Sue Khim, a 32-year-old Korean immigrant and University of Chicago dropout, runs a growing San Francisco edtech company called Brilliant. She has raised $27 million in venture funding at a $50 million valuation and expects annual recurring revenue to exceed $10 million this year. In 2012, Forbes noted her promise, putting her on the 30 Under 30 list when she was 25. The company launched that year.
Brilliant offers 40 online courses in science, technology, engineering and math. The courses don’t confer any academic credit, but they’re put together by people with degrees in STEM subjects, including Ph.D.s, and by industry professionals who work as engineers at companies like Google and Microsoft that contract with Brilliant. Materials include short animated videos, problem sets and coding challenges.
As a student, Khim saw how many people were using the internet to get help with their STEM studies. She founded Brilliant to improve the quality of online offerings. “We wanted to create a single brand you could trust,” she says.
For free, users can sign up and access the first portion of every course and get automated feedback on their attempts to solve daily math and computing problems. For a $120 yearly subscription fee, they have unlimited access to every course and resource on the site.
Courses take from 10 to 40 hours to complete and range from mathematical fundamentals to quantum computing. Brilliant’s 7 million users include college students who need help because their high schools failed to teach them basic fractions and job seekers hoping to land a data science position at Facebook.
In the crowded world of edtech startups, Khim has built a promising business with steady growth. But like many female founders, especially women of color, when she set out to raise money, she had to endure sexist and racist put-downs that are still routine in the white-male-dominated venture capital community.
As she was telling me her story at the packed ASU GSV edtech conference in San Diego last week, she didn’t start by recounting that challenge. But when I asked her if it was tough to raise money, she instantly said yes. I pressed her for details and she shared a half-dozen scenarios but declined to name names. “I don’t think dragging these men through the mud is going to change them,” she says. “If anything, it’s going to make them less likely to fund women because of the perceived liability of doing so.” As a woman in tech, she says, “I have to walk on eggshells.”
But I believe her stories are worth reporting:
- Because she was young looking, she asked one of her University of Chicago professors, Robert Rosenberg, to accompany her to her first pitch meetings. Funders “would ask, ‘Are you dating?’ which obviously was a veiled way of saying, ‘Are you sleeping with her?’” she says.
- As she walked into meetings with male funders, they asked her to fetch coffee for them.
- “I had one VC tell me that I was indistinguishable from a lineup of 50 other Chinese people. So how could he fund my company if he couldn’t even tell me apart from every other Chinese entrepreneur.” This VC is on Forbes’ Midas list. (Khim is Korean, not Chinese.)
- A very successful VC who is originally from India asked Khim, “Has it ever occurred to you that women can’t build companies?” Then he recounted how Indians had come to Silicon Valley 30 or 40 years ago and started at the bottom and that they were now at the highest levels of management. Then he added, “maybe there is something biologically and temperamentally different about women that makes it so they can’t produce venture returns,” she says.
- Another VC told Khim that it worried him there were no female psychopaths in tech. He said, “Steve Jobs was a psychopath. Travis Kalanick was a psychopath. You women are just, like, polite, and I don’t think big companies are built by polite people.”
- One of the funders outed in the #MeToo movement didn’t harass Khim outright, “but he told me I was cute and flirted in a way that made me uncomfortable.”
Her strategy for coping with the sexism and racism includes her decision to dress “like a male CEO.” She wears jeans, a black North Face jacket with her company logo and black leather sneakers, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and no makeup. “It’s one of the advantages of not being beautiful,” she says.
Not that she doesn’t get angry. To tamp down her emotions, after fundraising meetings, she reads books by authors like Howard Zinn and Ta-Nehisi Coates about people fighting for basic human rights. “It’s been difficult for me to raise millions of dollars,” she says. “But on the scale of problems that people endure, it’s nothing.”
“I started this company to help struggling but ambitious people like me succeed,” she says. “I’m just happy we’re able to do that.”
This article originally appeared on Forbes