Lou Elliott-Cysewski, Co-Founder and CEO of Coolperxthe world’s first climate neutral branded merchandise company.
As our workplaces continue to shift towards a more diverse and equitable culture, some companies are looking for ways to publicly demonstrate their support for those values to their employees, stakeholders and customers. For example, in light of the Supreme Court design leak that would affect Roe v. Wade, some organizations have been reexamine their commitment to helping women.
For companies taking these kinds of actions, they must have pure intentions. I believe it is important to distinguish between impactful, values-based actions that will make a lasting difference in the lives of their communities and actions that are harmful or exploitative. In recent years, for example, I’ve observed a growing trend of corporate-sponsored pitching competitions encouraging female entrepreneurs to publicly pitch themselves and their business for a nominal fee. While cash flow is essential for a small business, my experience is that some of these competitions have the risk of exploiting women in an effort to increase the sponsoring company’s visibility in a particular area.
Recently, I was invited to enter a pitching competition with an award to fund a business run by women. To participate, applicants had to create a 60-second video pitch describing their business. Then, applicants would share that video on social media using a sponsor-specific hashtag and encourage their followers to vote for their pitch and follow the sponsor. But from my perspective, demanding job applicants use social media to appeal to the public for votes on their pitch is tantamount to a popularity contest; it doesn’t necessarily focus on the true merit of each applicant’s company and can undermine the mission to help women in a way that empowers them. That’s unhealthy competition, and no one should have to deal with it on the road to setting up their business.
Don’t get me wrong: I love healthy competition, and I’m a big fan of any demonstration of what success in business can look like for women. Those examples can inspire us to do our best work driving innovation and lead to shared discoveries that change the world.
But I think we need to recognize that there is already significant competition between business owners and entrepreneurs, especially for women. Research by Pitchbook showed that only 2% of venture capital financing went to US women-owned companies in 2021 study “Results suggest that women’s disadvantages in running their businesses may be perpetuated by gender attitudes that weaken women’s leadership.”
These statistics have a special resonance for me. I am not just a founder of a company committed to creating fairness and sustainability in corporate procurement. I am also someone who grew up in a low-income household with a single biracial mother, and I experienced firsthand a damaging level of competition among those in need.
Coming back to pitch competitions, there are all kinds of ways organizations can distribute money to female entrepreneurs in their communities. Some of those options include providing merit-based grants that are vetted by experts or matching grants that reflect what founders can bring in through their own networks. Organizations could do these things in a way that doesn’t require applicants to participate publicly in the process until grant winners are announced.
Organizations can also partner with other brands to create incubator and accelerator programs that teach women, veterans, and minority small business founders how to obtain loans; support them during the process with high-quality resources; and give the program graduates access to the funds they need at a reasonable rate of interest.
For budding entrepreneurs looking for financing, I recommend that you make your voice heard. Tell the pitch competition organizers that you think you need their help, but you don’t want to be a poster woman for their diversity campaigns.
Legitimate empowerment starts with in-depth work — the kind that don’t come with hashtags. Make sure your organization has the courage to do the work and bring truly viable solutions to your community.