The Vinetta Project: A Conversation With Entrepreneur Danya Sherman and Booz Allen SVP Dee Dee Helfenstein

Nov 30, 2018 11:30 AM ET

“Startups founded by women are 20 percent more likely to be revenue-generating. Investors make 35 percent higher ROI when they finance female founders. Yet they are underrepresented in positions of power in the innovation and investment ecosystem. Vinetta is focused on changing this distribution of knowledge, power, and capital.”

– The Vinetta Project

Since March 2018, Booz Allen has been partnering with the Vinetta Project to connect women founders and small business owners to investors, events, resources, mentoring opportunities, customers, and partners. The partnership’s work includes supporting entrepreneurs like Danya Sherman. Danya is founder and CEO of KnoNap, a cocktail napkin that can detect date rape drugs. KnoNap was a finalist in Vinetta’s 2018 pitch challenge and winner of Booz Allen’s Young Social Innovation Award.

Booz Allen SVP and Vinetta board member Dee Dee Helfenstein asked Danya about her experiences pitching her company and advice she’d give to other female entrepreneurs.

How do you deal with unfavorable questions during a pitch?

I will never forget my first global pitch competition. I was so humbled and honored, and I was ready to speak on anything, ranging from market analysis, revenue, and operations. However, I did not prepare to be asked about my age, emotions, and my background.

I remember feeling confused, but I purposefully took a breath between each question to appear composed and respectful. I would answer their questions to my satisfaction, then I’d pivot to one of my talking points.

You never have to answer a question you don’t like. Transition to something you do know the answer to or feel comfortable highlighting. Stick to your talking points and know how to pivot if a question is off-base.

What about bias?

The amount of times I’ve heard, “Wow, you’re so young” and “How old are you?” is beyond measure. I’ve had to learn not to take it personally when a male entrepreneur is not asked comparable questions. Address the bias in the room on your own terms. Embrace your age. Embrace your gender identity. Embrace the things that make you you

How do you handle questions that make you feel vulnerable?

Remember that vulnerability is not your weakness, it’s your greatest strength. My company is very personal to me. By sharing my story for the impetus of KnoNap, I embrace my greatest vulnerability and have been honored to connect with individuals around the world who share similar stories. I refuse to allow my vulnerability and my own personal truth to be seen as a weakness because I know it’s one of my greatest assets. It’s what helps me push and work as hard as I do for my company.

Any other advice?

You’ll need an entrepreneur’s thick skin because you will be told no more times than yes. 

My dad gave me one of the greatest pearls of wisdom when I began KnoNap. If something goes wrong, relish in that feeling, in that frustration and anger for 30 seconds. But then move on.

As an entrepreneur, you are going to have a lot of ups and downs. The opportunities you might think are an absolute for your business are not guaranteed, and the opportunities that might make you wildly successful may find you out of the blue when you least expect it. Don’t let the good times or bad times define you. You are always in control of how you move forward. So keep going.

Learn more about KnoNap, the Vinetta Project, and how Booz Allen supports women in STEM careers.