Marie Outtier was seven months pregnant when investors pulled the term sheet they’d offered her. Over the next few weeks she managed to re-raise some of the seed round, but deadlines don’t come much harder than a due date.
So, with a 14-day-old daughter at home, and going through a “hardcore” postpartum, Outtier was back on the investor roadshow.
“You’re running a marathon just like all the other founders who are raising, but it’s like you’ve got this invisible fridge on your back.”
Outtier — who eventually raised from her existing backers — is one of a number of female founders who’ve plunged into the shark tank of a funding round while pregnant.
It's hard work — and more taxing than a "normal" fundraise — but it’s doable, she says.
“Fundraising while pregnant is probably going to be tougher than you imagine, but if you think it’s going to be absolutely awful that’s probably not true either.”
Should you tell investors that you're pregnant?
The conundrums start long before the baby’s born. First up: do you let investors know?
Outtier was six months pregnant when she started pitching VCs for her marketing analytics startup Aiden.ai towards the end of 2017. It was before the era of Zoom meetings so there was no hiding the fact, but Outtier made a point of not bringing it up.
“You can let them ask, but I don’t think pregnant founders should bring it up. It’s not really a point of discussion, because we came here to pitch the business,” she says. “You’d be surprised how many people find it completely normal if you’re able to not stress about it.”
Founder of insurtech Husmus Sarah Wernér also didn’t actively tell investors she was pregnant. “Being a woman and of my race, and then you add pregnancy on top of it, I was like ‘Sarah do you want to kill the company?’”
Black founders — particularly Black female founders — have the odds stacked against them. Between 2009 and 2019, just 0.24% of VC cash went to Black-led startups in the UK, with just 10 Black women picking up funding.
But the main reason Wernér kept the pregnancy to herself was that she’d miscarried before. “I wasn’t emotionally ready to tell anyone. So I hid it because I thought something bad might happen again.”
Keeping a pregnancy under wraps comes with downsides though, she adds. “While you're hiding it, you’re also hiding from your support.” Wernér has since got in contact with another founder whose child was born the same week as hers.
“I went through nine months of pregnancy thinking I was by myself, when there was someone else who was literally week for week in the same situation.”
Concerns about sharing the news with investors are widespread. Mikela Druckman, founder of waste analytics platform Greyparrot, was pregnant when she started pre-fundraise conversations with investors. Many of the women she spoke to who’d been in that position before advised her not to mention it.
But Druckman decided to be open about being pregnant, and used it as a filter to root out investors that weren’t right.
“You’re entering into a long-term relationship with an investor, and they have to believe in you regardless of if you’re going to have a family or not,” she says. “If that’s going to scare VCs away, then you’re probably not talking to the right people.”
Investors backing out
Pregnant founders do, unfortunately, have just cause to worry.
When Nora Huovila was nearing the end of a fundraise for her video marketing platform Videoly, an investor flew out to Finland to meet her team. Huovila told him she was pregnant, and a week after the investor pulled out of the deal for reasons that she thought “weren’t logical” that far into the conversation.
She only found out that it was because of the pregnancy when that investor let the truth slip to one of her board members at a party.
“Initially, I was super mad. It felt so unfair that because I have this personal dream of having a baby, it’s blocking my other dreams like running a company,” Huovila tells Sifted.
Huovila told [an investor] she was pregnant, and a week after the investor pulled out of the deal
The company had multiple options and her other two investors were hugely supportive when she told them, she adds, but it’s a stressful situation to be in when “the company is running out of money and the baby is coming”.
Hélène Guillaume had a similar experience. Six months into fundraising for her femtech Wild.AI, she told some investors that she was pregnant.
“We were really far along in the process with one investor, and after I told them they said we were too early-stage. But they knew all the numbers so that is clearly not the reason. There is an unconscious bias that’s going to give them other excuses not to invest.”
But investor responses weren’t all negative for Guillaume. She also convinced some investors to back the business when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
Telling the team
It can also be pretty intimidating telling the people you work with.
For Guillaume, who alongside being pregnant and fundraising is also a solo founder, there was no automatic second-in-command to take the helm. “I told my team quite late into the pregnancy because I was so scared. I’d had a miscarriage three months before and I didn’t want to say anything in case it happened again.”
She was also worried about how the team would react. “My fear was that my team would resign if they feel like they’re not managed well or don't have clear directions [because I’m pregnant].”
One senior manager did choose to leave, which meant that alongside the fundraise, Guillaume had to hire and onboard a new employee who she could trust when she eventually went on maternity leave.
“It was very stressful, but at the same time I had other employees who really stepped up and took on a lot of responsibility,” she says.
Druckman told her cofounders and head of people as soon as she realised she was pregnant, before telling the rest of the team a couple of months later. “It’s so much to go through on your own, and if you don’t have that support network, it’s very difficult.”
Being open was a big bonus when hiring, too. “We were able to attract talent who were parents, because we were building an inclusive and flexible culture where it’s fine to be a parent. It allowed us to bring some incredible people on board.”
Cutting short a fundraise
For the first few weeks of her pregnancy, Guillaume says that she had superpowers.
“I felt so strong and confident — before being hit by morning sickness. It lasted for entire days and is so debilitating. It’s like a hangover times five.”
Guillaume suffered badly from nausea and exhaustion, and there were times when she had to turn off the camera while on a call with investors because she thought she was going to be sick.
An investor suggested that Guillaume raise less than the $3m she set out to — so, despite the business doing well, she lowered her fundraising target to $1m. “My confidence was really hit."
I felt so strong and confident — before being hit by morning sickness
Wernér also had to cut short a fundraise. Six months into the pregnancy she was experiencing a number of health complications, the most serious being lung clots, and she had to take daily injections to prevent heart attacks.
It was a choice between continuing the fundraise or setting up the business in preparation for her giving birth. She ended up raising £160k of her £300k target.
“I had to make sure everyone was prepared for the best and worst-case scenarios. It makes me super proud of myself that the company’s still here — that I’m still here.”
The perks of remote pitching
All of the founders that Sifted spoke to that raised post-lockdowns say that the normality of remote working and doing meetings online was a huge help.
It was a “lifesaver” for Guillaume — who often had to lie down between calls because of back pain. Druckman says she doesn’t know how people did it pre-Covid.
“There are a whole lot of physical barriers when you’re pregnant and working from home was what I needed to be my best self with investors,” Sophie Meislin Baron, founder of parenting platform Mamamade, tells Sifted. “Morning sickness and exhaustion come on so suddenly — I can only imagine what it’s like to have to fundraise in person while pregnant.”
When Outtier was pregnant and pitching in-person she was feeling “on top of the world” — but everyone’s experience is different, she adds. That’s not to say that she didn’t cancel the odd meeting close to her due date.
“One London-based VC who knew I was heavily pregnant asked me to come to his office on the other side of town to pitch. I decided I wasn’t going to speak to him because I didn’t want to have to justify not going. You’ve got to have boundaries and it’s okay to know that sometimes you don’t align with an investor.”
Finding a support network can be a huge help.
“Getting that live support from people that have been through it has been very helpful in my journey,” says Druckman. “You can plan as much as you want, but there’s lots of unknowns and you need to adapt.”
There are communities like VC Backed Moms, and founder-parents can also ask their founder networks or investors about getting introductions to people who have gone through something similar. “That’s how I got most of my connections,” she adds.
Founders are also in the unique position of being the key decision maker in a company, says Wernér, and they should use it to their advantage.
“You’re the boss, you set the rules. Juggle the company and make it work for you.” Wernér used to have daily meetings at 9.30am, but that stopped working for her when she was pregnant because she was awake half the night, so she pushed them back a couple of hours.
Are attitudes changing?
Investors are — gradually — getting better at supporting pregnant founders, says Druckman.
“There’s a general desire to understand female founders’ perspective and journeys better, but change is slow.”
Outtier thinks VCs still need to practise more empathy, not least towards dads who are expecting, too. “I’ve met many male founders who are a bit traumatised because no one gives a shit about the fact that they’re about to have a newborn baby, because they’re just the dad.”
The industry needs to watch it doesn’t forget about that progress as it heads into a more difficult fundraising landscape, adds Druckmann, especially given that the proportion of funding raised by women-only teams has dropped from 3% to 1% since 2018.
“For women, building a successful company and starting a family often happen at around the same point in life, and we need to broaden what we expect a startup founder to look like to tackle existing bias towards pregnant women and mothers,” she says.
“I made some of my best decisions because I was pregnant and because I became a mum.”