Most accelerators and incubators have a part of their program focused on at least one aspect of pitching. It might be the pitch to get in, it might be training to present to investors, it might be to jump on stage at a demo day. Pitching is come to be part of the “normal” and “expected” procedures to enter a support program, to attract private equity investors, to win startup competitions and much more.
We agree on the fundamentals of the pitch, which does carry many upsides. Indeed, it forces the entrepreneur to concentrate on very important aspects of their company, it teaches them to learn how to convey value propositions, how to focus on the problems and the solutions. It is a very quick way for investors and other ecosystem players to understand if there might really be “something” behind a business idea, an innovation, a team. However, the pitch, that so many accelerators and incubators believe must be a part of their offering, could be damaging another thing that so many programs very much want to improve, diversity, and it is proven that it has an impact particularly on gender diversity.
We are not questioning the value of the pitch per se. We do recognize its value and its power. Rather our question is: should pitching hold such a primary position in our entrepreneurship support programs when aiming at achieving greater gender balance?
It is a fact that those at the receiving end of the pitch, be it investors or jury member at startup competitions or at demo days, are strongly biased in favor of male entrepreneurs. A mindset change is needed, of course, but such a change within the current ecosystems will take time, time that we do not have at hand. Furthermore, this role should be mostly onboarded by the educational organizations that are forming tomorrow’s leaders. We, as industry practitioner should probably consider the given mindset as a constant and not as a variable in the entrepreneurship support equation since we are working to support entrepreneurs here and now.
So, if in the short term we cannot change the mindset of those who will be listening to the pitch and making life/death decisions on a startup (no matter in what stage the startup is), what can we do about the pitch, as active players in the entrepreneurship support industry to increase diversity now?
The first thing is to recognize that the more we glorify the pitch, the more we contribute to maintaining its place in the startup world. This might require structural changes in the deployment of our entrepreneurship support value chains. For example we might need to re-think our training programs, or the typical “apply-pitch-enter” methodology that very often is used to select those teams which will receive precious support.
We can start by reducing the prominence of the pitch to enter your incubation or acceleration program. It was at Start it @KBC that we tried this out, by asking startups that were in the second stage of selection to get into the program, to do a 3-minute pitch without slides and then leaving 7 minutes to Q&A before deciding on whether to offer a place on the program. The simple fact of killing the slides established more of a conversation mode rather than a pitch mode, which was key to enable a more unbiased decision-making process.
Another thing that can be done is to train founders on how to approach a conversation with an investor and not end up pitching. If you go into a sales meeting, a good salesperson will go armed with a list of questions for the buyers to get to know them, build a relationship, see if there is a match, and only after this start providing much information about what is available to buy.
If we establish that investment is like a sale, where if the investor likes what they see then they buy a piece of the company, then why should the first conversation with this buyer look any different? A great investor wants to know that there is a good match both ways, that not only do you want their money, but you want to work with them for many years, so you want to get to know them. And how would you get to know this? By having a first meeting with lots of questions both ways, checking to see if you can work together well. Not a pitch.
To achieve this, a founder needs to set the expectation that this is how they would like the first conversation to go, and why. And if you both like what you hear then you can go into details in the next meeting, and there you go, now you are into a series of conversations and have missed the pitch.
The heart of the matter is that everyone does better in the longer term getting to know each other via a conversation than by one viewing on a stage. You can still practice for that conversation as much as you would for a pitch, just what you are practicing differs. It is through conversation that barriers are overcome and through the establishment of more personal connections that biases can be reduced, and diversity improved, and the pitch is not the best tool to make this happen.
 A very interesting article that proves our point: VC Stereotypes About Men and Women Aren’t Supported by Performance Data (Harvard Business Review, March 2015, Malin Malmstrom, Aija Voitkane, Jeaneth Johansson, and Joakim Wincent)