The Women’s Entrepreneurship Opportunity Is Not For Women Only
My doctoral dissertation, published in 2009, was a phenomenological study of 15 trailblazing women who held board of director positions in life sciences and technology businesses. The findings focused on the common traits and characteristics shared by the study participants, all of whom found success in an industry that is defined and dominated by men. The research participants were a mix of corporate executives, serial entrepreneurs and a few investors. Many participants had crossed these lines several times and many were in all three roles at once.
At the time the study was published, not much research existed on board-level women in the technology intensive industries. My findings were different, not just because of the hierarchical level of the women, but also because they depicted women who believed in inclusive cultures due to the impact on innovation and bottom line growth. The women did not see diversity as a percentage target based on HR quotas. Instead, they believed that inclusive cultures were a business imperative. The women said that leveling the playing field between the genders required equal access and exposure to the people and experiences needed at every step of the ladder to the board talent pool. Equal access required new types of platforms upon which women could build the power relationships and earn C-suite competencies.
While each of the women believed she was responsible for elevating the next generation of talent, they knew the equal gender representation in the C-suite talent pool required that men participate in elevating women. Unless a fellow-board member had a daughter, a common epiphany-inducing relationship, men saw actively advocating for more women in technology as a philanthropic exercise and not a business imperative. As one of the participants, a serial entrepreneur and seasoned board member in tech, said, “I want to scream from the rooftops: the topic of women entrepreneurs and board members is not a women’s only topic. It’s an economic issue!”
Fast-forward to this year’s fourth We Own It Summit (WOIS) in London and I am finally seeing the tides starting to turn. Astia, a global non-profit dedicated to accelerating funding, growth, and leadership inside women-led start-ups, is a founding member of WOIS and has acted as its primary organizer since the conference’s inception. I sit on Astia’s board of trustees and have been a WOIS presenter and collaborator for all four conferences. WOIS brings together men and women from across the globe’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
This year’s conference was different from previous years. It kicked off with a Global Pitch Competition, included a Tipping Point Awards dinner that celebrated the top two European venture capital firms with the greatest number of investments in women-led companies in 2012, and employed a salon format to allow for open discussions to explore and identify solutions to accelerate women’s participation in high-growth startups. The new format succeeded in creating a global agenda, on behalf of men and women, for increasing female founders and corporate board members.
Not Fully Engaging 50 Percent of the Population is an Economic Disadvantage
The male investors I spoke with who attended WOIS enthusiastically acknowledged that the women’s entrepreneurship opportunity is not for women only. It’s basic math. Richard Nunneley, chairman of Impact Investment Partners and former director at Mercury Asset Management, sits on the Astia board of trustees with me. Nunneley, who attended WOIS because he sees the lack of equal representation of women as everyone’s economic disadvantage, says “We are in the midst of a global recession and should seek every initiative to recover. Why waste 50 percent of global intellect?”
Adam Quinton, founder and CEO of Lucas Point Ventures and a founding Astia Angel and Astia global advisory board member, acknowledges that some may view leveling the playing field for women on boards and in startups as a charitable cause. He disagrees. “It goes beyond fairness. This is a people’s issue, not just a women’s issue. As someone once said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’”
Women Founders Need a Platform
I have been working with female founders for years. It’s no secret that women founded start-ups receive less than 10 percent of venture capital investment. A common assumption has been that women would get more funding if they could be mentored to act more like, well, men. With this in mind, pitch competitions for female founders tend to be end-of-day agenda items. This status quo approach never sat right with me. “We can speak at length of why women-led companies are an untapped opportunity, but it’s not until you see one of these impressive companies pitch that you truly understand what we mean,” says Catherine Berman, senior vice president at Astia.
Turns out, women founders are really smart and so are their businesses. If women start businesses that are just as great as those of their male counterparts, why is there still such a staggering discrepancy in who gets funded? It’s all about access. Women get their businesses funded when they have a platform that provides access to the holders of money. Berman says, “The founders who participated in the Global Pitch Competition had the ‘wow’ factor written all over them. They got time on the stage in front of a room full of investors because their businesses were impressive, not because they were women.”
Relationship Building Is the New Network Building
One of the common factors that came through in my research on women entrepreneurs and board members is that these successful women cultivated relationships. They did not attend networking events, because they saw no value in exchanging business cards or superficial niceties. Instead, successful women brought together the right people at the right time to realize a shared vision. Berman says, “To make it in high-growth, it is about being confident enough to know that you are the one to pursue a dream and yet humble enough to know you cannot do it alone.”
While there was ample time for traditional networking at WOIS, the salon format proved conducive to building relationships that have a shot at lasting beyond the conference. Berman says, “Unlike the typical talking-head format, individuals shared their battles, concerns, and wisdom freely. It was truly an exchange of ideas and conversations that carried on well past the confines of the agenda’s timetable.”
Time to Ask Men a Different Question
While there were some men at WOIS, they were significantly outnumbered by women. Quinton says that attending WOIS was a “no-brainer” for him. He sat on two sold-out panels: one titled “Getting the Wallets Out of the Pockets of Investors” and the other focused on getting more women onto corporate boards. Quinton says, “I attended WOIS to lend my voice and my network to debate on how to promote greater equality in the start-up arena and on corporate boards.”
Nunneley wanted to physically show his support and lend his voice to the conversation. He says, “Those men who attended came away with much thought-provoking material and very valuable business contacts whose intellect they would not have otherwise spotted.”
As I looked around the room full of highly qualified female investors, entrepreneurs, and board members on the last day of the conference, I joked with Nunneley about an excuse I have heard from far too many male investors and executives with no women founders in their portfolios or on their boards: “I can never find any qualified women who are interested.” Considering how many qualified women were in the room with us, Nunneley said “I believe the question now is: Where are all the men?” Great point. What’s your answer?