Business Insider Edition

A star Silicon Valley investor who sold her startup for R2.4 billion reveals the jarring tactic she had to use to make men pay attention to her pitches

Zoë Bernard , Business Insider US
 Apr 14, 2018, 02:07 PM

Polyvore CEO and Sequoia partner Jess Lee
  • Sequoia Capital investing partner Jess Lee said that she used an effective tactic to command investors' attention when she was raising capital for her former company, Polyvore.
  • The tactic involved startling all the men at the beginning of pitch meetings by slamming a stack of magazines down loudly on the desk.
  • Along with a group of female founders and investors, Lee is offering practical guidance to female entrepreneurs through the project Female Founder Office Hours.  
  • One of Lee's top tips to female entrepreneurs is to enter their pitch meetings with confidence. 


Before Jess Lee became the first female investing partner at Sequoia Capital's Silicon Valley firm in the US, she was a successful entrepreneur. Lee cofounded Polyvore, a fashion e-commerce company that was acquired by Yahoo for about $200 million, or around R2.4 billion.

But in Polyvore's early days, Lee struggled to raise money for it. 

Lee would often find herself walking into a room full of disinterested male investors. In order to capture their attention and shake her nerves, she began her pitch meetings with a jarring tactic.

In an interview with Business Insider, Lee said that she would hold a stack of Vogue magazines tucked under her arm. Without warning, she'd slam them down on the table and announce: "There is $100 million worth of advertising in these magazines."

She'd pause, then continue, "Now, imagine that on the internet."

When it comes to raising capital, making an impression in a board meeting filled with potential investors can be integral to a company's success. 

Laurel Touby, a New York-based entrepreneur and managing partner at Supernode Ventures, said that commanding a room is key to a successful pitch. However, Touby said many female founders she meets with often lack confidence in these situations. 

"Too often, a woman will walk into the room and her body language will detract from her presentation," said Touby. "She'll speak softly or mumble, or she won't express herself as someone who is expected to be heard and listened to."

Now that she's an investor, Touby admits a founder's demeanor often has a direct effect on her interest in investing in their company.

"Unfortunately, I've only invested in a few female-founded companies," said Touby. "I feel turned off when a founder doesn't seem forceful. Being too gentle is a strike against anyone, whether you're a woman or a man, particularly when you're forcing your way into someone's pocketbook."

A few of the women offering guidance to fellow female entrepreneurs through Female Founder Office Hours.

Another founder, Binti CEO Felicia Curcuru, said she's used the same theatrical entrance Lee employed when walking into pitch meetings in the past. Binti specialises in developing software for foster care programs.

"When I was getting capital for a seed round, I'd walk into the room, and again and again, it would be filled with all male investors," Curcuru told Business Insider. "I wanted to show them that I was in charge, so I brought a prop along."

Curcuru's prop was a massive book filled with pages and pages of foster care and adoption paper work.

"I wanted to show investors how terrible the current process for foster care and adoption is," said Curcuru. 

As she entered the room, Curcuru would hurl the book down on the table and announce,"This is what the current process for adoption and foster care is right now."

Not only did Curcuru end up raising capital, but she found that her forceful entrance had a memorable impact. "Even people who hadn't sat in on the round would know who I was," she said. "They'd say, 'Oh, you're the girl that slammed the binder.' It made an impression."

Now, Cucuru and Lee are teaming up to offer this kind of practical advice to other female startup founders. The project, called Female Founder Office Hours, pairs women with mentors who can offer guidance on how to build and manage a company, raise capital, and create an effective pitchdeck. 

Since November, Lee said the project has received interest from close to 1,500 women.  While the amount of interest has been overwhelming, Lee said it didn't surprise her. 

"I'm a former female founder, and so, no, I'm not surprised," said Lee. "Starting a company is so hard and there's so much inside baseball knowledge on how to fundraise that I wasn't surprised people were crying out for that kind of help."

One of the project's primary goals is to increase the percentage of venture capital backing for female founders by 10%, said Lee. On Thursday, Female Founder Office Hours announced the addition of more than 120 female founders to its resource base. The group includes CEOs and founders from companies like Glossier, Brandless, Houzz, Shippo, and Stitch Fix who will help guide female founders.

Entering a room with confidence is among the top tips Lee said she offers to new founders. Another piece of advice Lee emphasises is the importance of female founders surrounding themselves with like-minded women.

"It's so important to have a community of founders for empathy and social support," said Lee.

"We need to get more women out there. Women are perfectly capable of building great companies, and we can get there by helping each other.

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