Feinzaig: Female Founders Alliance

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Updated February 11, 2023

Leslie Feinzaig (Graham & Walker, Female Founders Alliance)

Leslie Feinzaig started one of the biggest communities of female founders, the Female Founders Alliance. At its core is a simple principle: you are stronger together. Over the last few years, it has developed from a mentoring and sharing community to running an accelerator and a VC fund, Graham & Walker, all with a focus on female entrepreneurs. Leslie is hopeful and is seeing the fruits of her and others’ hard work, but she worries about the increase in women leaving the workforce and the lack of support when it comes to childcare and parental leave policies.

Interviewed February 2021

Banding Together to Combat Gender Bias

Johannes Lenhard (JL): In 2017, you founded one of the biggest startup communities for women, the Female Founders Alliance (FFA), which currently has 25K+ members. What motivated you to do that and what aims did you have with it?

Leslie Feinzaig (LF): I do not have a founding story like other companies or startups. It was not as if I woke up one day and decided to build this. It was more that I was going through all the motions of growing my company—find a co-founder, raise some capital, and hire people. In the process of it, I hit a wall, and I started this community as a way to help myself.

Gender wasn’t something that I had ever felt held me back before. Throughout my early career, the idea that I was having a different experience than my peers because I am a girl, or because I am a mom, or because I am Latina, or whatever—it never occurred to me at the time. With the benefit of hindsight I realize that I was wrong, of course gender had an impact. I spent decades internalizing what turned out to be gendered feedback—that I was too emotional, too quiet, too loud, too aggressive, etc.—and just assumed that there was something wrong with me that I had to keep working at fixing.

That changed in the context of trying to raise capital. The impact of gender was no longer quiet, it was obvious. I was the only woman in the room so much of the time. The reasons I got rejected were very often clearly stemming from gender bias. And what’s more—it was not fine anymore to be treated differently. It was demoralizing. It was minimizing. And it was a waste of time while I was getting my startup off the ground.

What’s now the Female Founders Alliance began as a small Facebook group. I started adding all the women that I met along the way. It was what I needed for myself at the time—a group of peers that tacitly agreed to lock arms, help out, and figure it out together. And it turned out a lot more women needed it too. Four years later, with a lot of work, it is a much bigger thing.

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JL: Now, after several years of running and growing the community, what do you think it does for female founders? In what way is it something important for them, and how is it concretely helpful?

LF: We run a private online group that is super active and for founders only. No investors, no employees, no media. It’s much easier to be authentic and vulnerable when you’re not being evaluated. We run programs to match founders one-to-one with investors, media, and subject-matter experts routinely through the year—we broker hundreds of these meetings annually. This is a big part of the secret sauce: to broker relationships that result in the startups’ advancement. And we run a very successful accelerator. You can learn more and join the community at femalefounders.org. It is free and accessible to scalable startup founders everywhere.

Best Practices for First-Time Founders

JL: Are there two or three best practices for underrepresented founders to succeed?

LF: In my experience, the biggest challenges are faced by first-time founders that are also outsiders to venture capital and tech. Picture a more traditional founder: a software developer or a product manager from Stanford or Google or Facebook, or a hot growing startup that “fits the type” and is well connected to angel investors. Underrepresented founders who also don’t have those mainstream credentials and that network are the ones who have it hardest.

So if you are some version of that founder, what do you do?

The short answer is you have to prove yourself first, and build out your network. One way to do that is to try working for a well-known startup for a while, and develop your idea on the side. That way you add to your experience on how startups work, add to your credentials, and add to your network. This is especially doable these days when so many startups are hiring remotely, you don’t actually have to move to Silicon Valley to get that experience anymore.

If you don’t have the time or ability to do that, then you have to build those same proof points through your startup itself. The first and most effective way to do that is to gain traction with your company. Get real customers that love what you offer, even if your product has to be a very minimal version of what you want it to be. Focus on growing that customer base reliably. Real results are hard for any VC to argue with.

Simultaneously, you have to build your reputation among possible investors. Meet them before you need their money, and keep them updated so that they can witness you delivering results and will be more ready to invest in you when you ask.

Finally, it is so important to surround yourself with a community that is supportive, authentic, and tangibly helpful. It helps on so many levels! You get to share the ups and downs, and get advice from others who know the space. You get access to resources and introductions—a huge help in building that network of investors, or access to that network, from your own peers. Because most investors won’t know you, so a referral from another founder is the next best thing. We need more mechanisms by which those first-time founders get taken seriously, and these referral networks are an incredibly powerful and grassroots approach to solving that problem together.

JL: Have you seen any that work well?

LF: That is what our accelerator does. We look for founders nobody else believes in. We admit first-time founders who have achieved traction on their own, and we put a stamp of approval on them a little bit, and we teach them how to play the game and talk the talk. This is specifically our accelerator, which is much smaller than our community. We have done it three times, graduating eight startups per cohort. It is tiny, if you compare it to Y Combinator, which is graduating 300 startups a year. I am doing eight, but we really take care of those eight. Our most recent cohort graduated in December, and half of them have already closed their rounds, collectively raising $7M.

Our approach is to teach founders how to pitch venture capitalists properly, drill down into their business model to help them be defensible when investors dig deeper, and exhaustively have them practice formal and informal investor interactions, over and over again, until they’re super confident. We teach them how to run a fundraising process so that it is successful. On the other side of the program is our investor community, we help legitimize these startups for our large investor community. We tell the investors, these are founders you should talk to, and since the accelerator is so selective, and so much goes into picking the cohort, they believe us. By the end of the program, we put the founders in front of close to 200 VCs and angel investors.

The Latest Hit to Women’s Success in the Economy and in VC

JL: What are the biggest challenges ahead of us right now, maybe thinking about the next five years, when it comes to inclusion? What can we do about it?

LF: Coming out of the pandemic, the biggest challenge I see is women’s participation in the economy, which just took an unprecedented hit. We had been very slowly but consistently making progress, increasing awareness of issues, talking about things, improving them. That is not where we are anymore, by almost any measure. Many women, moms especially, have left the workforce entirely. In my space, the proportion of venture capital invested in women dropped substantially—it is now more unequal than it was when FFA got started. It is going to take a real effort to claw back out of what we just went through.

JL: Do you have any big push that you would like to see over the next 12+ months that would really help with the issues you’re seeing around women’s participation in the economy?

LF: Parental leave, support for childcare. Equitable parental leave is really important. We need to start supporting dads and other parents the same as we do moms. I went to the London School of Economics and I did a senior thesis; twenty years ago, I was arguing for equal paternity-maternity leave before it was cool. We need bigger support for new parents. I would love to see real innovation in the childcare space.

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