Lisa Curtis is the 29-year-old CEO and founder of Kuli Kuli, the manufacturer and distributor of Moringa-based products. She began her path toward entrepreneurship in the Peace Corps where she was introduced to the moringa tree in Niger.
Early this year, Kuli Kuli raised a $4.25m in Series A round from eighteen94 Capital, in the first investment for the venture investment arm of Kellogg Company. It is also one of the first investments by a Fortune 500 company into a Benefit Corporation, a company that places social and environmental impact on an equal level with profit.
The Series A followed a $500k seed round last year and a couple of crowdfunding campaigns, including a $500k raise on AgFunder.
We caught up with Curtis to discuss her experience as a female entrepreneur and how recent events of high-profile men in Hollywood and politics admitting to acts of sexual assault and harassment have affected how she thinks about it.
As CEO of Kuli Kuli you straddle fundraising, farming, and grocery. Where does your gender seem to come up in those areas and how does that manifest?
It comes up most often in investor and in sales contexts. Being the only woman in the room and being asked how old I am, being told that I’m the same age or look like someone’s daughter; I think that comes up a fair amount on the investment front, but also on the buyer front. Especially being young and a woman, I think it’s often challenging to get people to take me seriously.
I find it interesting how often my female friends are told that they look young and I don’t have any male friends who are told that. So I think it is something we tell women more than we tell men. It’s part of this subconscious undermining of the creditability of the person that we’re speaking to even though it often comes from a well-intentioned place.
All the time men, but also sometimes women, want to introduce me to their daughters. This happens in investor conversations and buyer conversations and I know that they mean it from a complimentary place – that they find me inspiring and want me to meet their child – but it always comes off that I’m not equal to them, that I’m more on par with their daughter and I’m not here to babysit. I’m here to sell you on my product or sell you on my business.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of blatantly sexist or harassing comments in a professional context?
I was in a New York Times piece back in July (Women in Tech Speak Frankly On Culture of Harassment) and I’m really proud that that has sparked a lot of dialogue and we have even more dialogue going on right now due to current events. But something that really stuck out to me was back in 2014, so very early in our fundraising days, I did a pitch in San Francisco where there was an applause-o-meter and the crowd selected the winner by clapping the loudest. It was me and a bunch of guys pitching and I won, and then the guy who organized the event came up to me afterward and said ‘Oh well, of course you won. You’re such a babe.’
I just couldn’t react. I didn’t know what to say. I was so devastated I just left right way and went home and kept thinking about this. You would never tell a man that he won, not based on how he pitched, not based on how good his company is, but on how he looks. That is so undermining.
I posted on my own personal Facebook how frustrated I was and how I wished I had said so many things to that guy, but I was so shocked and I couldn’t react. I got a call the next day from a different guy who was an investor in Silicon Valley, who was friendly with the guy who ran the pitch event, and he told me to take down the Facebook post or I’d never fundraise again. And I did.
That was one of the things that I really regret because I think that things can only change when we talk about them and so I was really happy when this reporter from the New York Times called me and said they really needed women to go on the record about this. And I said yes because I have always regretted not making a bigger deal of it.
Did the man who called you say why that would keep you from getting funding if you left the post up?
I don’t think he really explained it too much other than that ‘this will get around and no one will meet with you. You’ll get a reputation.’
A reputation for what?
I don’t know. It’s still unclear.
I will say that I have amazing investors and I think it is important that we don’t paint everyone with a broad brush. I have a lot of really incredible, mostly male, investors who have all been super supportive. It was almost funny how they all called me after that article and said ‘Is there any way we can help? We’re so sorry. We didn’t know.’
Is there any way they can help?
I think its good to keep talking about it and I pointed them toward a really interesting move that [billionaire Silicon Valley investor] Reid Hoffman made to establish a decency pledge for VCs. He wrote a really interesting blog post about it after all of the sexual harassment pieces came to light. I love the idea because there is no real HR for the VC world.
Even if it’s just a surface-level pledge to not do this type of stuff, and to report people who do this type of stuff and protect whistleblowers, I think it will make it so that women feel more comfortable coming forward and talking about this stuff and knowing that they’re not going to face repercussions and are still going to be able to fundraise.
Is there any recourse that women who have been harassed in the fundraising process can take at this point?
I’m a part of a female funder group and they have a blacklist and people will talk about VCs that are terrible to work with, but I don’t know that that goes far enough. The best thing you can do is call them out publicly — call them out in the press, call them out to their limited partners — just bring it to light. And I also find it fascinating how many times if something happens to one woman, it happens to a bunch of women. You have to have someone start the dialogue and bring it to light and then other people will come forward.
How do you think men in power should interact with women in professional contexts?
This is really problematic because if men stop mentoring women then the whole thing falls apart. I have a lot of male board members, advisors, and mentors and I think that it is absolutely possible to have one-on-one meetings with women and dinners with women and to keep the conversation professional. The guideline is ‘lets talk about work’. We can have some chat about other things but don’t go too personal because I think it is in the personal details that things start to get murky.
Photo: Kuli Kuli