Fixing venture capital for women entrepreneurs

05Mar
Blog

Fixing venture capital for women entrepreneurs

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Suzanne Biegel - Founder, Catalyst At Large Ltd

This article is part of a Special Series titled How to #PressForProgress in Women’s Entrepreneurship by the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. The series contributes to the #InternationalWomensDay dialogue on empowering women around the world through entrepreneurship.

The shame of #metoo aside, venture capital (VC) is broken at a systemic level. Even if huge amounts of capital started shifting towards women tomorrow, it would take years to close the $300 billion funding gap.

VC is working for some women entrepreneurs, don’t get me wrong. I recently wrote about 58 funds with an explicit gender lens in collaboration with Wharton Social Impact Initiative.

However, in my years as an investor who pays a lot of attention to women entrepreneurs and invests with a gender lens, I think there are several shifts in perception the entire community can make that would have a profound impact on the amount of capital flowing in this direction. Cartier Women’s Initiative asked me for a recipe. I think we have to start with ingredients.

1. PAY ATTENTION

Forward-thinking investors understand that even the smartest human beings fall prey to unconscious bias. In order to distribute capital at scale more equally, we have to put gender awareness and attention to factors such as emotional intelligence as part of our investment strategy.

Once we recognize that women (and particularly women of color) are missing from the table, we must insist on a greater percentage of women candidates and we must be rigorous in ironing out unconscious selection bias. Gathering and sharing gender disaggregated data “will support the business case for investing in women because the benefits will be seen,” says Andia Chakava from Kenya’s New Faces New Voices, and others who are focused on evidence building.

It’s not just about increasing the numbers, either. Coaching for inclusion, rather than diversity, will ensure that once women get a seat at the table, their inputs are heard and valued.

Investing in Women, an initiative in Southeast Asia, is priming the pump by supporting existing fund managers who don’t have an explicit gender lens, to launch new funds that do, and to learn about transforming their processes. Criterion Institute is leading this work, and it’s working. The fund managers are not only finding dealflow that they might not have, but they are translating their experience back to their other funds.

Many of us believe that, in coming years, as more women build and sell companies, we’ll get a new pool of untapped talent that could go into VC - one that’s more aware of biases and primed to do something about the gaps.

2. INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS

The financial system is significantly about relationships and power. Part of changing that system should therefore be about building new networks that can work within and influence that system.

One way to do this, for example, is through the ‘dolphin tank’ approach, as opposed to the more aggressive ‘shark tank’ mindset. In this approach, an initial rejection from a women-led angel fund may turn into a coaching relationship where investors support and nurture female founders they like but aren’t quite convinced by – yet.

“For more women entrepreneurs to gain greater access to funding, we all need to open our networks and intentionally develop more cross-gender relationships with founders,” says Kristina Montague, Managing Partner at The JumpFund.

Global Invest Her is one such network that provides support, mentoring, and access to insight from investors and they actively recruit men into the ranks of supporters to change relationships.

3. BEYOND CAPITAL

Support and access to markets are just as important as receiving VC.

SheEO’s wide network of women ‘activators’, for example, pool their capital philanthropically to create a loan pool, become actively engaged in the businesses’ success, and then invest at later stages. This model, started in Canada, is now spanning the globe.

We need groups that are helping women entrepreneurs be visible and tackle specific opportunities such as mobilizing for export or public sector supply chains. “Women want access to markets, they don’t want handouts,” is a common refrain from groups like WEConnect, UnitedSuccess, and SheEO.

4. LOOK FOR ZEBRAS, NOT JUST UNICORNS

A huge reason VC is failing women is that it works on the definition that the only acceptable returns are from fast growth. The phrase above was coined in a brilliant Medium piece that captures the problem with existing Silicon Valley startup culture - the unicorn chasers.

We have to start focusing on a more long-term value creation and “to invest with a focus on outcomes over optics, focusing on scalable models that economically benefit women,” says Nathalie Molina Niño, CEO of Brava Investments.

Rising Tide/ Next Wave CEO Alicia Robb believes there is another way to “do VC right.” “We shouldn't accept the current VC paradigm of investing in 10 companies, expecting 8 to fail, 1 to return your money, and 1 to be a home run. The cost of those failures through the damage to the entrepreneurs, employees, customers, and investors is simply not acceptable. We can do better.”

It’s time for new models, new deal structures, new relationship structures. Fortunately, innovation in the field is thriving. Yes, current venture models may be broken for most women but the good news is that there’s more than one recipe for creating the world we want to see. It just might take a while to cook.

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Suzanne Biegel

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Suzanne Biegel is a globally recognized adviser and speaker on gender lens investing. Apart from founding Catalyst at Large, she is also Senior Gender Lens Investing Advisor at Wharton Social Impact Initiative. Her advisory roles span the intersection of investment, philanthropy, entrepreneurship and international development. She is also a Co-Producer of the Global Gender Lens Investing Summit.

Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.