The world of business equity raising is still dominated by men. Melinda Gates wrote in ReCode back in 2017:
“We like to think that venture capital is driven by the power of good ideas. But by the numbers, it’s men who have the keys.”
At the time of Gates’ comments, a U.S. analysis found that just 2% of venture capital finance went to start-ups founded by women, and with women comprising just 9% of the decision-makers at U.S. venture capital firms, the lack of female VC representation seemed a compelling reason as to why. The situation a year on shows no sign of improving.
Recently, a UK VC & Female Founders report for the Treasury discovered that for every £1 of VC investment, all-female founder teams get less than 1p.
Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss said it was “incredible” that in 2019 men had a “virtual monopoly on venture capital.”
Even within the more disruptive, and arguably progressive, realms of crowdfunding, women are underrepresented – Crowdcube found that only 18% of their funded pitches are led by females or a joint team which includes a female.
As well as being hard to believe in this day and age, this status quo also makes terrible business sense.
Businesses largely led by women do better than male-dominated ones. And this isn’t a new discovery.
Multiple studies have shown this, and just recently, a report from US accelerator Mass Challenge found that for every dollar invested, a company founded by men generated 31 cents – compared to 78 cents produced by start-ups with women on the board.
Truss says she wants to see more women starting up businesses to “supercharge economic growth”. Whether our economy can be “supercharged” given the uncertain times we face, I’m certain that investing in female-founded or female-led businesses is one of the smartest things investors can do.
I understand the raising investment challenges start-ups face, particularly female-led start-ups, because I’ve experienced them first-hand – both in my identity as an entrepreneur in my past business, and now in my investment consultancy role – and I would say there are a few factors at play.
Firstly, investment is not really an industry many women tend to enter. It is viewed as a bit of an old boy’s club and has a reputation for not being female friendly. People don’t tend to want to go to a party that they’ve pointedly not been invited to or where they will be in the minority.
There is also an unhealthy dose of old-fashioned sexism still at play here.
I’ve been to several board and investor meetings at investment and law firms across the city and on more than one occasion people assumed I was there as the PA or the stand-in receptionist. Not the person presenting in the boardroom to the partners of the firm. I’ve also recently been in an office filled with men whose artwork on the walls included paintings of naked women!
The gender bias of the industry is also causing a vicious circle which is contributing to locking female founders out of investment. There are very few female investors in the UK, and at the same time, investors tend to invest in sectors that they know or intrinsically “get” which makes good, solid sense. Yet if all the investors are male it makes it that much harder for female-led and female-focused businesses to secure investment.
But in the two years of raising £18 million for businesses of all sizes, including those with female founders, I have seen flashes of brilliance from the female-led camp – both in terms of women getting behind investment propositions and in how women are turning the situation to their advantage.
We recently managed The Baukjen Group’s crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube. The brand, built on its premium Isabella Oliver maternity range and its contemporary womenswear offer, is understood by women. Its wife and husband founding team also offers the gender mix which we have found works incredibly powerfully for investors. Their raise achieved the highest number of female investors ever to invest in a company via crowdfunding – 77% of investors were women, compared to an average of 31% (Crowdcube.) It showed that women are ready to invest, and with a more democratic crowdfunding platform, they are able to play a bigger role and respond to brands they believe in.
While a lack of confidence and reticence in their approach to equity raising is holding female founders back, it is also driving them to approach investors with a more thorough and robust style.
We have found in our experience with businesses that women tend to get down to the numbers, hard facts and proof-points much quicker than men when seeking investment. Female founders should play on this trait – especially when pitching a product that male investors wouldn’t intrinsically understand.
When Trinny Woodall pitched her beauty brand to investors, she knew that women would love her brand and would recognise the benefits of her make-up and the pain points it solved. However, looking around the room she recognised that she was pitching a female-focused product to a room full of men. So instead of pitching her product, she pitched purely the numbers, the margins, the market and the size of the opportunity.
In contrast, when we are dealing with an all-male founding team it can take us weeks to cut through the bravado, whereas women often take a more grounded approach – setting forth figures and projections plainly. The irony of this is that women are less likely to pursue investment in the first place, and when they do, are less likely to ask for what they need. This is a problem.
The solution? Education
One of the biggest solutions to the inequality of raising investment is around education. Female founders can be wary of investment because they view it as taking on debt but there are different forms of funding and it’s important to understand what funding actually means for your business. Equity funding is not debt and you won’t owe investors that money. You do have an obligation to do your best and use that funding wisely, with the aim to give a return but if it all goes wrong, investors lose their capital and know the risks involved.
Female founders need to educate themselves on what they need to do to successfully raise investment and then share this information with other women. Yes, the investment industry needs to tackle gender discrimination, but women also need to help each other. That’s the way we can break the cycle of a lack of female investors and female founders not accessing finance and create a level playing field. I would also strongly recommend that businesswomen network harder – the men are already doing it. This doesn’t mean you have to attend lots of events. You can connect with people on LinkedIn, over email and meet for coffee. As Gates said, good ideas and not gender should be the basis of securing investment, and women can take the lead while the sector catches up.
Helena Murphy has raised millions in investment for both her own and other start-ups. She also has extensive experience sitting on the other side of the table as an investor and works with private Angel Syndicates as well as consulting accelerators and some of the world’s largest crowdfunding platforms. She is co-founder and Head of Investment of consultancy Raising Partners. The business partners with businesses of all sizes to secure investment through angel networks, VCs and Crowdfunding. Sitting between the entrepreneur and the investor, Raising Partners provides a comprehensive service for entrepreneurs, start-ups or established businesses looking to raise equity for their business and aims to make ‘fundraising easy.’