Not enough money is invested in businesses led and run by women. This isn't a secret, and it's a constant source of frustration for anyone who cares about gender equality and anyone who cares about business. In February this year, Bloomberg found only 7% of the companies that had received $20 million or more in funding between 2009 and 2015 were owned by women. It was depressing viewing for investment in companies founded by women, too: they received an average of $77 million over the same period. Male-led start-ups received $100 million.
Not long ago, I went to an event about this very subject. Whilst I've personally been on a few panels at events like these, I went to this one only as an interested observer. The company that hosted and ran the event is one I admire for the way it is trailblazing women-led businesses and aiming to make a difference in the funding world. I was, however, shocked and disappointed by some of the comments made by the panel, which comprised several experienced female venture capitalists, to the extent that I felt compelled to write this blog.
At the event, two messages in particular stood out. First, that women having children is a problem for venture capitalists and secondly, that women need to change in order to be considered a good prospect by these VCs. Now I'm paraphrasing, and in the case of the first point the rest of the panel were quick to debate the premise, but the fact is it was still said. If a male panellist had said the same thing, there would have been a huge outcry. But it was a woman partner at a VC firm who was expressing what in her eyes is a real issue with managing her business. Having someone on maternity leave in a small team can be a pain, and she wanted to voice this out loud.
My objection is that this is still classed as a problem for women and an obstacle to getting more women to partner level. I've blogged about this before, and in my view, the only way to change this view is for us to think about families in a different way, and for more men to take time off. However, what would be refreshing would be to see a VC firm take a new approach. How about this for an idea?
A VC is a partner in a fund often for a decade or longer; a few months out of work a few times during that long period makes no real difference. In that case, what if we saw a VC firm that had a compulsory policy that all partners--male or female--needed to have six months paid leave (whether that be parental leave, personal growth time or exploring the world, for example) every three years? Then, everyone would expect to cover for everyone else and all people in the business would feel like that process was a team thing. You would also end up with more rounded individuals with fresher perspectives who could, potentially, make better investment prospects.
The second message is the one that upsets me the most: the view that "women need to change to get VC funding". This usually implies to women that they need to be more aggressive or bullish; that they need to say that market opportunity is more than x (even if it's too early to say); or that VC works in a certain way and women need change the way in which they normally work to accommodate that. Really? Are these the messages we want to be giving to a room full of relatively young women? That you can only get funded if you act in a "male" way?
These types of messages were followed by statistics which, for example, showed that businesses with women on the leadership team got 35% better returns. Then, the panel made comments such as "I like speaking to women investors as they will give me a genuine view on their business and won't overstate things". Then they expressed frustration that they didn't find enough to invest in! Moreover, an HBR article a fortnight ago described how even if women do act like men they are asked different questions and still get less funding. Surely the self-contradictory nature of what the panel said should be obvious.
So why should women change? Why should they be more aggressive and exaggerate their perspective when they can generate high returns anyway? Surely it is venture capitalists and other investors who need to change what they are looking for and how they look for it?
Maybe it will take a brave firm or two to do something different in order for others to follow suit.