Creating a startup from scratch can be difficult for anyone, but it becomes even more challenging to start your own business when investors don’t take you seriously.
It’s not uncommon for women to face these types of issues in the tech industry, according to Nikki Durkin, founder and CEO of 99dresses — a website and app that lets users sell clothing items in their closet, shop and purchase clothing from other closets, and trade clothing.
The 22-year-old entrepreneur began building the business when she was 20 in 2012, receiving attention from the media thanks to her young age.
Despite making headlines and being accepted into YCombinator, her business has seen its fair share of financial troubles over the past two years.
She’ll be leaving New York City and returning to Australia to live with her family soon, and the 99dresses app will be pulled from the Apple App Store next month.
Durkin detailed her entire experience, including what it feels like to run a failed startup, in a lengthy and intimate post on Medium.
Buried in that post was a small detail about a fundraising event Durkin recently attended in New York City to revive 99dresses. Durkin said an investor at the event asked her if she knew what an angel was. An angel is a term referring to a wealthy individual who provides funding to a company usually in exchange for ownership equity.
“I just remember thinking, I’m at this event of course I know what an angel is,” Durkin said to Business Insider. “I just found it really odd, and I don’t know if he would say the same thing if a guy was talking to him.”
At a separate event in New York, Durkin said a male investor asked her if she had ever modelled on the side, which Durkin said was completely irrelevant to the purpose of the networking event.
“No, I’m a founder,” Durkin said in response. “I’m here to do work.”
Durkin notes that most of the investors she’s worked with have treated her fairly, but that she still felt patronized by those types of comments.
“It wasn’t that bad, or maybe as a female founder you just learn to deal with it,” she said. “And I do think it’s a little patronizing. I doubt any of these comments would have been said to a guy.”
Durkin said she’s never really experienced any treatment that she felt was extremely unfair or sexist, but others in the industry can’t necessarily say the same.
The 99dresses founder said one of her friends, also a female startup founder that she wouldn’t name, described a scenario in which an investor pretended to be interested in her company to land a date.
“She was trying to raise money, and she’s a very attractive girl,” Durkin said. “She met up with an investor for lunch [to discuss business]. And every time she tried to get on the topic of her company, because she was there to pitch, he would brush it aside and talk about something else.”
He also tried to make a move at the end of the lunch meeting. When her friend made it clear that she was only there for business, the investor “basically just walked out,” according to Durkin.
The hardest part of being a female in the tech industry — a field largely dominated by men — is overcoming misconceptions, Durkin said. As an example, she cited one experience in which she was working at a co-working space in New York City. Another person who also happened to be working that Saturday asked her how her company motivates her to work so hard on the weekends.
He was surprised, Durkin said, to learn that she was the company’s founder.
“He just made an over assumption that Marcin was the founder because he’s a man, and that all of the girls worked for him” Durkin said. “That got me a little riled up.”
Marcin Popielarz is the co-founder of 99dresses, and he handles a lot of the backend technical duties that kept 99dresses running.
Durkin clarified that this behaviour doesn’t reflect all, or even most, of the people she’s worked with. And she doesn’t let these occasional comments get under her skin.
“I’m very pragmatic,” she said. “I don’t spend a lot of energy getting upset about that stuff. I didn’t feel like I could really take action to change that in a way that’s going to help me and my company. You just ignore it.”