Women entrepreneurs are behind a growing number of today’s most innovative start-ups across multiple industries. When it comes to raising capital to grow new ventures, though, the picture is not nearly as bright. Female founders encounter many more hurdles at the fundraising stages of their journey owing to entrenched gender biases.
Among those to have broken these biases is Michelle Kennedy. Having held top executive positions at dating platforms Badoo and Bumble, she decided to launch her own social networking app. Peanut focuses on fertility, pregnancy, motherhood and menopause. Michelle’s mission is to make her app the leading network for connecting women when they need each other most.
So far, Peanut has raised $23m from investors. Michelle, CEO, is also a strategic investor in several early- and late-stage start-ups and institutional venture capital funds. In early March 2022, Michelle took part in a roundtable discussion with us to discuss her remarkable journey as well as how she overcame many barriers.
Michelle, can you tell us a bit about Peanut and what motivated you to start the business?
Peanut is an app and a platform for women to connect across life stages, whether that’s going through fertility treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, perimenopause or post-menopause. It’s about enabling women to find other women at a similar life stage to ask questions, discover relevant content and get support in a light-hearted, fun way. Nothing is taboo on Peanut – you can ask anything.
I’d been working in the dating industry, making digital products to connect people romantically. But I wasn’t at that life stage myself, and I saw this huge opportunity to bring together the products that were out there, which were either old-school forums or an overwhelmingly large amount of content.
How do you know which information to trust? How do you know what to read? How can you find other women who were going through the same thing if you are not completely in sync with your best friends? Or even if you don’t have that support network or wouldn’t want to share, how do you find that connectivity? I wanted to tackle subjects that had been considered taboo and let women know that there’s nothing shameful or awkward about those conversations. You can always talk about them on Peanut and there will be other women who are there.
I want my children to feel like they can do and try anything.
You’ve been described as the ultimate “mom-preneur.” How has motherhood impacted your role as an entrepreneur?
But for motherhood, I wouldn’t be doing what I am. I was working in a completely different environment leading someone else’s company. I had been involved in creating new products, but founding my business came from a moment of motherhood when I felt like I wouldn’t want another woman to have to go through what I did.
The women after me have greater expectations: they’re utilizing tech and great user interface in their everyday lives. And yet, when it comes to motherhood, they got a forum or 20 pages of content from 2002. That felt very jarring. When you go through these seismic life moments, it’s isolating. But having a platform where you can find other people who have lived that experience makes you realize you’re not alone.
Motherhood had other impacts on my entrepreneurship, too. I want my children to feel like they can do and try anything. When you’re doing something that changes people’s lives for the better, the hard grind is worth it.
Should we foster similar networks among women entrepreneurs?
It’s lonely being an entrepreneur. Your job is to get the money in, set the vision and hire the best people. There’s joy and despair – and nothing in between. You share the joy, but you must hold in the despair to keep the team motivated. So women absolutely need support.
There are relatively few of us, however, so support networks are very small. And we’re often too busy to admit moments of loneliness, despair or frustration. You can’t appear vulnerable because you don’t want to let down all those other women dreaming of founding businesses. So having a network where you can support one another is essential.
Have your biggest challenges as a woman entrepreneur been gender-related in any way?
There are unquestionably key moments on Peanut’s journey that have been related to gender, who I am and the position I have. Right at the start, when I had everything ready to go, I was told I wouldn’t raise capital without a male co-founder. And people still ask me if I have enough time to commit to a business given that I have a family. I’m pretty sure no male founder has ever been asked the same question!
I did a fundraiser while pregnant with my second child, and I did everything I could to hide that pregnancy. Thinking about what my platform does, that’s ironic! I was introduced recently to another founder about to fundraise while pregnant and she wanted advice. The fact that we are still having this conversation is deeply problematic. Women have lives. Some of us have babies; some of us don’t. It doesn’t impact whether we can run a successful company. Some young women get asked at pitches what their domestic situation is. That’s very common and it must stop.
Are your investors mostly male, and do you think having more female investors would help women entrepreneurs?
I have men and women investors in Peanut, and the men are really important. We have to bring men on the journey too; women can’t do this alone. If you have so few women who write the checks or sit on the investment committee, it’s irrelevant how many women you have at associate and principal level.
If you don’t have more women at all stages, the women become known as the
women’s company people. And they mightn’t want that: they might be interested in an industry unrelated to women. Don’t just send opportunities to her because she’s the only woman in the partnership, as this is reductive for both women founders and women investors.
How can the financial community better support women entrepreneurs like you?
First, look at your pipeline. Keep questioning why you are looking at those companies. Do you have the right starting point? Because if you’re looking at an opportunity because it’s so-and-so who you went to school with, that’s not the right starting point. I wasn’t at school with any of those people, and I can guarantee you many of the women and other underrepresented founders didn’t have those same opportunities. You have to scrap it and start again. If I can make, say, 12 investments in a year and 10 are in women founders, funds with infinitely more time and resources can do so too.
Second, I’ve heard it said repeatedly that male founders will
figure it out. I’ve never heard that said about female founders. Male founders get the benefit of the doubt; women founders are told they are not clear enough on the path forwards. It is hugely detrimental that women are never given the benefit of the doubt. Women are incredibly resourceful, and we already know that women founders perform better. They must be given the benefit of the doubt too.
Read more on the evolving landscape for female entrepreneurs and how wealth management can help enable them.