Imagine adding $5 trillion to the global economy? A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysis concluded that “if women and men participated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP could rise by approximately 3% to 6%, boosting the global economy by $2.5 trillion to $5 trillion.” And yet, even knowing this, we don’t invest in women-led businesses. Women are consistently left behind for access to capital, both here in Silicon Valley and around the world. A 2021 Ms. Magazine article summed it up well: “Access to capital is still a significant obstacle, preventing women-owned businesses from leveraging valuable opportunities, or in some cases, from even getting off the ground.”
In 2019, only 2.7% of venture funding went to women-only founding teams, and in 2020, that number dropped to less than 2%. And while women of color are starting new businesses at a faster rate than any other group in the US, they continue to experience both gender and racial bias, making their access to capital disproportionately more difficult. For example, “Black women represent 42% of new women-owned businesses — three times their share of the female population,” but received only 0.34% of venture funding in the first half of 2021. Worldwide, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM)’s 2021/2022 Global Report noted that the total entrepreneurial activity (TEA) of women is equal to or exceeds that of men in only four of their 47 surveyed countries.
Yet, a January 2019 Forbes article cited several studies showing that women-founded companies outperformed those founded by men, including delivering higher revenues, stronger growth, less employee turnover, and greater return on equity.
As part of our Line of Sight podcast, we had the opportunity to interview five changemakers who are tackling this problem from different perspectives — all working to empower women economically and change the narrative.
Countering Implicit Bias
Named “Woman of Influence” by the Silicon Valley Business Journal, Maya Ackerman is an assistant professor in Computer Science and Engineering at Santa Clara University and an award-winning artificial intelligence (AI) expert. While working on her PhD in Computer Science, Maya decided to take voice lessons from an opera singer for fun. Going on to become a semi-professional opera singer as a side hobby, Maya is also an aspiring songwriter but finds writing music “hard!”. So she decided to apply her machine learning expertise to help fulfill her musical dreams and co-founded WaveAI, today’s most advanced musical AI startup. Yet as an entrepreneur and CEO, Maya came face-to-face with how difficult it is to get funding as a woman founder.
Maya began extensive research on the gender gap in startup funding. Her research found that bias is the primary cause of the funding imbalance. These findings counter a common misconception that the gap is largely attributable to an insufficient pipeline of women founders. However, as Maya asserted, “focus on the pipeline problem occludes systemic barriers that prevent female entrepreneurship from fair access to startup funds.” One of the reasons she posited that venture firms, in particular, are behind most other fields in advancing diversity is a culture of “going with your gut” to evaluate firms and founders. But that opens the door for implicit bias. Maya noted, “Implicit bias is a fact of life, so we need initiatives that effectively counter it and help us be inclusive despite that bias.” Maya’s research is critical to driving systemic change to do just that.
Since our podcast, Maya published her research confirming bias against women CEOs. In an article in dot.LA, she states, “Investors don’t like to invest in female-led companies (almost certainly due to implicit bias). This bias is most clearly seen in the amount of funding given to male-led versus female-led firms.” She goes on to say, “It’s important to stress that everyone loses as a result of this bias: Investors lose out on investing in great companies, consumers miss out on great products, and, of course, highly qualified businesswomen are held back.”
Removing Bias from Investment Decisions
Sharon Vosmek is CEO and Managing Partner of Astia, a global organization with a $100 million venture fund that levels the investment playing field for women entrepreneurs — providing access to capital and networks for the companies they lead. Sharon has spoken at the United Nations and many universities on building inclusive ecosystems and advocates for the importance of women leaders as integral to innovation and high-performing entrepreneurial teams.
Because investment in early-stage companies relies heavily on an assessment of the individual founder, bias — most notably toward women and people of color — permeates investment decisions. To counter bias, Astia developed its Expert SiftTM, focused on making investment decisions with data and expert crowd wisdom, as well as a proven, documented, and repeatable model. Because, as Sharon noted, “Innovation often comes out of hidden places and from individuals who are often overlooked.”
The Expert Sift methodology relies on the written word through the first several screening rounds instead of an initial meeting or pitch deck, both of which are subject to bias. Sharon also stressed how vital it is to ask the same questions of every company through every round because, “When we start to deviate and ask different questions for different individuals, we once again reintroduced bias.” The results from Astia’s efforts to remove bias from its processes are impressive. Today, the Astia Fund portfolio is comprised of companies with 50% Black women CEOs.
Investing with a Gender Lens
Lisa Willems is Managing Director of impact investing firm AlphaMundi Group, which provides debt and equity financing to scalable social ventures in East Africa and Latin America with a gender lens. “Women represent a tremendous opportunity for global economic growth, larger than China and India combined,” said Lisa. “And women in the U.S. are set to inherit 70% of the intergenerational wealth over the next 40 years.” So investing in women just makes sense.
Lisa explained, “Our hypothesis is that if companies embed gender equity practices across all their operations, especially governance and senior management, they’ll actually enhance both their social and financial returns and empower women across all levels of the organization.”
By taking a gender lens approach to investing, AlphaMundi looks at their portfolio companies’ entire business, not just their human resource policies. They get buy-in from the companies they work with because they take a business-first approach. These gender equity practices improve employee retention, lead to better decision-making through diverse perspectives, and ultimately deliver results to the bottom line.
Investing Your Values
Janine Firpo, writer, entrepreneur, impact investor, and co-founder of Invest for Better, is passionate about teaching women to harness the power of their money to create a better world. She spoke with us about her recently published book, Activate Your Money – Invest to Grow Your Wealth and Build a Better World, teaching women how to invest their values and have fun in the process.
Following a months-long solo backpacking trip across sub-Saharan Africa, where she witnessed extreme poverty, Janine pivoted from a career in high-tech to work in international development. Along the way, she realized that although she was living her values, her money wasn’t. So, starting small, she shifted her own money. And now her life’s work is to encourage women to invest their values — from opening a checking account in a community bank focused on women- and minority-owned businesses to investing in ESG- (environmental, social, and governance) compliant stock funds to becoming an angel investor. While private equity investing may seem daunting, Janine assured us that it’s easier and can require far less capital than one may think, including starting with $100 through crowdfunding or joining an investment club with a community of women.
Through her book and Invest for Better, the nonprofit Janine co-founded in 2021, she and her co-founder, Ellen Remmer, are putting women into investment clubs to help them understand that they can take control of their money and invest it for good. And, she noted, “We can be smart investors. Only 9% of us think we can do better than men, so we don’t invest. But research shows that when we do invest, we actually outperform men.” Further, she explained, “When you start to put your money into things you care about, it feels really good. Knowing your money is supporting a better world gives your money meaning.”
Practicing Radical Generosity in Investing
Entrepreneur and award-winning mentor Vicki Saunders founded #radicalgenerosity and SheEO, a global community of radically generous women who are supporting women-led ventures working on the world’s “to-do list.” Vicki discovered how difficult it is to raise capital as a woman entrepreneur through her own experiences and through the women she mentors. She founded SheEO to change that in an innovative and powerful way.
As Vicki shared, “I’m not interested in leveling the playing field [between women and men entrepreneurs] but in creating a new one. The playing field in front of us is crappy and creates more inequality.” SheEO is leveraging the resources of a community of women, known as “activators.” They contribute $1,100/year, which is pooled and loaned at 0% interest to entrepreneurs they select through voting. SheEO focuses its investments on businesses that are tackling big global issues. As Vicki said, “We’re looking for super creative ideas rethinking healthcare or education, coming up with new ways to help people with mobility challenges, or finding ways of surfacing indigenous wisdom that will help us to live in harmony with nature.”
SheEO positions its loans as entrusted to the entrepreneur who is the temporary custodian of that capital, which they repay within 5 years so it may be loaned back out again by the community — creating a whole new model for economies. Even more valuable than the loans, according to the entrepreneurs, are the support, expertise, and networking they receive through what SheEO terms “radical generosity.” The activators approach the business leaders with a nontraditional investment attitude of “We love what you’re doing! How can we help?” And that help is priceless.
When Women Flourish, We All Do
Maya, Sharon, Lisa, Janine, and Vicky are transforming how we think about investing in women and by women. As Michelle Obama said, “No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contribution of half its citizens.” These five pioneers are intent on helping women, communities, and countries flourish.
BRIGIT HELMS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
A Santa Clara University alumna, Helms is a veteran leader in global development, financial and economic inclusion, economic policy, and social entrepreneurship. Helms is the author of Access for All: Building Inclusive Economic Systems (2018), and has published papers and bylined articles in publications including the MIT Technology Review, The Guardian, the Journal of Microfinance, and The Huffington Post. She is a board member at the AlphaMundi Foundation, which seeks to boost the social and environmental impact of portfolio companies of impact investor AlphaMundi Group. She is also on the board of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee USA, which works to empower the poor in 11 countries across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
DON HEIDER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Don Heider is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He also serves as the John Courtney Murray, S.J. University Professor of Social Ethics and holds an appointment as professor of communication. Formerly, Heider was the associate provost for strategy & innovation and dean of the School of Communication at Loyola University in Chicago. He also was the founder of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola. Heider began his career as a TV journalist and received five Emmy awards for his work. He is the author or editor of seven books including “A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics and Ethics for a Digital Age, Volumes 1 and 2.”