‘Nightmare’ pitch meetings: One female founder’s long road to funding her AI startup

Growing up in Alaska, Heather Shoemaker always felt that the ability to speak a foreign language was a super power. This prompted her to study French and Spanish and pursue a bachelor’s degree in linguistics. While working as an interpreter and bartender after college, he was driving around Seattle when she heard a report on NPR describing Java programming as the future of technology. She decided to go back to school on the spot and learn a different kind of language: coding.

Shoemaker earned an engineering degree and spent the next decade as a software developer reformatting source code for companies that were expanding operations internationally and needed their software to support multiple languages. . He realized that the biggest obstacle was not the software. Companies with a global presence and mostly English speaking employees need more help providing customer support. With Artificial Intelligence and his prowess as a developer, Shoemaker saw an opportunity to give his super powers to everyone.

In 2017, she launched Language I/OAn AI-powered SaaS platform that provides real-time, multilingual customer support in over 100 languages.

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The shoemaker had a habit of being the only woman in the AI ​​work room from her graduate school classes, where women only put on makeup a quarter of the industry, As a female founder and CEO, she realized she was in unknown territory when in 2019 she went looking for investors for her bootstrapped company, which is based in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Less than 2 percent of enterprise software companies are set up by womenand in spite of generating high returnsStartups, led by all-female teams, struggle when it comes to securing venture capital support. During the first half of this year, women received only 2 percent of funding and were responsible for only 6.9 percent of deals, according to pitchbook data, Shoemaker believes the number should be even lower for software developers female founders. Still, knowing the statistics was unprepared for the reception he received in dozens of unsuccessful pitch meetings.

rough friends with money

“I talked to so many people who were just a nightmare,” she says. “I don’t know why they think what I’m doing is easy.”

Shoemaker could tell that VC firms weren’t used to seeing a woman, especially a woman with technical skills, as opposed to an MBA. He asked, “How hard can it be to replicate what you’ve coded?” Shoemaker says – adding that if a woman programmed the software, it should be easy for another developer to copy it, making it less valuable.

Another male investor, who passed by, told him, “If you were a big guy with a long beard, the AI ​​pitch would be a lot easier for me. It would just be more General. we are not used to This.,

One morning on his daily run, Shoemaker dreamed of a plan that reached far-fetched proportions. If language I/O had a male founder, life would be so much easier, so why not pretend to be one? She considered shortening her name to Heath, sported a beard at Zoom meetings, and went on to research voice-modulation software. Just before her fundraising efforts turned into a Shakespearean comedy, Shoemaker decided against it.

“I thought about it a little longer,” she says with a laugh. “You don’t want to start a relationship with a VC lying about you.”

AI. widespread gender bias in

This dismissive attitude towards women working in AI is a problem not only for female founders, but for society at large. By 2025, AI will create 97 million new jobs, according to World Economic Forum, As algorithms become more integrated into everyday life, the people who write the code will need to reflect on the population.

The alternative – a programming monolith – inadvertently also produces biased results. gartner It is estimated that 85 percent of AI projects produce inaccurate results because of bias in the data, algorithms or the teams responsible for managing them. This means that companies taking advantage of AI will end up with defective products.

For example, Shoemaker explains, if the AI ​​translates the word doctor from a gender-neutral language to a gender-neutral language, the word the program will almost always choose to give the user will be the male form while the nurse translates into the female form. Will be done .

“It drives me crazy,” she says. “And now, because it’s not always a gender binary, we need to start thinking about gender-neutral terms; no one has discussed that topic yet.”

finding the right investor

After dozens of rejections, Shoemaker had considered quitting venture capital, but found little success close to home in October 2020, raising $500,000 in Wyoming. But he needed more capital. A Jackson, Wyoming-based consultant paired Language I/O with East Coast angel network Golden Seeds, which focuses on women-led startups, and Eric Schnadig, a Boston-based investor who told Shoemaker that he would introduce her. are going to give. – Called “Super Angel”. Shoemaker didn’t know what it meant, but he was willing to meet any potential supporters at this point. In Boston, she finally met someone who really listened to her pitch.

Gutbrain Ventures founder and managing director Bob Davoli reacted very differently than other investors Shoemaker had offered. “He immediately found a market opportunity and wasn’t arguing with me about the size of the market,” she says. “He wasn’t under the misconception that Google is going to do what we do.”

Davoli, who Shoemaker described as a feminist, was not your typical VC. Known for a practical approach and a hobby moonlighting as a singer-songwriter, he had a 30-year track record as an investor, and had landed businessweek cover in 2000 portfolio The startup, including a startup focused on AI shoemaker, primarily consists of enterprise software platforms, says finding an investor with depth of knowledge of the field was key and made the pitch easier.

In 2021, Davoli co-led a $5 million Series A funding round, followed by another $6.5 million round announced last January. To date, Language I/O has raised $14.7 million. Shoemaker’s advice to other female founders struggling to secure funding: Find someone who knows your industry and don’t give up. “Just like with dating, you’ll have a whole bunch of bad dates,” she says. “But then you’ll find someone who’s good.”