Megan Bent of Harbinger Ventures: “The pay gap”

Female founders are often inspired by a different set of life experiences than their male peers. Their unique perspective can be a tremendous source of new innovation, touching undervalued, under-innovated or undercapitalized needs. Further, female-founded companies have the unique ability to author their own culture rather than inherit existing business culture. With good intention, purpose […]

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Female founders are often inspired by a different set of life experiences than their male peers. Their unique perspective can be a tremendous source of new innovation, touching undervalued, under-innovated or undercapitalized needs. Further, female-founded companies have the unique ability to author their own culture rather than inherit existing business culture. With good intention, purpose and accountability, female-founded businesses can start to rewire business norms that have resulted in unequal outcomes.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Megan Bent, Founder and Managing Partner at Harbinger Ventures. A lifelong investor and entrepreneur with deep expertise in consumer brands, Megan has spent the majority of her career working to identify and scale high-growth, early-stage companies in the consumer sector serving as a lead director, problem solver, operator, strategic thinker and confidant to emerging entrepreneurs. In launching Harbinger in 2016, Megan began also leveraging a model that emphasizes female leadership and fosters close collaboration among entrepreneurs and investors to accelerate value creation. Prior to founding Harbinger in 2016, Megan served for a decade as co-founder and Managing Director of Revelry Brands, a unique consumer-centric direct investment platform for a multi-time entrepreneur.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I love challenges and enjoy solving problems. With the support of a few incredible mentors, I’ve been fortunate enough to build a career and a business leaning into my entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking.

I didn’t initially set out to be an investor. After graduating from Georgetown University, I joined a consulting firm and worked primarily with private equity clients. But when a former colleague asked me to help him launch a new direct investment platform, I jumped at the chance. At that point, I had never invested a dollar in my life, but he took a chance on me and I became a Managing Director at Revelry Brands, an investment operating group focused on natural consumer products brands. We spent the next ten years building out a bespoke strategy that led us to invest, build or own six early-stage companies in the consumer space. Initially, we invested about 30 million dollars directly and raised another 50 dollars –60 million dollars alongside us. We made some inevitable mistakes along the way and our eventual success wasn’t because we were well trained — it was because we approached investing with an operational mindset which proved to be a somewhat unique advantage.

My work with those next-generation lifestyle brands led me to start Harbinger Ventures. I saw an opportunity to take the operating and innovation principles we preached in our portfolio and translate them into a more scalable investment model.

Now with more than two decades of investing experience and leadership, there are two main things that keep me energized — the people and the problems we are solving. Every day in this work is a different puzzle. Entrepreneurs are truly a force of nature. They think and act differently, and optimism powers their innovation.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In our first fund, I led an investment round into a tiny brand called Once Upon a Farm, a company creating organic, cold-pressed snacks for kids. Initially, their team was doing less than 10K dollars a month in sales and operating out of their garage in San Diego, but there was so much to love about this emerging brand and opportunity.

I already knew that the company was destined for success, but I was really convinced that we were onto something big when actress Jennifer Garner was introduced to this small company and immediately fell in love with its mission. Because of Jennifer’s previous experience working with Save the Children and raising her own children, she really recognized the needs that that company was seeking to address — and she got along so well with the other cofounders that they asked her to join the team.

We worked over the next six months to develop the business, address a number of complex challenges, and eventually put together the powerhouse team that runs this mission-oriented brand today. It was incredible to help facilitate the coming together of the founders’ worlds — an A-list celebrity, a world-class CEO and two first-time founders — who made this leap together around a shared mission.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I sometimes found myself a bit “out over my skis” in the early part of my investment career. I was asked to lead negotiations for my first deal only months into joining the firm and having never looked at a term sheet before. In order to both appear credible but also learn, I was chatting with an advisor in real-time and asking questions as I negotiated directly with the CEO of the company we were interested in. I would stall throughout, asking the CEO to walk me through more details of the ask while searching for the terms, sourcing advice from my advisor, and responding just in time. Ultimately, we won the deal on pretty decent terms — although I probably didn’t understand how decent it was at the time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have three mentors to whom I attribute my ability to fluently speak three business dialects — entrepreneur, business advisor and negotiator.

From an entrepreneur mentor, I learned the importance of innovative thinking, the competitive advantage gained by not following existing playbooks, and how much courage and grit is required to do just that. From an investment banker mentor, I learned pragmatism, the art of probability weighting everything to rationalize optimism and manage risk, and the art of understanding counter-party priorities to expedite alignment and desired outcomes. From my lawyer mentor, I learned the technical and commercial elements of a good contract and contract negotiation best practices.

According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

There are four well-documented gaps holding women back.

  1. The pay gap: Women make 0.80 on the dollar compared to men for similar jobs. This makes it harder to save money to start a business.
  2. The equity gap: Women tend to receive 0.50 for every dollar compared to men which mean they aren’t accruing the wealth potential represented in equity. Again, this makes it hard to save money.
  3. The funding gap: Women represent an incredibly small portion of the sizeable investment dollars that flow into startups. This is both a disadvantage and perhaps disincentive.
  4. The chore gap: Women are still doing more of the work at home. This eats up the free time during which they might be writing a business plan or energizing around a new idea.

Finally, some of the implicit and explicit biases that exist around female leadership capabilities likely dampen the optimism and enthusiasm necessary to take a big risk like starting a business. For example, if you’re told your whole life women are less risk-averse if you’re passed over for a promotion a few times, if your boss doesn’t take time to mentor you, you may lose some of the momentum needed for a big leap.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

I believe a good place to start is reviewing the situation you are facing, accepting the facts, and committing to transparency. These obstacles exist at many career stages and look different for each female entrepreneur. Whether it’s rebalancing chores at home, evaluating corporate pay packages or recruiting a new board member, you must consistently review the facts against your intentions to aspire towards a more equal outcome.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman investor but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Female founders are often inspired by a different set of life experiences than their male peers. Their unique perspective can be a tremendous source of new innovation, touching undervalued, under-innovated or undercapitalized needs. Further, female-founded companies have the unique ability to author their own culture rather than inherit existing business culture. With good intention, purpose and accountability, female-founded businesses can start to rewire business norms that have resulted in unequal outcomes.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

It’s not a get-rich-quick undertaking. Founders do not often achieve full success until more than a decade of building their business, with the first 3–5 years proving to be the most challenging with many personal financial obstacles and critics questioning your abilities.

Bringing the idea to life requires an enormous amount of minutia. This includes many of the mundane tactics to get your business off the ground, including everything from processing purchase orders, answering customer service calls, learning to set up a customer relationship management platform, and enterprise resource planning.

Lastly, taking on investment can create as many problems as it solves. Capital is rarely the answer to the largest problems facing a startup like product-market fit, building a culture, and developing a strategy. You must solve these fundamental issues before the fundraising process.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Not everyone has the entrepreneurial spirit and grit needed to start a new business.

The best entrepreneurs always have a vision. They see the world from a unique vantage point that allows them to connect dots others don’t see yet, and they have the courage and optimism to pursue that vision when it may not appear to be rational. Successful entrepreneurs also need to have the hustle and grit to defy the odds, open doors and stick with the vision despite setbacks.

For those who prefer and thrive in a more structured or linear environment, the entrepreneurial world can be enormously stressful. Startups often require a high-risk tolerance with little job security, career development and business stability sometimes resulting in less pay.

Timing is everything and should be a real consideration as entrepreneurs calculate when they can afford to take the risk of starting a business.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Finding, motivating and retaining great people is everything. I heard this throughout my career, but it’s an important concept to internalize and must be learned by experience to truly appreciate it. The concept only works if you’re really committed to it. My team at Harbinger Ventures will pass on deals where the team doesn’t stand up to our expectations, even if we love the brand. Our investing process is purposefully slow so we have ample time to get to know the people behind the company and can then invest heavily in development and resources to support them.
  2. Sometimes doing nothing is the best strategy. As someone that has a strong bias towards action, I’ve learned that patience and time can often be required ahead of making a decision.
  3. You should dedicate your time to what is more important rather than most urgent. Small companies are frequently putting out fires, but I’ve learned it is sometimes better to let those fires burn in service of bigger objectives that require your full attention and propel the company forward.
  4. You can truly love what you do when the who, what and how to align with your natural passions, strengths and values. There is a reason most of the brands we invest in are not just innovative, but also mission-driven.
  5. A career is a life-long learning opportunity that fosters real intellectual curiosity. Rather than only focusing on where you want to be in the next five, ten, twenty years, make time to focus on the smaller goals that will inspire you to grow in the journey. At our firm, we purposefully think with an 80/20 mindset — how do we spend 80% of the time on things we already understand, such as product, evaluating risk and efficiency, and how we can spend at least 20% of our time learning something new and getting uncomfortable. This keeps our team agile, relevant and stimulated.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At Harbinger Ventures, we have done our part to address female leadership gaps including funding women and installing female board members — many of whom are first-timers — as well as evaluating compensation and equity packages. We believe that the durability of progress requires deep roots, and we are focused on that in our portfolio.

We have also allocated a portion of our profit to our portfolio company founders — we give our founders equity in the fund — which is unusual. We’re all on the same team, and we strive to act as stakeholders rather than just shareholders, reevaluating incentives and considering people the best place to begin an investment.

We are vocal and transparent about our focus on empowering female founders and the business case for closing the gender gap in funding. As a small fund whose strategy is built around specialization, our impact is only measurable if we serve as a source of inspiration. We are not taking the path of least resistance as we challenge existing systems and have productive conversations with male GPs about the female leadership gap. We do it because it is true to our mission.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?

We have two existential crises facing our world — rising inequality and climate change. I believe that they will increasingly become intertwined, and we must find intersectional solutions to ensure an equitable future. Because of this, we invest in companies that are on a mission to be more sustainable and accessible.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Michelle Obama. I truly admire her intelligence, her grace, and everything she does to be a role model for women.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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