For a young and growing startup, an appearance on the primetime reality TV show Shark Tank can be game-changing.
But for Desiree Vargas Wrigley, founder and CEO of Chicago-based startup Pearachute, she saw the darker side of what can happen, especially for women, when you go on TV in front of millions of viewers.
After her episode aired on Oct. 29, she received a text message from a number she didn’t recognize. The message commented on her appearance and delivered a graphic and inappropriate sexual remark. She detailed the experience in a Nov. 1 Medium post.
“I was prepared for Twitter and maybe a little bit of Facebook feedback, and that I would hear things about how I did, how I looked and the terms of the deal,” Vargas Wrigley told Chicago Inno in an interview. “I think the part that was unnerving for me was to receive a text message on my personal cell phone. It felt like such an invasion of privacy because it was so intimate and it created a level of insecurity that I wasn’t expecting to come out of the show.”
Being a female entrepreneur and in the public spotlight is hard, Vargas Wrigley said. Whether people are commenting on their appearance or what they are wearing, it can be difficult to get certain decision makers to take them and their businesses seriously.
Vargas Wrigley was ultimately offered $500,000 from Shark Tank Judge Mark Cuban, but the deal fell through in September, before the episode aired.
“The combination of the back and forth of the negotiations, and the fact that we were still a very young company kind of gave them some hesitation,” Vargas Wrigley said.
When the episode was filmed, Pearachute, which helps parents and guardians find local activities for their children to take part in, was a much smaller company than it is now. They were less than six months old and only operated in Chicago. Now Pearachute is in five markets, has more than 130,000 spots open in classes across them and has about $2 million in funding. And in the first 24 hours after the Shark Tank episode aired, Pearachute received more registrations than it had in the last three months, Vargas Wrigley said.
“We’re seeing much more traffic than we’ve ever had before on the platform,” she said.
“It felt like such an invasion of privacy.”
Vargas Wrigley said some investors underestimate women entrepreneurs from the get-go, and consequently overlook them when it’s time to give out investments. It can be linked to sexism, she said, but other times, it’s about women not having the opportunity to cultivate the same types of relationships with investors that their male colleagues are, especially when many investors are male themselves.
“Part of the problem is that a lot of venture experiences are based on relationships,” she said. “You get to know a founder over a while. You talk to them over beers and get to see how they think. But that opportunity doesn’t happen as much when you’re a woman because it is not appropriate to be out at 10 p.m. at night, watching a game and having beers with an investor.”
Even with the challenges though, Vargas Wrigley has cultivated her support system, one that includes forward-thinking investors, close friends and family, and employees that support her mission.
“They believe that women are capable of building big businesses and they believe in what I bring to the table,” Vargas Wrigley said.