocate for closing the diversity gap in technology and investment, Melissa enjoys running, hiking and gin drinks.

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