Lauren Washington is the cofounder and CEO of Fundr, a platform that automates and removes bias from seed investing by creating portfolios of AI-vetted startups.
Prior to this, Lauren cofounded Black Women Talk Tech, the largest membership organization and only conference for black women founders and KeepUp, an automated social listening platform. Her companies have won multiple awards including 43North, the Advanced Imaging Society’s Distinguished Leadership Award and the Austin Inno Fire Award. She has been featured in The New York Times, TechCrunch, Elle, Inc and Fortune and has been listed as a top entrepreneur in CIO Magazine, Essence Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine and the ForbesNEXT1000 list.
Lauren started her career as a special education teacher with Teach for America and went on to develop marketing and data strategy for over 100 global companies at InStyle Magazine, TVGuide and Omnicom Group. She has her BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. She is on the board of advisors for SXSW Pitch, Athena and New Profit’s Future of Work Fund.
What do you do when you’re forced to shut down a business you’ve poured everything into? How do you break past the isolation of fighting your entrepreneurial battles alone?
How is fundraising different for you as a woman than it is for your male peers? And what does it mean for your venture?
Should you go it alone? Or get a cofounder? What are the two things women founders must do to do better at raising money?
Lauren Washington, cofounder of Fundr and the Black Women Talk tech conference, answered all these questions and more in inaugural session of the Liftoff by Achiiv.
- How to know if you’re cut out to be an entrepreneur
- How to get past the inevitable failures with your venture / startup
- Why connecting with others like you brings power and impact
- The story behind Black Women Talk tech, and the lives it has changed
- The three biggest challenges women entrepreneurs face
- Why it’s harder to fundraise as a woman, and how to address the challenge
- The two critical things women entrepreneurs must do when fundraising
- How to find the right advisors for your startup
- How to decide whether to go solo or find a cofounder
- Tips to become a successful nontechnical founder
- How Fundr beat the pros at their own game
- The single most important thing you must demonstrate with your startup
Links & Resources
Fundr.ai – AI-driven funding platform for early-stage investing, cofounded by Lauren
Black Women Talk Tech – Tech conference specifically for Black women tech entrepreneurs, cofounded by Lauren
43North – Startup accelerator and incubator
SXSW – Popular tech, media and culture conference held annually in Austin, TX
Founders of Color Showcase – Investor collective focused on early stage investments in startups founded by entrepreneurs of color
The Mom Test – popular book on how to conduct customer development interviews
Shubha Chakravarthy: Lauren, welcome to The Liftoff from Achiiv. I’m Shubha Chakravarthy, founder of Achiiv. Today we have with us Lauren Washington, who is the CEO and co-founder of Fundr, which is a platform that automates and removes bias from seed investing by creating portfolios of AI-vetted startups.
Lauren is also the co-founder of Black Women Talk Tech, a conference that focuses on the challenges and helping Black women progress and succeed in the tech sector. So we’re very delighted to have Lauren. She has significant experience advising startups, and entrepreneurs of various stripes and colors.
She has a lot to share and we’re excited to get started.
So welcome, Lauren. And thank you for being here today with us.
Lauren Washington: Thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So Lauren, you have had a pretty exciting journey to entrepreneurship. Can you just walk us through what led you to entrepreneurship in the first place?
Lauren Washington: Yeah, it’s a long story. In terms of how I got here, I think I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since I was little. I started small businesses – I had a tomato stand that I sold my neighbor’s tomatoes to my other neighbors.
I would love to shadow people in their small businesses. So I worked at a candy shop and a doctor’s office and an architect firm and, and I just really love the idea of ownership. My parents also were entrepreneurial. My mom had a spa that she ran and so I think it just is kind of in my blood. But after I had graduated undergrad, I knew I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but wasn’t quite ready for that.
I just wanted to get a little bit more experience in the business world and understand things. So I worked for about 10 years. I got my MBA. I worked at Omnicom group at a rotational program and in my last job, on the agency side, I was essentially working with Big Data.
So this was back in 2012 where Big Data was just getting started and people were really excited about the insights you could pull out of it.
And that’s what our department did. We went through and looked at insights and I thought, this is a great business idea to help automate something like this and bring it to other people so they don’t have to pay as much to get these types of insights.
That was what started my first company. It wasn’t necessarily that I was ready to be an entrepreneur at the moment. It wasn’t that I had this perfect plan. It was just like, I knew I was moving towards this and when the lightning would strike and I got excited about something, I knew I would be ready to move forward. And that’s sort of what happened.
So since then, it’s been about eight years and I’ve been an entrepreneur and running four different businesses now.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, have there been some pivotal points that stand out in your mind, those that impacted your journey or your direction decisively, one way or another.
Lauren Washington: I think there are so many big moments. some of them that you decide yourself, some of them that are decided for you. But particularly as an entrepreneur, , there’s so many things that you have to solve for in your journey and your time.
I always say for people, if you don’t like putting out fires all the time, then being an entrepreneur is not for you because there’s always something that you have to fix. There’s always something that you have to sort of navigate around.
I would say for me, one of my big moments was in my first company when it closed. I was really excited about that business. We had won $250,000 through the 43 north competition up in Buffalo, and then weren’t able to raise again.
We hit a number of issues because Cambridge Analytica had come out and all of these social media platforms, which we were connecting into and was a core of our service started to shut down to third party developers. And so we saw the writing on the wall weren’t really able to move forward.
And that was a really painful moment for me to have to give up on that dream and something that I had put so much time into and had sacrificed so much for, but I realized eventually that it wasn’t the end of my entrepreneurial journey.
And I think sometimes people think, “Okay, well, this didn’t work perfectly and exactly as I wanted it to my idea didn’t work, or the business itself didn’t work. And therefore my dream of being entrepreneur is over” and that’s not true. I think always having your sights on a longer term goal and being open to the different curves along the way is really important.
And I think that what has come out of that first business closing is so much more powerful than I think that first business ever could have given.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s pretty interesting. So it sounds like there was a realization that this was a long-term journey. It was a marathon not a sprint, as they say. So, in addition to the business challenge, did you face any inner hurdle that made you question yourself or your ability to succeed?
And if so, how did you get over those?
Lauren Washington: Oh, for sure. I think I have those still pretty much like every week questioning whether I’m right for this and whether it’s not me. It’s pretty constant because I think you’re coming up again against a lot of different challenges, particularly if you’re starting a new business and something that hasn’t been done before, you’re going to get a lot of no’s.
You’re going get a lot of people rejecting , you’re going to get a lot of people telling you that this is never going to work, that no one’s ever going to like this. So if you don’t have a really strong center, and a really strong goal in mind, and understanding exactly what you’re trying to put out in the world, that can shake you.
And even if you do have that, that can shake you.
So it’s definitely not for the thin-skinned, to be an entrepreneur and particularly not in the venture-backed world. So for me, absolutely, I think taking criticisms and feedback, and being able to take the good parts of it, and saying, “Okay, well this is something I may need to change or understanding” when they just don’t get it and they’re just not aligned with you at the moment.
It’s something that you have to kind of learn as an entrepreneur, but I would say on a very regular basis, it’s still continues to happen.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s an interesting point. You talk about this core and this inner goal kind of like a compass almost.
So if it’s not the business or the idea, because that can change the market can change or , wasn’t what you think it was. What would you define as that core or that guiding light? What keeps you going in those dark moments?
Lauren Washington: There’s, there’s a saying that says don’t fall in love with your idea because whatever your original idea was is probably going to iterate and change.
There’s very few businesses that started as something and ended as that. Or got great success as that. So there’s going to be iterations. There may be full pivots. There may be businesses that shut down. But what you need to think about is the problem that you’re interested in solving.
So, if that problem is truly important to you, if that problem keeps you up at night, if you can’t stop talking about it and your friends and family are so sick of hearing about the things that you’re trying to solve, that’s your compass.
And the way that you solve that may be different, but the problem is always the same.
So really thinking through, “Okay, what’s a different solution towards what I’m trying to do?” and not really just being tied or wed to that initial idea.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s a great insight. Pivoting slightly to Black Women Talk Tech, that’s the biggest conference for black women in technology.
It’s something that is personally close to my heart. What was the impetus to start that? What were you hoping to accomplish? Can you talk a bit about that?
Lauren Washington: . So Black Women Talk Tech sort of started accidentally because I had met the two other women who ended up becoming my co-founders and they were working on their tech companies at the same time I was working on my first company. And we just talked about some of the issues that we were going through and some of the things we came up against,
And it was so powerful because at that time, this was probably some time in summer of 2015. So I’d been working on my business for about a year. I didn’t interact with other Black women tech founders. This was back in 2015. There were just there wasn’t the same amount of spotlight, and resources for Black founder as there is now, which is exciting to see.
But then it felt like when you came across another woman or another woman of color at a conference, it was so exciting to see that, and to hear the types of stories that you have actually reflected in somebody else.
Because I think sometimes when you become isolated, it can feel like you are the only one, like “I’m a terrible entrepreneur. I can’t raise this money and therefore something’s wrong with me or my business.”
But then when you hear a thousand other women saying they’re having trouble accessing funding, and then you hear reports coming out to say that there’s a huge funding gap, that makes a big difference.
Just even having that knowledge helps you sort of navigate things differently. And so that’s really where it came from. We had our first retreat. And it was about 10 people. And then we said, “Okay, let’s expand this. Let’s see if there’s anyone else out here.” And we found 30. More come together in a room that ended up being 300 people in a room.
And then, every single year grew pretty exponentially from there. I think it was really just finding that space that nobody else was in and authentically , speaking to the issues that, Black Women Tech Founders face.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Would you be able to highlight maybe three or four themes that you’ve kind of heard over and over again that seem to keep popping up?
Lauren Washington: Yeah, funding is number one, always. It’s always number one.
How to get funding, how to navigate the system, what to do if you can’t get funding, all of it comes together , the emotional side of funding and talking to VCs, how to pitch yourself, how to grow your business.
All of that is always number one. I think number two is probably around being a non-technical founder, and co-founders as well, because a lot of Black women are not technical.
And so how do I find that technical person? Can I do this without a technical person? Do I even want to have a co-founder, which we’ve found a lot of Black women tend to be solo founders, and that doesn’t necessarily fit perfectly into the industry. So really understanding what that looks like and how you can come up and do something differently.
And then I would say, the last piece is really just about scaling, and growing your business operationally with HR, all of these things that are not necessarily passed along in our community, because I think oftentimes when we think about business and the Black community, it’s a barber shop. And it’s a restaurant or it’s things that are physical and tangible, like hairdressers.
And that’s great, but they don’t have the same issues in terms of scaling that a tech company does. It’s a totally different conversation. And so what does that really look like when you’re trying to scale a large company?
How do I think about this in a different way from a brick and mortar business. .
Shubha Chakravarthy: What were some of the takeaways that you heard from participants in terms of, “Okay, now I know about these pressing issues that I didn’t know, pre Black Women Talk Tech”, were there things that keep coming up in terms of learnings, insights that maybe others like us can use?
Lauren Washington: I would say in terms of funding, and this is something I tell a lot of people, is just to understand that your journey is going to look different because I think if you know that your journey is different from the beginning, then you’re better prepared for how to run your business long term. So it’s unlikely that you are going to get $5 million for an idea on a napkin.
And I have seen it happen over and over again with my counterparts. And I’ve not yet seen that happen for a Black woman. And so understanding that you can’t run or prepare your business to have that very fast upfront capital, your journey is going to look a little bit different. It’s probably going be a lot longer.
It’s probably going to be much more arduous. Most of the women I know who’ve raised money, a significant amount of money, have had to go out and talk to literally hundreds of investors, where on average people talk to about 20.
And so making sure that you’re prepared for that journey not only emotionally, but in terms of your business and operational foundation is really, really important and something that you need to understand.
Yeah. My journey is going to look different. It’s going to be a little bit harder. Might not be fair, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t get to those goals.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So really about preparation and preparing for the long haul, making sure both the financial and the emotional wherewithal to stick it out, even in spite of all of those headwinds that you face.
Lauren Washington: Exactly. Exactly.
Shubha Chakravarthy: In terms of impact, is there something that you can look back that you think, or you’re particularly proud of in terms of a dent that the conference made or is making for the women entrepreneurs themselves from an industry standpoint?
Lauren Washington: Oh, there’s so many. I mean, we would get so many emails from people around how just being in the room itself around other incredible women and seeing themselves reflected inspired them to start a business or inspired them to keep going in their business when they were feeling deflated.
People have found their co-founders at our business they found jobs. They come just to be around other startups, they’ve gotten funding.
So there’s dozens of women that we’ve helped getting funding either through our pitch competition or by connecting them directly to investors. And a lot of those women, it was their first checks on the door.
And that first check then became a catalyst for them to be able to raise future money. So there’s just so much that came out of it that we don’t even hear all the stories quite frankly, but it’s truly a magical experience.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So it sounds like even if you can’t go to the tech conference, it’s fantastic, but I’m hearing a theme around even getting together with other like you has tremendous value, not only in terms of validation, but just in terms of getting ideas, getting increased energy, , and motivation , to go more into the entrepreneurial scene.
I know you’re on several advisory boards that help women, entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in general improve their pitching and be more successful at funding.
Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve observed in terms of your experience, particularly when it comes to women entrepreneurs and under-resourced women entrepreneurs?
Lauren Washington: I think I have been really lucky that I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum, because I’m a founder. I also do some angel investment.
And I’ve been a part of a lot of conversations around investment, whether it’s the South by Southwest pitch advisory board where I go through and evaluate companies or other pitch competitions or angel groups. We just did the Founders of Color Showcase a couple of weeks ago where we connected five companies to angel investors. So I’ve been on the other side of the table, and really understanding like what that looks like in terms of what the founder is expecting from this deal and from this conversation and what the investor is expecting.
And I think specifically for women really understanding that, number one, you need to tout yourself and say all the great things that you’ve done. And I don’t think women entrepreneurs do that very often.
I think we’re raised and we’re socialized not to, but when you see the difference between a woman who’s pitching and a man who’s pitching and the man will say, they’re the best thing in the world, and this company’s going to be worth a billion dollars with no hesitation. And you see the women, you’re like, “Oh, we’re okay”.
But they’re significantly further away than the man is, farther forward. It really just sort of brings to light the fact that women need to start promoting themselves a little bit more in terms of these conversations, because that’s what gets investors excited.
On the flip side, I would also say that making sure that you understand that you may have to be a little bit further along as well, as I mentioned before, in terms of your funding, in terms of your attraction, in terms of all the things in your business, to get the same amount of money as someone else.
And I’ve seen that in the data. I’ve seen it anecdotally, and I’ve also seen it in the data, and that’s just kind of where we’re at right now.
In terms of funding it’s getting better, but there’s still a large gap in terms of your actual traction and the actual business that you’re doing and how it’s aligned to the amount of funding that you’re getting.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You touched on a lot of really important points there. The first one you talked about was promotion. I have a lot of trouble talking about myself. What have you seen work better that specific women entrepreneurs have done that have helped put themselves in a better light in a pitching or a fundraising situation? Tangible things?
Lauren Washington: I think there’s two. One is saying what your background is and why you are right for this. I think a lot of women skip that over and say, “Okay, I have all these degrees. I did all of this”, and kind of move quickly through it.
But why are you the person to bring this to light? That’s always a huge question, particularly in the early days, and in the early stages of investment and fundraising.
And then also, the traction of your company. It’s not just money.
So I think sometimes women are like, “oh, I don’t have a lot of revenue.” It’s not about that only. Have you been through accelerators? Have you recruited people to your business? Have you gotten any press?
There’s a lot of different ways you can build credibility and build traction for your business that are not necessarily directly correlated to revenue, and all of those things then become check marks for whether you’re actually in the business, whether you’re sort of moving it forward, whether you’re the right person to build this business up.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s the content of how you promote yourself and your credibility. Is there anything in the style in terms of, that people receive the same information when stated by males or females differently? I’m just curious from your real life perspective, what works, what doesn’t work and how can women advance their own interests in terms of promoting their credibility?
Lauren Washington: I have seen this a lot, and this is all probably anecdotal, but I’ve definitely seen in terms of training for pitches, that women are told to be much more excited and emotional where pitching. And so we have to bring the excitement. You can’t just come in flat. And I have never seen a man get that feedback where this says, “Oh, make sure you’re more excited about what you’re saying. And make sure you smile more.”
And it’s the same things that we hear often. It’s reflective of how we’re supposed to emote and communicate, and not wanting to seem like we’re sort of cold people who are only analytical, we have to bring some warmth to that presentation.
I’ve heard that over and over and over again. And I’ve seen pitches from men where they are completely flat throughout and they do not get that note. So I would say those are two things that are very different. But it’s kind of a no-win situation at the end of the day.
Because like you said, if you’re too emotional, then people say, “oh, she is she’s emotional. She can’t manage this.”
If you’re too flat, then there’s, “Oh, she doesn’t have passion for this.”
And so I say, just be yourself, quite frankly. The right people will get behind you. And the right people will believe in you and believe in your idea based on the work that you’re doing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And it’s probably less draining for you as well. It’s much easier to be yourself than some made-up version.
One other question about pitching. There’s a perception that women are less comfortable talking about the financial models and the projections, and there’s again, right wrong or indifferent, a perception that they defer to their male colleagues or advisors when it comes to numbers.
It’s like “ Okay, I’m passionate about the business, but to talk about the financials, I either hand it over to someone else or I don’t demonstrate as much mastery.”
To what extent is this true? What can women do to improve their own chances and mastery of the financial side of their ventures.
Lauren Washington: That’s a good question. I haven’t necessarily seen that.
I would say most of the women I’ve seen pitch are probably really good at their financials because they know they’re gonna get deep dive questions on it in a way that their male counterparts might not.
And so a lot of women come very prepared and they know all of their numbers, because the types of questions you often get are different.
There are differences between promotional questions, which are saying like, “How can you build this business out? What’s the vision for this business?”, questions that sort of have an upside to it versus questions that sort of detract from it., and say, “Well, here are the barriers and how will you get over that?” for women.
We’re giving questions that are not promotional, they’re asking you, how are you going to fix these potential roadblocks that aren’t even there necessarily.
And so financials are one of those things you have to understand that very deeply. I think if you don’t, seek people out who can help you.
When I first got started, I reached out to friends who were in finance and I had them help me build my financial model until I really understood it and could do it myself. So don’t be afraid to do that. I think it’ll come eventually.
Especially when you’re in the numbers, especially when you start making money and you’re paying money, you’re going to be really specific about what’s in and out of the door.
It’ll start coming naturally, but before that, if you have to do projections, which can be a little dicey sometimes, just reach out for help.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s that’s excellent advice.
So moving on to underrepresented or under-resourced women entrepreneurs, however you choose to define yourself there’s intersectionality involved.
It could be race, it could be age, it could be any number of dimensions.
What are you seeing? You’re one yourself. And we have talked about this before. What are the unique challenges that under-resourced women entrepreneurs face and. What have you seen work from your own experience to improve their chances , of successfully starting a venture?
And I won’t just talk specifically about funding, but even just about ideating, about developing a robust business model, any insight that you can provide on these dimensions?
Lauren Washington: I think, surrounding yourself with the right people is huge. It’s not just funding, it’s who you have in your corner, not only in a core team, but your investors.
That’s a long term relationship that you’re building. That’s probably five, 10 years that you’re working with them. So make sure that the right people who are coming in, also advisors advisors. My fourth business, Fundr, was the first time I built out a formal advisory board, out of all of my businesses.
It’s been incredibly valuable. So I would always tell people, work with advisors again, don’t jump into it and grab someone and ask them to be advisor, see if they’re right fit for you. See if they understand your vision and you work well together, and then bring them in, in a more formal way.
But I think that the team is, is just so key and so core to everything you’re doing. You have to have people who are passionate. You have to have people who are going in the same direction as you in terms of vision , and people who are willing to sort of sacrifice and put that work in to get there.
Shubha Chakravarthy: On the point of advisors or even having access to a network, , there’s a perception is also reality that women tend to have lower access, especially to professional networks and resource networks. What has worked for you? What advice would you give in terms of expanding your reach as a woman entrepreneur into these networks?
How do you find the right advisors? How do you test whether they’re the right people for you and how do you then give them the incentives to come and help you out in your venture?
Lauren Washington: I say, get out there. Make sure that you’re going to conferences going to networking events. I’ve met so many people, especially in my early days, I think , my networking’s a little bit different now because I’ve been in the space for a while, but in my early days, I was at tons of conferences, , it’s how I got information.
It’s how I got connections. It’s how I got some funding. I mean, there was so many. Important pieces to building a community, especially as a founder, because it, firstly, can be very isolating. If you don’t do that, and you’re not intentional about building community, but you’re not at a large, 10,000 person firm, these resources aren’t going to just come to you
You have to go out and get them. You’re going out to get customers just like you’re going out to get funding. You need to do the same for advisors , and I think it’s all about building a relationship at the end of the day.
You can put the nugget in someone’s head that says, “I really want to pick your brain on this. I love what you’ve done. “
It might be helpful and see where that interest is in terms of them coming in and helping. I’ve had some advisors say up front, “I want to be an advisor. I wanna help you”. With others, it’s like, “We’ll take some time to get to know each other and then, we’ll figure it out.”
So, it’s very much like a dating process, where you really want to make sure that you’re the right fit , and those are the people who can come in and, truly are excited about helping your business, because you don’t want someone who’s kind of just there as, as dead weight.
Shubha Chakravarthy: When you mentioned dating, it brought up another question in my mind. There’s this big question of solo versus co-founder and I think there are good arguments we made in terms of, do you go solo? Do you go co-founder?
What are your thoughts on how you would make that decision? And if you decide to go down the path of a co-founder, what’s a good process to come up to find that right co-founder for you.
Lauren Washington: I think it’s a really personal decision. I think there are a couple of things in terms of finding a co-founder.
One, it depends on the type of company you’re building, because in the venture space, especially in the early days, they want to see co-founders. They understand that it’s a pretty big lift and a pretty big burden, and they want to see that you sort of have all the core parts of your business covered. .
So if you’re building a technology business, you should probably have a technology person there to help you do that, and you should probably have a business person there as well.
And so understanding that what you are bringing to the table and what your strengths are, and truly being honest about what your strengths are, and then filling in for that specifically, if you’re wanting to build a venture-backed business is really important.
But I’m seeing a trend now where people are moving away from the co-founder model, because I think it used to be that that was literally a deal breaker for VC where I believe there were a number of accelerators, I think with Y Combinator, you weren’t even able to get through the first round if you didn’t have one.
And I’m seeing a big shift there and seeing things change. And as long as you have a team around you, you have these advisors, you have people who work for you, it’s starting to look a little bit different.
So I think the industry is changing in that way, and I’m seeing a lot of people who have said, “I don’t want to give up my equity to co-founders who may not be as into it as I am. I don’t want to deal with the inter-personality of co-founders.”
Because when you’re by yourself, you can move probably a lot faster, and you don’t have to run this every decision by other people. . And so it really just kind of depends on you yourself, your skills , and where you want to take the business.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One last point on that question. If you are a non-technical founder, , and you have an idea for a technology-based business, do you have tips or insights for how you approach that to increase your chance of success?
Lauren Washington: I think making sure you have people around you who you can bounce things off of.
So making sure you have really strong advisors is really helpful. So even if you have a dev agency that’s overseas or in the States that you’re working with, they’re still going need some kind of guidance.
And because they are necessarily part of your team, you also want to make sure you’re protecting the business itself from the deadlines being extended or going in the wrong direction or not making the right decisions.
It all comes down to you making those decisions at the end of the day. And so I think it’s really helpful to have technical advisors. So part of my advisory board is technical specifically so that I can bounce things off of them in terms of what we’re building and what we’re doing. So if you are a non-technical founder, that’s pretty key.
And then also making sure that you have a plan to bring someone in at some point. I don’t think that you’re going to build a huge billion dollar tech company without a technical co-founder at some point. So making sure you understand when the time is right when and how to bring that person.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So learning coding is not mandatory is what I’m hearing, as long as you provide for the strengths and the expertise to be available to you.
Lauren Washington: Exactly. And I have tried to learn coding multiple times. it’s just not for me . It’s just not my strength. I don’t enjoy doing it. It’s not in my skill set.
I know enough that I can have conversations with the tech and dev side of things, but it’s not something that I want to sit and do. And so really understanding that is key. And we’re moving into a space where there’s so many no-code tools out there that, depending on what you’re building, you may not even need a dev team.
You may be able to use one of these products like Bubble, , where you can create them without actually having to know how to code.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Which is a fantastic segue to Fundr because it’s an AI based company that you’ve founded. And here you are telling us you don’t know how to code!
So tell us a little bit more about Fundr, what it does and what the idea and vision was behind founding it.
Lauren Washington: Fundr is a platform that’s bringing automation and AI to the seed investing space, essentially. We’re trying to remove bias from the process increasing access for founders and increasing access for investors to then maximize their return on investment that they’re getting.
So the way that it works is we have companies come in and they take our evaluation. We look at them on 90 different pieces of data, and that creates a score. That score then tells them how much they can raise and then connects them to investors that are interested in their type of company.
And then you can close everything on our platform so you can sign documents, transfer funds, and we do monthly reporting as well. So it’s really an end-to-end platform for investment. We’re trying to bring more efficiency to the space, more access, less bias, and trying to change the way that seed investing is done.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I was fascinated to read about the story that preceded Fundr with the Black Women Talk Tech competition. Can you talk a little bit more about how you correctly predicted the winner in the Atlanta or in the 2015 conference, I believe, or 2016 conference?
Lauren Washington: I think it was actually probably 2020, I think it was our 2020 conference.
We were working on Fundr for about six months and wanted to do some testing. Micro founders were gracious enough to let us test this very early platform on our pitch competition. So we had a hundred thousand dollar pitch competition that year. We brought all the applications through and what ended up happening was we were using it sort of as a check, and a way to sort through them.
There were a couple of exciting things that came out of that test.
One was that our decision making on who became a finalist was so much faster because we were able to weight companies by their score. We could look at them across the board. This is their traction. This is their revenue. Exactly what they have versus trying to pull things out of a pitch deck and then fighting about who has what, and who’s better. It was very clear to us.
Then we had a live pitch and had judges who hadn’t seen those Fundr scores and they ended up choosing the company who had the highest score. So it was really exciting. We’ve done that a few times. We actually just did it for the Founders of Color Showcase.
Out of our five finalists, four of them had the top scores. So it was really exciting to see that this algorithm that we’re creating can mimic what a panel of very experienced judges who’ve been in this industry for probably decades each, ,are doing. So , it’s a really exciting data point for us.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And that brings up a fascinating point because a lot of the current dialogue and debate in the AI space is how to de-bias AI learning algorithms. Because the more you train it on biased decision making, then you’re going to build bias into future decisions. So how did you balance or how do you balance this potential dilemma that you’re predicting winners correctly, but there’s the likelihood that that has bias built into it.
Can you talk about that?
Lauren Washington: I don’t think you’re ever going to fully remove bias. Anything built by humans is going to have some kind of human bias to it. But we are trying to do that in a way where we are offsetting some of those things. So we ask demographic questions so that we can understand why you might have a certain type of traction or why you might have a certain type of funding.
And so that those questions aren’t set separately in a tunnel, . It’s like, okay, I know that this person has funding, but are they more likely to have funding or access to it? So we’re offsetting that within our algorithm. And then one of the things that we did not want to do was use historical data to train our algorithms.
So it’s going take us a little bit longer in order to start optimizing it and start pulling insights out of it. But that was really intentional because we’ve seen in a lot of studies, those who have come in and used historical data and then sort of ran it through a machine learning algorithm and to pull out what a great successful company looks like.
The answer has always been a white man in Silicon Valley, because that’s who’s been funded. That’s who’ve been given access. That’s who’s been given opportunities historically. And so you want to be really be careful about exacerbating the gaps that currently exist, and not using things like historical data. Angel list just came out with a new fund, which I’m interested in seeing where it goes and it’s based on AI, but it’s based on hiring and how quickly that company hires.
But at the same time, fast hiring companies usually have some kind of venture funding and that venture funding is biased. And so really understanding the inputs and outputs is something that we’re taking very seriously. And we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can in order to mitigate that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And as a special bonus, for those who are listening in today, are there tips you can share from what you’ve learned from the algorithm itself that can help a potential founder improve their chances of success?
Lauren Washington: It really comes down to traction, to be honest. What have you been able to do when we look at all different factors?
Again, it’s not just revenue. It’s your team, it’s the business model that you have. If you have a thousand users that are on an ad-based business model versus a thousand users that are on an enterprise-based business model, that kind of shifts things. But I think really it’s about what kind of work are you doing?
What kind of progress are you making and in what amount of time have you done that? And how quickly can you move, particularly in the venture backed space? A lot of this conversation is around venture backed companies, which are a very, very small sliver of companies that are out there, but, truly it’s really about, can you build traction?
Can you create something from nothing? And can you get the right people around you to do that?
Shubha Chakravarthy: That is a great point you brought up in terms of the venture-backed versus non-venture backed space. Are companies that are not aspiring to be venture funded also part of your scope? And if so, do you have a different set of rules because obviously you don’t have that requirement for super fast growth or intended end scale.
Do you see your algorithm having applicability beyond just a venture-funded space? So even maybe an angel funded or even beyond
Lauren Washington: So our algorithm is really just for venture-backed companies, because they are so different. But I’m seeing a lot of conversation and a lot of requests coming in for different types of companies. Companies that are sort of in the middle – they’re building a great business and they may have something that could be really big. And I want to support this founder, even though I know they’re probably not going to get the returns that a venture firm, or even an angel investor is looking for.
And so creating different ways around that. One is revenue share, for example, so you can get money up front and then you pay that off over time. I’m seeing a ton of companies coming out and doing that in the space. Clearco is one of them. Pipe is another. There’s ways that you can evaluate those companies.
But again, what they’re mostly doing is looking at revenue, it’s mostly traction based. So at the end of the day, money speaks, you’re building a business. Yes, to make impact, but you’re building a business to make money in some kind of way, particularly for investors and keeping that in mind and understanding that will change the way that you approach conversations with investors.
They’re not here to give you a check out of charity. They’re here because they want to make money. And so, understanding that money sort of speaks, is really key in these conversations for everyone.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Either today or in the future, do you have plans of using the insights that you gain from this to either educate or nudge funders who want to get funded via Fundr.ai or any other funding platform?
Because it sounds like you’re getting a very rich trove of insights from putting all these companies through their paces.
Lauren Washington: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a huge data nerd. So I am super excited about the data we’re bringing in, and the impact it can make because we have data on just so many different levels. And it’s all self-reported data.
So sometimes these other companies say, “oh yeah, we have data on all these startups”, but they’re not necessarily getting it directly from the founders and we are, so we know that it’s really accurate and we know that we can use it and rely on it. And so there’s a couple things we’re launching soon.
One is our monthly report, and feedback on people. So sort of like an investor readiness report where people can come in, take our algorithm and see where they stack against other companies and see where they may have to push forward and, and build their business out, whether it’s your team or your traction, the marketplace that you’re in, whatever it is, we’ll be able to give a solid score on that.
And then we’re also really excited to put out some research reports. That’ll be coming out in a couple of months as well. So digging deeper into these funding gaps and what they really look like and, and why they’re happening. Because I think we know about the gap. But then why is this happening? And what can we actually change in terms of investor behavior to sort of close those?
And we have a lot of data around that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: That’s super exciting. The readiness survey, will that be a paid or a free offering, have you made that decision yet?
Lauren Washington: It will likely be paid. So our service is a paid service. It’s $40 per month to get access to investors. And then you would get access to that report as well as part.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So it’s a pretty cheap way of figuring out where my potential blind spots are or weak spots are. And I can just kind of have a very clear metrics-driven goals around how to improve my chances of getting funded and being successful.
Lauren Washington: Exactly.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Moving out to your own experience, looking back over the many years that you’ve been doing this, are there things that you would do differently?
Are there learnings that you wish you had known as your younger self, that would you be keen on sharing?
Lauren Washington: Oh, goodness. So many. I would say there, as far as failures, they’re going to happen. Just get ready for them – you don’t even know what the failures are going to be, but you’re going to fail in some way.
There’s no way that you’re starting a business and it’s going to go perfectly from start to finish. And so just being prepared for those and knowing that your failure is not necessarily the end of the road for you is really key. And I wish I understood that in my early part of business, it felt very all or nothing for me. And it’s not.
And so, I’d say that’s one.
I think the second is working through your fear, working through some of the anxieties you may have. Just because you have a fear doesn’t mean you shouldn’t move forward. And so understanding the difference between those things – you’re doing something new, it’s going to be scary, but knowing that that shouldn’t stop you necessarily from doing it.
I’d say the last is probably around balance. Just like emotional balance, work-life balance, creating boundaries, specifically for yourself as a founder because, I think founders can be pretty intense.
Especially if they love their business, they work on it all day, every day. And you’re thinking about it all day every way, but you need to unplug from that or you’re going to burn out.
And you need to have outside resources – friends and families and therapists and coaches and other people supporting you to get through this, because like you said earlier, it is a marathon, not a sprint, and so get ready for that marathon.
And what you do to prepare for that is very different from what you would do to prepare for a sprint. So I wish I knew all those things. I learned them the hard way, but and I think there’ll be things that other founders are going to learn their hard way, but it’s kind of all part of the journey.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m going to take a pause here and ask our attendees to post their questions in the comments. And while we’re waiting for questions, I have a last couple of questions for you, Lauren.
One is taking a big step back. Let’s say I’m an entrepreneur, an aspiring entrepreneur. I have a problem that’s burning in my mind and I want to solve it.
So there’s an ideation phase. There’s a development phase. There’s a funding phase and then executing and optimizing. Can you go through all of these very quickly and tell us what are the top three things that you would want a woman entrepreneur to keep in mind as you go through the process?
Lauren Washington: That’s a good question. I would say in the early ideation phase, don’t hold it to yourself too long. I think sometimes founders just get so caught up in their ideas and they’re in their heads and they’re spending so much time on it, but it’s not necessarily about you, it’s about your customer.
And so going out and talking to that potential customer is so important in the early days. There’s a really great book called “The Mom Test”, and it tells you how to do that, where you’re not leading and saying, “Hey, would you want this product?”. You’re asking questions about the problem again, coming back to the problem.
And what they’re doing to solve it and what they want instead of things that they’re using to solve it, and how they would pay for things like that, and different ways of having these conversations. And you should be having those as early as possible.
So instead of building something out that doesn’t have any credence or backing to it, get out and do that.
I would say in terms of development phase, , building your MVP, first, you don’t build Google in a day, you’re not going to get there. So what you get from those interviews is the core product that you’re creating and the core needs that you’re creating.
I think as founders, we tend to love shiny objects .And we love it like, “Oh, this will be cool. And this will be great”. But you’re going to spend a lot of time building things like that.
And so how do you narrow it down to say, “Okay, this is truly the one thing we’re using to solve this problem”. And then you can sort of build over time and add to that, send it out into the market, get feedback, do it again.That current iterative process is really, really important.
On the funding side, making sure that you have traction and you have the right traction for the stage that you’re at is really important. And there’s a lot of resources out there and people you can talk to to get that. It’s more of an art than a science, but really understanding who you’re talking to and you’re talking to the right people for the stage that you’re going to be at and you have the right traction for that.
And then long term , I think it’s really just comes down to yourself and being prepared for the journey, and making sure that you are taking care of yourself, so that you can go through the different waves of the emotional rollercoaster that is starting a business.
Shubha Chakravarthy: We have one question from our audience. Brian wants to know, “As a white male with all of its benefits, what would you recommend someone in my position does to support those who don’t have the same seat at the table?”.
Excellent question, Brian. Thank you.
Lauren Washington: Yeah, I love that question. I think it’s really about being an ally and bringing someone else to the table with you.
This is something that women do a lot and that I’ve seen a ton of really incredible men that I’ve worked with do is if you are in a room and they say, “Do you know a founder?” – Don’t think about just like the one guy friend that you have that you always bring.
Who can you bring that, you’re going to lift up, and who may not have access to those people and may not have that opportunity. Really being open about that, and using your privilege to help other people is really important.
The second I would say is, really listening. So I think often, particularly in this space, I still get pushback in terms of the funding gap and people still say, “Oh, it’s a meritocracy. , there’s no issues here of bias”.
When you look at the numbers, there’s no way that’s possible. Just statistically, if there’s less than 10% of funding goes to women and under underrepresented founders, I think 0.3% goes to Black women and we’re the fastest growing segment in entrepreneurship, there’s something off there.
So really understanding what we’re saying and what our experiences are, and then finding a way to sort of spread that , and be a beacon and an advocate in your spaces that we are not in, is really huge.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And one quick follow up question to that before I go to the next one, is there a way that you’ve seen that being done at scale effectively?
Because I think there’s two different levels at which we can do that. If you’re an ally and a privileged white male, as Brian is saying here, he could look at Lauren and say, “Hey, here’s Lauren, she’s an amazing founder. I’m going to introduce Lauren”. What if somebody wants to do that at scale?
Are there things you’ve seen that are being done effectively that can scale?
Lauren Washington: Absolutely. I’ve definitely seen people who are putting money into either individual investors or funds that are backing founders of color or women, and really making sure that they are putting their money where their mouth is.
And you can do that on a scalable level if you have the funds to do that.
If you don’t, I’ve seen people come into mentor and accelerator programs . And they’re mentors every single year, or the volunteer in some other way to be advisors. And there’s definitely ways you can do that, so that you’re sort of scaling that opportunity for other people.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you. Atica Porter wants to know, in the beginning stages of running a business and you have to wear all the hats, how do you not get burned out with very little time and money? How do you manage that balance? Thank you. And that’s a great question.
Lauren Washington: It’s really hard. I think as a founder, your job is to fire yourself in all those positions.
So yes, I start with 10 different hats. How do I eventually get this off my plate? And you may have to be kind of creative about it and how you’re going to do that. But I think that really understanding that eventually you’re creating processes and you’re creating ways to bring other team members in as you’re building and growing your business – that is the goal.
So you can oversee the vision and the strategy and manage the company versus being in the business. It’s like the difference of working on the business versus in the business. So working towards that and then also prioritizing – that’s the only way you’re not going to burn out.
There’s a million things on my to-do list for today. I’m not getting all of them done. .I know I’m not getting all of them done. And so knowing what are the priorities for me to move this business forward, and focusing on those and being okay sort of pushing things to the side, because again, it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint, you’re not going to get it all done in a week.
So how do you prioritize the most important things, and then sort of pick everything else up when you have a little bit more free time.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And when you’re talking about prioritizing, Lauren, is it accurate to say the way you prioritize is to say, what are the two things that are going to get me the most traction and then kind of work back from there versus what feels important and a little bit more fuzzy.
Are there other means practically that you use your for your prioritizing that we can use to hold our feet to the fire, if we don’t have a huge team or investors to help us force that prioritization?
Lauren Washington: Well, I think if you don’t have a team where you don’t have funding, then you’ve already sort of answered your question, right?
Those are the things that you need to work on. How do you get to that team? You’re probably going to have to bring in money in some way. So for me right now, my priorities are sales and funding – those are the two things I’m doing so that I can bring more money in and get to the next stage.
Prior to this, maybe last year at this time, my priorities were around development. We weren’t finished with the platform in certain key ways. And so I spent a lot of time on that. I spent a lot of time talking to customers and getting feedback on the product we were building. That was my focus then.
So it’s always going to shift, depending on where you are in the stage of your business, but really it’s about what is your priority sort of right now?
Shubha Chakravarthy: I have another follow up question from, Atica here: “Where do you find a team? I network a lot with a lot of other small businesses who are also looking for a team.”
I know some other participant give a great suggestion about creating affiliates of partnerships with other business owners. Lauren, I’d be curious to hear what you have to say as well.
Lauren Washington: , it really depends on where you’re at in terms of your business. So not every role you’re going to have early on, you need a full-time person for,.
So you may get a part-time person. You may get an agency. We’ve hired out with contractors for a lot of the stuff that we’re doing because we don’t need a full-time person and we can’t afford a full-time person in that role or whatever the reason is. So I think really understanding what that looks like first, is important.
You can find them again through contractors, through agencies – I put out posts on all of the career boards. Angel List is a great one. LinkedIn is a great one, places where people are looking for companies that are similar to yours. And then also, you can find a lot of people who are using your product too. Or people who are reaching out to you.
We’ve had people reach out and say,” I just like what you’re doing, and I want to work with you”. Figuring out how to kind of pull them into the mix is a key way as well.
So again, not holding onto your idea. I think I talked about this before. Don’t hold onto it for a really long time. Don’t hide it. Because once you start going out and talking to people, that’s when things are going start moving.
That’s when people will say, “I really love this. How can I help?” , versus if you kind of keep it isolated and insulated, you’re never going to get those resources that you need.
Shubha Chakravarthy: And any tips kind of practically on that in terms of, does someone go to like a Fiverr or an Upwork from a very practical standpoint? What has worked for you, more effectively than others? How do you find the right person?
Lauren Washington: Yeah, I definitely have used Fiverr, Upwork. I think I mentioned Angel List and LinkedIn. Breezy.hr is a great tool that’ll send a job post out to all of the career boards for free. So there’s a lot of different ways to do it.
And then just networking – if you’re talking to someone in the space and say they ask, how can I help. You can say, “I’m looking for a designer”, or “I’m looking for a salesperson” and people will have contacts.
So again, it’s just really about being clear on your needs, and sort of putting yourself out there as a business owner, which can be a little bit scary and sometimes a little bit tiring, but you really have to do it. You have to sort of advocate for the things that you need in your business.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’ll make one last call for questions. . And while we’re waiting for that, I’ll ask Lauren what she’d like to leave all of us with. What is that bit of wisdom, , inspiration, motivation for us, women entrepreneurs, either current or future, what would you like to leave us with and do tomorrow morning to be more successful?
Lauren Washington: That’s a great question. I would say keep going. Honestly keep pushing no matter where you are in your journey. Take a look back to where you were a couple months ago, where you were a year ago. Use that as your point of progress and success and celebrate that because I think sometimes we can get caught up in seeing about what everyone else is doing and I’m not there yet.
And therefore, maybe I don’t know what I’m doing or this isn’t working, but truly tracking your growth over time – you’ll be really surprised and really proud of the things that you’ve done if you can look back and see you’re just moving forward and taking small steps every single day. So I’d say, keep going, keep pushing through, learn from your failures, use them to turn something that you’re doing into success.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I want to thank you Lauren, for being with us today. It was very inspiring to me and I’m sure it was inspiring to those of our audience who attended as well. So thank you and we wish you all great success in your entrepreneurial ventures and incredible success going forward. Thank you.
Lauren Washington: Thank you so much for having me.