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At Silicon Valley Boot Camp, Perfecting The Pitch

Jul 24, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 2:32 pm



And let's go next to Silicon Valley, California, with a program called NewME, or New Media Entrepreneurship. It's a boot camp to encourage women and African-Americans - two groups that are dramatically underrepresented among technology entrepreneurs. We've been hearing about it this week. Seven participants from across the country are sharing a house in San Francisco. They're getting coached on their business plans, and as Amy Standen of member station KQED reports, they're attempting to perfect the art of the pitch.

RACHEL BROOKS: Hi, everyone. My name is Rachel Brooks. I'm from Chicago, by way of...

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: Rachel Brooks is standing in front of about 100 people at the Google headquarters in Mountain View. It's the second day of the NewME program, and she wants one thing. She wants the people in this room to like her company.

BROOKS: We have an e-commerce platform that provides an agile way to...

STANDEN: Brooks is 25. She's describing a start-up called Citizen Made that helps companies make their products customizable.

BROOKS: So, the easiest way for me to describe that is by example.

STANDEN: Say an online small furniture store that wants to let its customers choose fabric for a couch. As she talks, Brooks is holding a black notebook, and it's trembling wildly.

BROOKS: So, you can go online to a producer that...

I was the first one to go. I had no idea what to expect, and I was terrible, really bad.

STANDEN: It's been about a month since that pitch. Brooks and the other six NewME founders are hunched over their laptops at a shared workspace in downtown San Francisco. They've been here almost every day, trying, among other things, to polish their pitches. For Amanda McClure from Houston, it's a struggle.

AMANDA MCCLURE: I mean, how would you describe, like, Facebook in two minutes?

STANDEN: She says she gets that it's important to be succinct, but there is something about the pitch with all its bluster and its swagger that she just doesn't relate to.

MCCLURE: I think from, like, a female's perspective, it's almost a platform for a competition. Like, who's the winner? It still feels like a very ultra-masculine environment.

STANDEN: Now, this is a problem, because in Silicon Valley, the idea is everything and the pitch is how you sell it. It's how you create buzz about your company, how you convince investors to write you checks. And for women in particular, this is key. According to one recent report, fewer than 10 percent of tech companies are started by women. And when women do start companies, they bring in about half as much outside investment as male-founded companies do. This is a fact that Heidi Roizen has grappled with for years.

HEIDI ROIZEN: I think you can group women entrepreneurs and you can find things they do that are very different.

STANDEN: Roizen is a venture capitalist who also coaches would-be entrepreneurs at Stanford University.

ROIZEN: They're uncomfortable not knowing an answer. They are uncomfortable taking credit, and they are uncomfortable making bold statements.

STANDEN: Now, Roizen says she's generalizing, here. Many, many women don't fit this mold at all. But she says even those who do feel at ease in the business world face a different reception once they get there. In fact, Roizen herself helped demonstrate this. A few years ago, a Harvard Business School professor did an experiment. He took the outline of Heidi's career and taught it as a case study to two groups of students, but with one difference. He taught...

ROIZEN: One as the Heidi Roizen case, and he taught one as the Howard Roizen case.

STANDEN: So, same career, different sex. The professor then asked each group: Would you hire this person?

ROIZEN: And Howard scored much better than Heidi.

STANDEN: Howard and Heidi, said the students, were equally competent.

ROIZEN: But Howard was more likeable, a person you felt like you could work with more, a person you could trust.

STANDEN: In the students' eyes, Heidi's success made her seem aggressive and self-promoting. They just didn't like her. Roizen says, sure, she knows this is a problem. But what are you doing to do? So she tells her students: If you look from everyone else, use it.

ROIZEN: If you're the only woman in the room and you raise your hand, there's a good chance your question's going to get answered. You stand out.

BROOKS: Hi, there. Rachel.

ERIK MARTIN: Hi. Erik. Nice to meet you.

BROOKS: Very nice to meet you.

STANDEN: It's about halfway through the NewME program. Rachel Brooks is not pitching, exactly, but something just as important: networking. In this case, it's with Erik Martin, general manager of the social news site Reddit.

MARTIN: What other companies do you look at that are - do you think do...

BROOKS: That are already...

STANDEN: The pitch is implicit in all of this. It's the confidence, the ability to neatly sum up your business and gauge the competition.

BROOKS: 1154 Lill is killing it. They're out of Chicago. It's like...

STANDEN: In the final week of the program, Brooks and the others get another chance to pitch their companies - this time, at Google's San Francisco office. In the audience, representatives from at least three venture capital firms.

BROOKS: Hi, my name is Rachel Brooks. I am the CEO of Citizen Made.

STANDEN: The notebook is gone, and so is the trembling. The pitch is going much better.

BROOKS: So, let me take you through the typical path to customization. So, say you have a new office...

STANDEN: In fact, everyone's gotten better at this.

MCCLURE: I am an expert in timekeeping and scheduling systems.

TENDI: Hi. My name is Tendi, and I am building...

STANDEN: One by one, the founders - all of them women or African-Americans - make their pitches with confidence and a bit of swagger.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you want to fund us, you know where to find me. And we're building the future of TV. So come holler at your boy.

STANDEN: A few months after the NewME program wraps up, Rachel Brooks and most of the others are still in pitch mode - living cheap and building their companies. But one of the others has gotten some big news. We'll hear his story tomorrow. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.