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Founder Friday: The Realities of Being a Female CEO in a Male-Dominated Industry, with Heidi Zak

As a #ByWomenForWomen company, we love celebrating brands that are led by fellow female founders. Our new series, Founder Friday, is a chance to get to know some of these standout women, including our very own Heidi Zak!

Raising money as a female founder is difficult. It’s challenging for anyone to get funding for a startup, but as a woman in the male-dominated lingerie industry, there’s an added degree of difficulty.

I can still remember one particular pitch while raising money for ThirdLove. I show up to this meeting with my husband Dave, who also happens to be my co-founder. We give our pitch and feel pretty confident. Then, at the end of the meeting, the guy gets up and says:

“Sorry, but we only invest in businesses we understand.”

That didn’t bode well for a women’s bra and underwear startup.

I mean, isn’t that crazy? His company invests in blockchain and data analytics, but he only invests in things he understands? I had a hard time believing that.

Unfortunately, as a female founder, I often encountered maddening responses from investors like this. I found that since our product was targeted at women, it was exponentially harder to raise money in the early days. And quite simply, it’s because we were almost exclusively pitching to a male audience who didn’t understand the need for a better bra, and a better way to buy it, in the market.

I’ve had a male investor rave about our metrics upfront. But then he sent us an email saying that he’d already invested in a female e-commerce company, and he wasn’t passionate enough to invest in another. Even though we were nothing like that e-commerce company, we were another female brand. He wasn’t excited enough to get involved.

This is where I realized that having a male co-founder made sense. For us, it was an advantage and a way to connect with investors that didn’t always understand our product or the market. If Dave could connect with men about bras, our company made sense to a wider range of potential investors.

Recently, I’ve heard that investors are more interested in co-founder teams that include at least one woman instead of an all-male team. It is crazy to look back at our experience six years ago and see how far the community has come in working with and understanding women-led companies.

It made sense for me to work with my husband Dave, and not just because male VCs felt more comfortable with another guy in the room. It turned out to actually be a good idea for us to pitch ThirdLove together. There were certain meetings when I led the whole pitch because I was connecting better with the investor. Then, there were times when Dave led because we noticed that was where the connection was. It was by no means a necessity to have a male co-founder on board, but it worked for us because we stayed true to our values throughout the process.

ThirdLove was providing millions of women a better fitting bra and a better way to buy it, and that’s what we could get investors excited about. We spent a lot of time focusing on how we were leveraging technology, creating a better fitting experience online and innovating in our supply chain. It was challenging, but it worked.

Six years later, our organization is run by a majority female executive team, our team is over 80% women and more than 11 million women have found their perfect fit with ThirdLove.

Turns out investing in a #ByWomenForWomen organization was a pretty good bet.

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