Amanda Weeks is cofounder and CEO of Industrial/Organic, which means she’s not just a women in agtech, she’s also a woman in the male-dominated world of waste.
Industrial/Organic is an norganic waste recycling operation that began in Brooklyn, NY and has now moved to Newark, New Jersey to turn food waste into fertilizer and cleaning products.
The company closed a $1.3 million seed round last month to build out its first commercial facility in Newark. The round was led by Brooklyn Bridge Ventures with nine other New York and New Jersey-based firms also participating, including SOSV, female-founder focused BBG Ventures, and Melo7 Tech Partners, a VC firm that counts New York Knick Carmelo Anthony as one of its founders.
“When I funded the company, it was little more than a science project in a garage in Brooklyn and soon, they’ll open up a waste processing facility in Newark–one that didn’t require tens of millions of dollars to setup and also won’t pollute the local neighborhood with odor. It won’t throw off dangerous gases, and yes, the process will make a profit,” wrote Brooklyn Bridge Ventures Partner Charlie O’Donnell on his personal blog.
We talked to Weeks about raising her recent round and her future funding plans, how she changes her behavior in front of investors, and her experience as a female founder in the waste industry.
So what was your recent fundraising experience like and at what points during the process did you feel your gender played a role?
The interesting part of our experience is that we raised our seed round in two halves that were almost a year apart, which is a little unusual, but I think actually worked really well for us and could also work out well for other startups that are in any sort of regulated industry where things take a long time and it’s hard to get traction.
We raised the first half our seed round in October of 2016 when it was still only my co-founder and myself. We had just come out of an urban tech accelerator called URBAN-X, and we were in a garage-type setting without much traction beyond a larger prototype that we built. After raising our initial funds we built our team, optimized our process, further developed our end products and started setting up our facility in New Jersey. That was when we went back out to raise the rest of the round.
The second half of that raise came so much more quickly. We closed in about a month. And that in large part was due to the fact that we could bring investors to this big, old, cool building with a bunch of giant machines in it. We had clearly spent our funds well and had moved on from the scrappy tabletop proof of concept. Every single investor who came to visit our Newark facility invested. We ended up oversubscribed.
All that being said, I think that we did have a pretty good experience overall with fundraising our first round — I think because what we are doing naturally self-selected for investors who are willing to think outside the box.
Do I think that we could have raised more or had a better valuation if I was man? Definitely. I also believe that investors who passed on us because they were skeptical of our ability to build a big company — was influenced by my gender, whether that was conscious or unconscious. I feel like in most cases it was probably unconscious.
And there are also plenty of meetings where I’m the CEO and my co-founder is the CTO, in essence, an engineer who has no involvement in any of the finances at the company or our revenue projections and roadmap. But in many meetings, the financial questions were directed towards him, even though I was the one answering them. I have never experienced anything overt like a lot of women have, but more of that unconscious bias.
Do you feel like the implicit bias you describe has to do with the nature of the project that you’re raising for? Because you are a woman constructing a physical building?
Yes, I think so. Especially when you’re at an early stage it’s easy for people to think, ‘I’m not sure if you’re the right person to do this’. There could be many reasons for that, but in an alternate universe I bet many of these same investors would have been on board if I was pitching a less complex, more female-centric startup.
So I sort of self-corrected for that. I put all my dresses in storage. In all of my pitches, I wear buttons up to the neck and pants and dark colors and I try to be less feminine when I meet an investor and also just in the waste industry in general.
I have definitely developed a uniform that I feel can give people confidence that I can run a waste and biotech and agtech company and deal with all of the players and all the partners I’m going to come across. And I can give people confidence that I can also handle garbage and not be worried about my manicure or something.
I should also mention that being a woman has been a benefit in some ways because I think that on the waste side and on the side of our customers, there are people who are like ‘Wow! Great, there’s a woman. That’s awesome. Good luck. We want to help you.’
There is an idea out there that women are judged on their experience and men are judged on their potential. Does that ring true to you? And if so, how do you think it’s going to affect the rest of your company’s fundraising?
When thinking about our next raise, I wanted to raise a post-seed or a ‘seed two’ of $2 million, but our lead investor said, ‘You’re sending a message that we’re not ready yet, and that’s not true. You started the company four years ago, you have so much more to show for yourself than so many other companies that have raised more with less. You should raise at least five.’
So I was already handicapping myself in terms of what I thought we could raise because I’ve been shown that a female-founded start-up has to jump through a lot more hoops to get investors excited. It’s something I have to consider with every decision we make because I think investors want to see women de-risk their companies more than men.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
Our whole conversation about this centers around accusations and individual public figures, and that can make people maybe react strongly. It isn’t really constructive when people ask ‘How am I supposed to work with anybody? How am I supposed to have drinks with somebody?’ But I think that it’s better to pose that in more general and abstract terms where there are no accusations, and you can actually have a conversation, a constructive one, where it’s not just about responding to accusations.
Looking at the female experience as startup founders and in the workplace by focusing on stories around individual bad actors puts us in danger of looking at this issue under a microscope where there won’t be broader systemic changes. Already the takeaways seem to be more on a micro-level, like, “Is it ever appropriate to meet a professional contact for drinks?”
I think the conversation now is very reactive, which isn’t going to be constructive in the long term. We need to pull the lens out and consider how women are treated differently than men (and vice versa) in all interactions, and what do you do to correct that?