The expectation of bias: How it can wreak havoc and what to do about it

This weekend I spoke at the MIT Breaking The Mold Conference. One of the topics that came up is that of bias women entrepreneurs might face when they go to raise venture funding. What I shared with the audience is what I want to share here — and get your thoughts on:

The expectation of bias, the damage it causes, and what to do about it.

I spent five years as a venture capitalist, as the only woman at the firm (not counting administrative assistants) and usually the only woman board member (with the awesome exception of Gail Goodman, who was the CEO of Constant Contact, my first venture investment, where I served on the board for 5 years.) I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my career. I’ve pitched many venture firms, successfully raised money for some of my companies, failed to raise venture money for others.

So I feel I can speak from a lot of experience on this topic. And here’s what I mean by the expectation of bias:

Human beings have biases and perceptions.

There are venture capitalists who would rather fund male entrepreneurs than female ones. There are people who consider confident women aggressive and there are those who don’t think women are aggressive enough to run a successful company. This list of biases can go on forever. Where there are human beings, we have bias.

But while I am not here to defend unfounded biases, what I have often seen happen is that the expectation of bias on the part of the woman wreaks havoc even before she walks into the room to pitch her company. I have seen this so many times as a VC, but I’ve also experienced it myself.

It goes something like this:

You have read tons of articles about how venture is not friendly to women. You’ve heard stories from women entrepreneurs about horror meetings. You have a friend who is a VC and he mentions off the cuff how women don’t know how to pitch (or can’t think big, or can’t be greedy enough.)

These start to seep in and you begin to assume that these are the biases that will be stacked against you when you go to pitch your company. To make matters worse, you have one — or two or a dozen — bad meetings that seem to confirm the bias. It becomes rock solid in your psyche and every time you go in to meet with a venture capitalist, you expect that they share the bias.

Why is this terrible?

Because your perception or expectation of bias changes how you act, how you communicate, how you carry yourself.

Your confidence takes a hit so you’re not as strong in your verbal and non-verbal communication. Instead of staying crisply focused on your agenda, you try to address concerns you assume your audience has. You misjudge questions and comments you get because you don’t see them as they are, you see them as they could be if the person across the table is negatively inclined towards you. This causes you to miss the substance of the questions and not do your best answering them.

I’ve been there and when I’ve felt this way, I had the worst meetings and did my worst in them.

And I think this goes way beyond pitching venture capitalists.

In any situation — going in for an interview, meeting with your boss to talk about your performance or a raise, giving a speech to a group — if you expect your audience to be biased in some way, it will negatively affect your performance. You will then likely not get the result you really want — the job, the raise, awesome feedback about your speech — which will only go to reinforce your expectation of bias for the next time.

This cycles sucks. So what do you do?

Assume the best intentions.

This may sound too simplistic, too feel-goody, too mushy of advice. But it’s not. It’s foundation and not at all easy to actually put into practice. If you can do it, I am certain you will see more positive outcomes you’re after.

What does it mean to assume best intentions?

When you go in to pitch your company, assume that the venture capitalists across the table are excited to meet you, want to hear about your idea and your vision, and dive into your business case.

When you go in for an interview, assume that the person interviewing you is genuinely excited to hear about your experience and your qualifications for the job.

When you give a presentation, assume that the people in the room are there because they want to hear what you have to say and are eagerly anticipating your talk.

Will this always be true? Absolutely not. There will be people who will judge you based on others like you they’ve met before, who will hold strong biases, who will make assumptions about you before you even speak.

But there will be many others who will get to experience the best version of you, the confident, authentic, kick-ass version of you, not clouded by your expectation of their biases. You will drive your message and how you feel, you will bring the best you to whatever the pitch or meeting or presentation you’re at, and you’ll give yourself the best shot at achieving the outcome you’re after. You won’t always succeed — boy, let me tell you, I keep learning this painful lesson — but you will know that you did your actual best and you will have the energy to keep trying.


Because there is always something we can work on within ourselves. And this is our best work, within ourselves.

If I give a speech and the reception is not as enthusiastic as I hoped, there are things I can work on to make it better. I can work on my content, my cadence, my slides, add some humor or take out some stats that might be boring. I am in control of making changes and that is empowering.

But if I assume that it didn’t go well because the audience was biased in some way — they don’t like women, they don’t like immigrants, they don’t like women immigrants whose name is spelled oddly and who wear crazy rings and tend to swear on stage — then what am I to do? Go around the world searching for audiences, which don’t have any people who feel that way?

Assume the best intentions.

It doesn’t mean you’ll never run into a bias or have to deal with someone’s incorrect perceptions. But it does mean that you will bring your real, awesome, authentic you every time. And that’s your best shot, give yourself the freedom to take it.

Assume the best intentions




If you invent a cure for cancer and no one knows about it, you didn’t really invent it.

A friend asked me if I could spend a bit of time with a friend of his, who is a prominent journalist (you’ve probably read some of his articles in the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal), author, and energy and sustainability expert. He is thinking about getting into public speaking and seeking advice for how to go about it. Since I’ve done some and it’s a growing part of how I’m spending my time, I offered to share my experience.

After we spent a few minutes on the phone, I was reminded that the most important conversations we have as entrepreneurs (and I consider authors, speakers, artists all entrepreneurs) usually have a lot more to do with our own psychology and emotions than the actual tactical problem at hand.

When I asked this author how he was currently promoting his work, he paused. Then, before he told me about the feature articles he writes for some major publications or the conferences where he has already been invited to speak — both super impressive and useful pieces of information for our chat — he said:

“Yeah, this is the part I am really uncomfortable with, the whole promoting myself thing.”

Here was this brilliant mind, whose work is not only interesting and prominent, but incredibly relevant and important, who knows that it’s incredibly important, and who doesn’t feel comfortable promoting himself.

I come across this all the time. In fact, it took me a very long time to become more comfortable with being able to speak about my work and promote it, and even as I help others overcome this emotional barrier, I struggle with it often.

What is it that makes this difficult for so many people? I think one emotion at play here is fear of rejection. If I get out there and tell the world about my writing or speaking or the other work I do and the response is not hugely positive, it sucks.

But I think another emotion may be an even stronger obstacle: the feeling that it’s not humble to brag about your work.

There is a fine line between bragging and confidently promoting, just like there is a fine line between feeling humble because you’re in a situation where you realize you have a lot to learn and doing something to appear humble. And I think we get caught between these feelings a lot.

As I talked to this author, I was thinking about how to encourage him to do get out there more and overcome his hangup. I remembered a phrase I’ve used from time to time, which I think I made up but in the interest of full humility, I can’t vouch for that fact with absolute certainty:

If you invent a cure for cancer and no one knows about it, you didn’t really invent it.

We all have a gift to share with the world — some amazing humans have more than one. If you found yours and are doing something with it, to not share it with as many people as could benefit from it as possible isn’t modesty or humility. It’s stealing. You’re robbing them of a chance to learn something, experience something, have their lives be changed in some positive way — whether it’s huge or small.

Your book, painting, product, idea, song, blog post, photo…. they might be revolutionary for humanity, like a cure for cancer, or they might be revolutionary for one person. To express true humility is to accept your responsibility to share your unique gifts with others, not be quiet about them (and frustrated that no one knows).