When Melinda Gates announced her findings that female founders are systematically getting less than 3% of Venture Capital (VC) investment, I have to admit that the 3% was not the scariest number in that equation. The scary number was 2017 – meaning that we are still having this conversation 17 years into this new millennium. It’s chilling.
Scarier still are the number of micro and macro movements that have gotten us here. It is no accident that change is slow and that the most effective medium of change seems to be naming-and-shaming on social media. The problem with this tactic is that it only works short term and it is truly unpredictable. When you are in the venture capital business, those are two things you want to avoid at all costs.
Change starts from the inside
To affect real change, we have to look at the underlying issues and agree on a starting line. Here at BlueChilli, we have taken a long hard look at who we are and who we want to be in terms of our role in both the problem and solution in regards to specifically female identified* founders.
Our biggest and most notable effort is the shining beacon that is the SheStarts program.
Lead by Nicola Hazell, SheStarts creates a space where women can truly thrive in by removing any gender predisposition and showcasing the lack of causation between gender norms (specifically male vs female) and success. It is really making a headway on who we see as successful, impactful startup founders.
In 2017, across all our programs, 50% of the companies BlueChilli invested in were founded or co-founded by women.
However, we cannot rest in the laurels of our flagship accelerator program. That on its own will not move the tectonic plates we need to ignite this seismic shift. True change needs to be driven from within and often, that is the hardest thing to do. Our biggest lessons have certainly come with hard knocks.
The right stuff
Selecting two cohorts of female-led founders to on-board into our investment portfolio was not going to be enough if we did not provide the right environment for them to flourish and for their businesses to prosper. That meant providing our new batch of founders with an internal team they could related to and with whom they felt supported by, starting with the women in our leadership team.
Looking around at the BlueChilli floor, I can be very proud of our representative diversity. To be honest, our diversity numbers were never terrible to begin with, but we now living a very deliberate effort towards gender equality ranging from representation, to pay and promotion. Promoting and empowering worthy women within the organisation is not only good business, but it signals to founders that you are committed to the success of females in the startup ecosystem and that you understand that their participation in the innovation economy is important.
Meritocracy and the mirror-tocracy
Our leadership team has a 50% gender split, which has broken the vicious circle of the mirror-tocracy. The term, coined by Decode Recode founder and tech journalist Kara Swisher, refers to the self-perpetuating phenomenon of confirmation bias. When asked, most venture capitalists and investors will claim to work in a meritocracy, where everyone involved has somehow earned their place in the food chain, largely ignoring the unfair advantages some groups have over others and the un-level playing field unprecedented groups have to deal with.
The assumption is, “If I’m successful at this job, then it stands to reason that I’m the type of person who is successful at this job. I should go find people like me.” This type of person is normally a middle aged, white male. They are the ones currently on top of the food chain. The assumption that leads us here is not only scary in the fact that is is flawed, but in the fact that it sounds logical. It’s easy to buy into it, especially when the people already in charge are the beneficiaries.
But it could not be further from the truth. The mirror-tocracy is dangerous when it leads people to think that they are the only type of people who can do a certain job. When VC’s look at female founders, they fail to see themselves and therefore, fail to see a different incarnation of what success could look like.
The representation of BlueChilli’s leadership has helped cut through that phenomenon. Our investors are able to actively see women thriving and creating value within our walls, so it helps model this version of success when it comes to putting their dollars in action. By the time our startup product Demo Days come around, a female in power will have become the norm, not the exception.
On the other end, our female founders can breathe easy knowing that their success is safeguarded by people who share their interests and lived experience. It works as a symbiotic two-way street.
Pumping female dollars
The bottom line is that diversity is good business. The New Yorker magazine recently published a piece outlining how venture capitalists in the US are systematically ignoring markets in which they don’t personally participate it – namely, high tech breast pumps.
Unsurprisingly, there is very little enthusiasm shared in the VC community around breast feeding and this has translated in both a market being stalled and individuals missing out on an incredible return on investment on an ever-growing market. It’s hard to reconcile this if you’re a woman. It seems like an obvious investment, particularly as the market grows by 4 million people each year in the United States.
But there is no use in crying over spilt milk. The work ahead is yet to be done. By shifting the participation of women in leadership positions throughout the ecosystem, we are safeguarding our own survival and eventual growth.
Look around your organisation and ask yourself: “can we do better?”
*BlueChilli recognises that gender exists on a spectrum and is working towards true gender diversity and equality across the company. Programs like SheStarts exist to bring equality and opportunity to anyone who identifies as a woman (including cis, trans and non binary people).