I’m working on embracing fear and appreciating the role that fear plays in our lives and decision making. It’s not the idea of fearlessness but continuing to walk on the other side of fear.
The venture capital process isn’t just broken when it comes to needing more women to receive funding for their startups, but also we need more women in the position to give funding to female founders. Luckily, Tawana Burnett is answering the call through Pipeline Angels, an organization she’s a member of that provides training to angel investors to invest in women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs.
Once an entrepreneur herself, Burnett understands business challenges better than anyone. Now as an executive at Facebook, she’s using that experience and her Ivy League education to help CMOs and agencies of the world’s largest brands, with their growth strategies leveraging social media.
Burnett knew she wanted to help women and femmes get the funding they deserved and is now a member of numerous investor groups in New York and California. In addition to being a member of Pipeline Angels, she also serves on UVA’s Dean’s Diversity Advisory Council and is an Executive in Residence for MBA students at Rutgers University.
From once being a consultant and business owner to now helping women and femmes raise millions for their endeavors, Burnett chatted with Her Agenda about literally changing the face of angel investing and bringing slept on ideas to life.
Her Agenda: How did you get involved with Pipeline Angels?
Tawana Burnett: About two years ago, I wanted to get involved in the startup community again. I’m an employee at Facebook, I’ve been at Facebook for about four years and started to learn about opportunities for women to invest in other women. I [did some] research and heard about Pipeline Angels, but more importantly, I heard about Natalia, her vision and what she was attempting to do. But before that transpired, I got involved with another investor group, which is also focused on women investors and investing in women. I started there from a recommendation from someone who was in a VC group, who I had met and learned about her journey on the startup and VC community path. It was bit of a winding road getting to Pipeline [Angels], but I was excited to find what I now call my people and my community. Pipeline Angels feels different and so distinct in its mission from some of the other groups I’ve been a part of.
Her Agenda: What do you feel sets Pipeline Angels apart from similar organizations?
Tawana Burnett: Not only the history of the organization (it now has over 300 members, who invested over $5 million for a number of companies, some that have gone on to series A;) but the intention and mission to literally change the face of angel investing is one that’s so clear and so much progress has been made by the group. When I stepped into the bootcamp in the spring of 2018, my cohort was a room of over 30 women and femmes from New York, Minneapolis, D.C., Seattle, and Atlanta. These [were impressive] women/femmes who were early employees at Uber, one was a product manager at Google, and another was the head of supply chain at Microsoft. These were women of color, women who proudly decided to back and invest in women-owned businesses, even if they weren’t owned by women of color.
The bootcamp actually started with unconscious bias training, before we got into talking about the basics of due diligence and types of companies and criteria for investing. So the mission is quite clear, quite different, and the progress against that mission is pretty strong.
Her Agenda: How can women and femmes get accepted into the bootcamp? What does that process look like?
Tawana Burnett: There’s a rolling, online application, and we now have [cohorts] across the county. We have a new cohort in Puerto Rico, New Orleans. You apply, and you have to be an accredited investor – which is a stipulation that’s set not by Pipeline Angels but the investing community and the government. You interview with Natalia to talk about what your goals and ambitions are; and you also talk about the process and make sure it’s going to be a good match because there are a lot of options out there in terms of investing. It’s very accessible. There are some members who are first-time investors; maybe they have mutual funds, maybe they have just a bank account but they have disposable income and an intention on learning and building community; members who are founders themselves and have raised money and are in investor groups. Some investor groups have this exclusivity where you have to get invited or know someone, go to a certain school, etc.
Her Agenda: How does Pipeline Angels measure the success of the bootcamp?
Tawana Burnett: By the time we graduate, the members in the group invest in at least one of the founders that present at the pitch summit. Right now, we have been looking at the number of investments that have been made of the last five years, the number of companies we have brought in particular women of color, also we have a dealflow video call once a month to discuss new companies and follow on funding for portfolio companies other chapters. [This is how we] scale and amplify the opportunity of investment for the company that maybe one chapter picked.
Some Pipeline Angels portfolio companies have gone on to incubators, accelerators, some have done exits, some have received additional funding as a result of having members of Pipeline Angels on their cap tables. There’s lots of positive momentum we’ve been seeing from the founders that have come through Pipeline Angels.
Her Agenda: What are some obstacles women and femme entrepreneurs face when it comes to securing funding?
Tawana Burnett: One [obstacle] is the community. The typical process for small businesses and startups is that there is often a friends and family round and there are investors that are hungry to put checks behind the next big idea. The challenge for women and femmes, particularly women/femmes of color, is that circle of friends and family is smaller and maybe even nonexistent. The process that often happens with these companies is they’re getting introduced to VC groups and investors who take them at face value because of the network that they have. That’s challenging when the folks sitting around those tables are looking at patterns, or they are looking for white males, etc. Especially for women/femmes of color, from what I know and having been an entrepreneur – it’s such a different group of people that are writing the checks.
Having that exposure and the opportunity to find founder friendly investors who understand the value in ideas that women have, because there are so many ideas that aren’t getting funded and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to invest in the things we want to see come to fruition in the world, solving problems that men or a certain population doesn’t understand, but the opportunity is definitely there.
We’re trying to invest in the things we want to see come to fruition in the world, solving problems that men or a certain population doesn’t understand, but the opportunity is definitely there.
Her Agenda: What do you find is a common trait among founders who typically do well in the pitch summit?
Tawana Burnett: Really understanding your why. [You’ve got your problem] that you’re solving but why are you particularly connected to this? Is it because of a personal experience that you’ve had; are you uniquely passionate about and have been working on it? Or are you someone who is just coming up with an idea? Entrepreneurs who have been in the space, are subject matter experts, are the consumer they are trying to reach, curious about the topic and developed a hypothesis, and they are working to prove that hypothesis one way or the other – so that’s one [common thread I see].
The second is have they made a pivot and what have they learned? Many investors are looking for the coachable founder and that simply means who is willing to have a real conversation about their journey; and talk about the failures and where the hypothesis was validated or not; be honest about the revenue opportunity at this stage even if there’s a big area of potential but what does that actually look like in the solution that you developed and piloted? Even if you are pre-revenue, some form of voting with their feet really needs to be true to help you stand out as someone who has the ability to bring forth an idea that has traction, product market fit, and all the things that most founders are talking about.
Their why is when you can tell immediately, as a [founder] starts talking, there’s a spark. That passion is hard to fake.
Her Agenda: What is a motto or phrase that you live by?
Tawana Burnett: I’m working on embracing fear and appreciating the role that fear plays in our lives and decision making. It’s not the idea of fearlessness but continuing to walk on the other side of fear.
[Editor’s note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity. This feature is sponsored by our friends at Pipeline Angels a bootcamp for angel investing focused on creating capital for women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs.To apply for their next cohort and become an investor, click here.]