Venture Capitalists Grossed Out by Brilliant Breast Pump

A businesswoman stands with her head buried in her hands.

Bloomberg just did a fascinating piece on Janica Alvarez’s dive into the deep-end of venture capitalism. The creator of the Naya breast pump and mother of three encountered some truly strange and even gross sexism while pursuing funding for her startup company, Naya Health Inc., among venture capitalists.

Investors wanted to know how she’d be able to run a startup while also raising her children. Another commented on her body and asked how a mother of three stays in such good shape. Others said they were too grossed out to touch her product or pleaded ignorance about how a breast pump works. “Investors would say, ‘Let me go talk to my sister; let me go talk to my wife,’” Alvarez said.

Ninety-three percent of venture capitalists are men who are apparently simply clueless when it comes to products designed specifically for women. The Naya breast pump has soft suction cups that cover a wider area of the breast, pumping 30 percent more breast milk, 20 percent faster than the leading alternatives. Any woman who has ever had to attach herself to a pump is drooling right now at the thought of just trying out a Naya. The product has received good reviews from both Wired and The New York Times. It’s even established a solid fan base among pumping moms looking for comfort and efficiency. The problem is that the product comes with a hefty price tag: $999. The typical Medela pump most women use is $250 and covered by insurance.

Hence, Ms. Alvarez pursued investors. The behavior she experienced from professional men is shocking:

During one pitch meeting, Alvarez recalled one guy saying, “I’m not touching that; that’s disgusting.” In another meeting, investors Googled the product and ended up on a porn site. They lingered on the page and started cracking jokes, she said. “I felt like I was in the middle of a fraternity,” Alvarez said. “I expect more from grown men.”

Eventually she decided to start bringing her husband and business partner, medical-device engineer Jeffrey Alvarez, along for the ride. He quickly caught onto the fact that potential investors treated him quite differently, noting: “They would treat her like a little girl trying to play a man’s game.”

A female colleague advised Ms. Alvarez to essentially de-sexualize herself as much as possible before pitching or presenting to male audiences. No bright colors, no jewelry, and keep the hair in a ponytail. In other words, try to look as manly as possible if you want to be taken seriously.

Having no luck with VCs, Ms. Alvarez has turned to Kickstarter to further fund her company. The couple has downsized, going from a four-bedroom home to a rental half the size. They’ve also asked their eight employees to accept minimum wage salaries in the short term in order to increase the company’s financial runway until more funds can be obtained.