There are certain special issues one encounters being a female startup leader, and it’s something I haven’t thought about in a long time. But I had a lot of issues with it when I started out. I remembered it recently as I was, again, speaking to a group of young women entrepreneurs, and the first thing they wanted to ask me was this: Anu, did you have problems with men hitting on you during business meetings?
Absolutely. And it really really got to me.
To those that don’t understand how it feels to be not only not taken seriously, but blatantly hit on in a business context, let me just say, it is one of the worst feelings as a business leader. Because it is probably one of the first times you are wholly and completely being judged by not what you do, but who you seem to be. And that makes you wonder: what am I doing to warrant this attention? Because in your head, you think that there’s nothing wrong with the world, there MUST be something wrong with what you are doing, or how you are behaving.
So of course, you go about trying to fix it. You start with the way you dress, because maybe the (already) conservative business attire is just…more distracting than you thought. So you go out to the store and purchase the most unattractive/unappealing clothing possible. However, no matter what clothes you wear, it still continues
Then, since you don’t want to be mean, you decide to just drop hints about a boyfriend/fiancee/significant other, hoping that the other party gets the hint. But no matter how “in love” you are with said significant other, the unwanted attention still continues. You joke about it with your friends, hoping that it makes you feel better, but deep down, you know its really just not that funny. Not only that, it gets worse.
And then, after some time, you begin to question your abilities to run a company. Why do these people not take me seriously? What am I doing wrong? Maybe I’m not cut out to run a company after all. Maybe everyone was right.
But then, the worst of it happens when you wonder, what if I just…give in? What if I just go along with it? What if I just stop fighting? Because you know as a startup you don’t get much business, so can you really afford to let go of any? That’s when you know you’ve hit rock bottom.
Luckily, before I started out, I already made some rules for myself, and I knew that there were certain things I just wouldn’t do, and even if it meant NextDrop would go under, I wasn’t willing to budge (because it wouldn’t be worth it at that point for me). However, even knowing what I was ok with and wasn’t ok with, even then, it was absolutely terrifying. My first encounter with this was my Indian banker, who refused to give me an Indian bank account for our company (while asking me out every other day). I was financing operations on my own for months on end, because we couldn’t transfer money from the US to India. I still get nightmares on payday sometimes, because I didn’t know how I was going to make payroll/pay all our bills. I remember going to each of the people we owed money to every month, asking for an extension, promise I’m good for it can you please just let me pay this a little bit later? And this banker was the one guy coming between me and bankrolling the business.
Finally, the last straw was when he called me at 11pm, and asked me out to dinner. That’s when I just lost it, and decided to be incredibly direct. I basically called him out on everything, and asked him if he called all of his clients to ask them out to dinner this late because I don’t know about India, but in the US, this is highly inappropriate and how dare you do this. Then, I went to the bank the next day, and made sure to walk into his office, leave the door open (so everyone could hear), and just told him (well, told may be an understatement), in no uncertain terms, how incredibly inappropriate he was, how dare you do that to me, and that if he ever did anything even remotely construed as inappropriate again, I would raise so much hell that he would never be able to work anywhere in this city again. Afterwards, one of the tellers came out to me, apologized for his manager’s behavior, said he did this to all the single women clients, thank god you said something to him (finally), and within a week, he got me my bank account.
Since that point, I have realized that I just need to be…direct. Not rude, but if things are going off topic, bring it right back. And if things are going in directions they shouldn’t be in, even after trying to bring the topic to business, just be a jerk about it. Make them feel really really uncomfortable, because honestly, that’s how it feels to be you right now. Turn the tables. And if at the end of the day, you lose business, then you lose business. You probably don’t want to be working with them anyway, because this is probably indicative of larger issues.
Today, I actually don’t face this problem a whole lot, thankfully. I don’t really know why, but I think it’s just something I’ve learned to maneuver over the past two years. Maybe one day I’ll figure out exactly what changed, but until that point, I can just say that I understand where you are coming from, young women entrepreneurs, and that it does get better. Just don’t give in.