For the past month or so, I’ve been on a roadshow presenting Posse to prospective investors in the finance industry. I’ve raised funding from Angel groups before, but this was my first experience of the next class of venture capitalist. Most of my meetings were with brokers and their clients – about fifty in total. Everyone was friendly and we closed the investment round shortly after.
My gripe isn’t about the people I met – it’s about the people I didn’t meet. Out of these fifty meetings with an average of 2 – 3 people at each — approximately 125 in total — there was only one woman at one meeting; she was a junior analyst who took notes. That’s 0.8%. Yet the proportion of women at reception or supplying teas and coffees was the inverse of this; maybe there were one or two men.
I’ve always disliked the term ‘feminist’, and until this point, I haven’t thought of myself as one. It reminds me of those stout-hearted women of the ‘80s who incessantly complained about inequitable prospects for women in that era. Perhaps they had a point, but I suspected they were looking for a free ride just because they were female.
When I started Posse, I found myself embraced by every woman’s business group around. All of a sudden, I was being asked to speak at conferences, nominated for awards or receiving invitations to events at which people would help me because I was – ahem – female. At first I found this strange, as though I was receiving the special treatment meted out to sufferers from some kind of handicap. But I didn’t have a handicap, why should I get extra help? It was all well intentioned I’m sure, but I hated being singled out because of my gender.
Yet, the more time I spend in this crazy tech start-up world, the more I realize that a problem really does exist. It’s a big problem, too — not one that makes my life harder, so I’m not moaning that we female founders are worse off. We’re not. On balance, life is probably easier for female founders because we stand out.
I’m writing this article because I’m worried about the future. If you have a bright daughter and she’s interested in finance or entrepreneurship, then the numbers show that she is more likely to end up on reception than in the meetings.
This has to change. Girls outperform boys in school and are more likely to hold a bachelors degree, yet make up only 3% of people who’ll start technology companies. Women have ideas and are capable, but something stops them from putting ideas into action. As a result, women miss out on fulfilling their potential, and society misses out on innovative products that are never created. Consider what our rate of societal progress could be if women built companies at the same rate as men.
Much has been written about why there are not more women in tech, and many well-intentioned programs have launched, some with great impact. It’s a big challenge, and I don’t have all the answers. But as part of the 3%, here are a few of my ideas for changing the ratio.
1. Start with girls.
By the time we reach university or even high school, much of our personality is set. A recent Harvard study concluded that boys are more likely to become entrepreneurs because they’ve been brought up to think of risk-taking as fun. Boys are encouraged to climb trees and jump off rocks, whereas girls care for things like dolls.
I think it’s deeper and more complex than that, and might be linked to our genetic make-up. Women have less testosterone, the hormone linked to power and self-esteem. I know that I’ve battled with my own self-confidence. It took a long time before I didn’t feel like a fraud in a room full of investors, and only recently have I developed the confidence to feel as though I own the meeting. I sense that my male counterparts have never had to pass through the same inner battle.
An entrepreneur will only take a big risk if they’re confident in their own ability to succeed. If we want more girls to grow up and work in risky businesses like venture capital or founding a company, then we need to fundamentally address how girls are taught to think of themselves at home and at school.
2. Role models
The same Harvard Study reported that children thought of entrepreneurship as a male domain – much like carpentry or plumbing. In my teens and early twenties, I’d thought about starting a technology company but the only examples of entrepreneurs in the media were men. It wasn’t until I saw Naomi Simpson from ‘Red Balloon’ being interviewed on television that I thought; ‘Hey, if she can do it then I can too.’
We have some great examples of successful women entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. I now appreciate the importance of organisations like ‘Head Over Heels’ and ‘Women’s Agenda’ as well as the many women’s business awards and conferences held each year. We must make sure that our next generation see a workplace populated, in half, by successful women
3. Change the ratio of investors
Entrepreneurs and investors live together in a mutually evolving ecosystem. If one side of the ecosystem is off, it affects the other. We can’t address the lack of female entrepreneurs without addressing the lack of female investors. Out of all of the Australian investors registered on Angel List, less than 3% are women. Out of all 60 Angel investors in Posse, 0% are women. On several occasions, I’ve presented at pitch events and only spotted one or two other women in the room. This can be daunting for a female founder; it certainly feels uncomfortable.
We must also address the culture of our finance industry. I mentioned that I was dismayed by the lack of women in my pitch meetings, but I was stunned by the culture that had evolved at some of the places I visited. It was a culture that would discourage women from wanting to be in the meetings thus making the problem systemic. This wasn’t something I experienced across the board, but on travelling to regional offices like Perth, I couldn’t help but wonder if a woman had ever pitched a business there before.
At one of the big name investment banks, my female colleague and I were leaving the meeting along with the man we’d just pitched to. We heard a ‘whoohoo’ cheer from one of the offices we walked past, and I asked, ‘What was that about?’ Our prospective investor apologized and said, ‘That’s some of my mates; they’re just hassling me.’ When I pressed him about the nature of the hassle, he turned bright red and mumbled, ‘It’s just ‘because I’m meeting with you girls.’ At first, I chuckled at his embarrassment, but as I made my way down the elevator, I became angry. We’d just pitched a proposal to a serious business and been made to feel like schoolgirls. I wished I’d said something at the time, but it was so weird that I didn’t know what to do.
Apart from the odd uncomfortable moment like the one described, in my experience, being a female founder is no different. We don’t need any extra help because of our gender. What we do need to do is address this problem for the next generation.
We need more women who have experienced success to get involved in Angel Investment groups and mentor new entrepreneurs. Start-ups usually get their first directors and advisors from their investor base. If all the investors are men, as in the case with Posse, then all of the board directors will also be male. If we want to balance the make-up of the boards of our bigger companies then we need more women to get involved with start-ups.
I’m now proud to describe myself as a feminist because I’m advocating for a society in which women participate equally. Balancing the gender makeup of entrepreneurs and investors is an important challenge. These are the two key drivers of growth, and our nation won’t reach its potential if almost half the population are not participating.
In February this year the Abbott government announced that companies with between 100 and 1000 employees would no longer have to report on the gender balance of their workforce. With so much work to be done in an area that’s now crucial to our country’s future, it’s time to take this issue seriously.
(Image: Zaria Foreman)