3 founders share strategies for navigating bias and building confidence

Entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups are more likely to face an uphill climb than their white, male counterparts, but their challenges stretch well beyond systemic bias and a general lack of access to capital.

Women, transgender and Black startup founders must navigate myriad issues for which there is no playbook: People of color may question how much of their authentic selves they can bring to the workplace, CEO moms are more likely to shoulder the majority of their family’s childcare responsibilities, and many workers have never been led by someone who’s gone through gender transitioning.

In a TechCrunch Disrupt Extra Crunch Stage panel titled “The Path for Underrepresented Founders,” I spoke with Hana Mohan, a transgender woman who is the CEO and co-founder of MagicBell, a notification platform for product teams; Leslie Feinzaig, a Latina entrepreneur who started the Female Founders Alliance; and Stephen Bailey, a Black man who is the founder and CEO of Exec Online, an online leadership development platform.

We went slightly over our allotted time; the conversation was a blend of frank talk about their lived experiences and practical discussion about some of the strategies that help them keep moving forward.

Despite their varied backgrounds, each panelist agreed that it’s important for founders who aren’t from privilege or wealth to understand and accept that systemic bias is real. And because Silicon Valley touts itself as a meritocracy, the gap between expectation and reality can create cognitive dissonance.

When Feinzaig was fundraising in 2017, “I expected that it would be hard. But I also expected that it would be fair,” she said. “And in reality, it was just kind of a gaslit experience. I felt like I was in this really dark room. And nobody would tell me how to turn on the lights.”

Mohan, whose company graduated Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 cohort, said pattern-recognition bias doesn’t just influence who investors decide to work with; it also informs how founders present themselves and their companies.

“White cis men, they tend to have a bravado about how they talk, this kind of exuberant, ‘we are going to crush the competition,'” she said. “I definitely felt that when I would sprinkle my pitch with some of those words, it definitely resonated more, like you have to communicate that excitement is naturally amply balanced.”