The Boston Women’s Venture Summit hosted Capital W, an event connecting women to capital at “the intersection of wellness and technology.” The one day summit provided entrepreneurs, investors and those interested in the state of venture capital for women a platform for discussion and connection of likeminded individuals, seeking improvement to the female funding gap. Through speakers, pitching exercises, workshops and more, Capital W offered women and men alike an outlet to express their projections – both hopeful and hesitant- on the state of female funding.
Founded by Boston businesswoman and investor Sheryl Marshall, Capital W came to fruition through motivation by Babson College’s female entrepreneurial project – the Diana Project – and their Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. Programs like these become the forefront of innovative and positive advancements for females in the entrepreneurial sector, which prompted our visit to this very special conversation.
From lectures on “the State of the VC Female Funding Gap” to pitch sessions on impressive female-based companies, Capital W nailed down a star lineup to get everyone in the room on the optimistic track for female-backed businesses.
Their “He Said, She Said” panel wrapped up the day, with a buzzing discussion on “why women founders get less funding than their male counterparts.” Panelists included both men – Jamie Goldstein of Pillar Companies and Christopher Mirabile of Launchpad Venture Group – and women – Sheryl Marshall of Capital W and Lakshmi Balachandra of Babson College. Moderator Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe prompted the panel in a progressive conversation.
Lakshmi: An issue is getting women in the door. Women pitch really well, and as you can see here, we have great pitching abilities. My research [on VC funding] does not find a difference between men and women; there was no difference in gender. What I did find is that VCs were biased against femininity in general – feminine behaviors, like the hedging, being tentative, not having big numbers to boast, things that women tend to do in terms of being conservative. VCs don’t want to see that. They want to see potentially a unicorn… And women are often penalized when they act in traditionally assertive ways. [But] I think the bigger issue is the opportunity to get in the door.
Mirabile: I don’t think it’s that women don’t necessarily think big. In my experience, men are just a little more comfortable with bullshit. In some ways, actually, women are better at pitching than men if you think about a pitch consisting of two things: conveying information and connecting with the audience on a chemistry level. I sometimes find men pitch the wheels off something and really can’t read the room, don’t make any connection whatsoever.
Leung: Are investors self-aware of stereotyping? Is this something you talk about when evaluating pitches?
Goldstein: Yes [shrugs]. I think most people are self-aware enough to know that there is some bias. I think every venture capitalist in the country that is male knows that there are far too many males in tech. There are actually two competing forces: one is the inherent bias we all have. At the same time there is a countervailing bias where you have to fix this problem in your portfolio. Some people want to believe in a female and take that bet. They want to pool resources and make them successful. Great entrepreneurs have that characteristic: all you think about is them in the business, not their gender.
Leung: At what point do you sit around and say ‘we gotta do better’?
Goldstein: We do, have to do better. Pillar was founded by 16 phenomenally accomplished CEOs. Fifteen of 16 of them were men. It wasn’t for lack of trying. It is something we think about every day. But what we don’t want to do is back a bunch of women running businesses we don’t believe in.
Mirabile: Are we aware of the bias? Twenty five percent of our investors are women and we absolutely are aware. People do keep each other honest and accountable. I think there is an awareness in my day-to-day. For the first time ever, all three of our CEOs just happen to be females.
But, something to consider…
Lakshmi: Women have to pitch at an incredibly high level in order to be considered at the same level as a man. The reason I say that is because I think when I see pitches, what if men were pitching these business ideas? What would the comments by the VCs up there be? I would wager a huge bet they’d be very different if men were pitching. And I’m going to do an experiment on it!
Mirabile: I don’t know if what we do [at Launchpad Venture Group] is unique, but it happens to be the case that we organize ourselves around a culture that happens to have respect at its core – and the reason we do that is because we know there are a lot of ‘Jamies’ and other angels and we want to be the first resort. We have to try to show respect to the people we work with and to each other and we have a set of cultural norms and cultural values that is at our absolute core. Having the clarity of values has allowed us to be thoughtful about the kinds of folks we bring into the network. And for the most part we’re looking for people who’ve had success and learned a lot along the way, but acknowledge that a.) they got lucky b.) they were helped along the way and c.) feel an obligation to give some of that back. Respect and tolerance right from the foundational level.
On networking into the right VCs…
Mirabile: One thing that Jamie and I can do and should be encouraged to do is not syndicate with schmucks. I need to syndicate all my rounds. I’m thoughtful about what kinds of investors I recommend. There are certain ones I don’t even recommend. That’s one thing we can do is try to bring different investors in for different deals.
Lakshmi: A lot of men VCs will say ‘well, we’re trying to hire a woman but it’s hard to find a qualified woman.’ And then we’ll do interviews with VCs and we ask how they got the job and it turns out [it’s because of a connection, like ‘my dad was on the tennis team with xyz’]. VCs are not just investing money, they’re investing their time. So in investing their time they want to invest in someone they get along with, someone they could hang out with. It’s an investment, not a relationship. But that’s what it is [for them]. They can’t just liquidate the investment.
Goldstein: I do agree with everybody that there need to be more women in investing. But there is a problem with the pipeline at multiple levels. There need to be more entrepreneurs. If you look at the venture firms that have a higher percentage of women entrepreneurs, they tend to float in certain areas and not others. There’s just a real problem. There are early waves breaking that could be quite good ten years from now.
Leung: One thing we can do is demand our portfolios hire more women or at least interview women for each and every role. We have a lot of power over whom they hire in the end.
On taking the first step…
Tatyana Gubin, co-founder of CozyKin, wrapped up the session with a compelling prompt, asking ‘How do you suggest encouraging women entrepreneurs to take that first step?’
Mirabile: Getting the word out that there are people that will support your entrepreneurial journey.
Lakshmi: I think in terms of the funnel it’s encouragement on getting out there. We have a course at Babson where students actually start a company. And we’re finding that the number of women that are the CEOs of these ventures greatly outweighs the men. Seventy five percent or so last year were women. So I think with the right environment you do see women being pushed in the right direction. These women led businesses are thoughtful in how they’ll grow in a more measured way (gender bias here!).
Goldstein: I just saw this week, Maxim mag (which I don’t subscribe to) mentioned nine really powerful women CEOs. The CEO of YouTube, Xerox, co-CEO of Oracle, GM. There is a lot that needs to be fixed, but that is pretty darn good. That would never be the case 20 years ago. There is progress.
A push to think differently
Nina Stepanov, head of marketing at ViewPoint Cloud, co-founder of Fit University® and venture capital industry writer for VentureFizz, rounded out the day with a simple yet necessary request to the panel.
“A lot of people shuffle around this question but, what are you truly doing to make this different? I ask that you invest both the time and the effort, not just the money. It’s not all about the money. It’s your time. I think there’s a lot of negativity associated with this topic, but all I could ever ask for is to ‘think beyond the money!’”