The world of venture capitalism, much like the rest of the tech ecosystem, is still mostly a male-dominated game. Only 7% of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms are women. The result is a dearth of VC investments going into companies with women founders, which currently draw less than 3% of VC funding. Increasingly, however, women are not only building a presence in VC, they are also creating women-only clubs like Female Founder Office Hours, and speaking up about women supporting women.
Earlier this month, UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business Venture Capital and Women in Leadership clubs invited 10 prominent women in the VC world to share their experiences and visions. The panels discussed the topics of “career journey and challenges” and “opportunities, initiatives, and call-to-action,” and included familiar names such as Faran Nouri from Lam Capital, who jumped into venture capitalism after a career in engineering; Rei Wang, director of Dorm Room Fund at First Round Capital, the largest student-run fund in the U.S.; Ulili Onovakpuri, partner at Kapor Capital focusing on health tech; and Danielle Dadum, partner at Cherubic Ventures.
In a conversation about how these women broke into the world of venture capitalism, the consensus was that there is no set path.
Among the advice given to these now-successful women at the start of their VC careers: “There is no traditional path to VC,” “It’s completely impenetrable, good luck,” and straight-out, “Don’t go into VC.” An industry player even told one of the panelists: “We are hiring, never and always.”
“People take a lot of different paths to VC, and mine was not typical,” said Nouri, who has authored over 60 peer-reviewed papers and who has 26 patents to her name. “I’ve been asked how I feel about VC, where there’s so few women. Well, I came from engineering, it’s not any different.” In fact, a recent Techcrunch survey found that 27% of surveyed VC investors had a background in engineering, most often electrical, mechanical, and industrial engineering.
INVESTMENT IN WOMEN FOUNDERS GROWING SLOWLY
The women who have made it have some hope for the future of venture capitalism. Their advice to Haas students: Consider offering free services in their areas of expertise to companies to get their foot in the door.
“Look at your history, piece together your narrative, and build a trend that helps people understand you and what you bring to their company,” said Dadum, who added that she spent several years having “pretty awkward conversations” with people who had deep domain expertise, while she “knew a little bit of everything, and a lot of nothing.”
In January this year, Fortune reported that female founders got just 2% of venture capital dollars in 2017, receiving just $1.9 billion out of the $85 billion invested by venture capitalists. Optimists say the situation is improving, albeit marginally: In 2016, female founders raised $1.4 billion, just 1.9% of VC funding. Yet Forbes reported in July 2015 that First Round Capital had found that of almost 600 founders surveyed, teams with female founders performed 63% better that those without.
“Awareness (of the impact of female founders) has increased, but there’s no real change,” Wang said. “Data shows year-over-year marginal change that’s promising, but I don’t want to wait till 2050 for us to reach gender parity.”
‘I PLAYED A LOT OF TERRIBLE GOLF AND DRANK A LOT OF BEER’
Onovakpuri said she spends a lot of her time at work evaluating projects and the funding they should receive. She says she often says no, but for the projects that earn a yes, it’s important that they display a clear understanding of the value of a woman’s voice.
She says teams will say anything to get funding, but to circumvent the facade, she looks not only at who’s on the team but also where they recruit and what policies they have in place to retain members. While she often sees women included in presentations, she adds that they are often “ornamental,” and their opinions often cut off by men on their team.
“We’re venture capitalists, and we’re supposed to be innovative, but the one thing we’re not innovative about is who we’re investing in,” Onovakpuri said.
For many of the panelists, their time in mainly-male environments spurred them to learn well and learn fast to stand their ground and make themselves heard. “At Google, I was the only female manager. I played a lot of terrible golf, and drank a lot of beer. Maybe if I had a female manager, we would have had different off-sites,” said Dadum, who spent eight years with Google.
“But it made me really quickly learn the importance of speaking up, and the importance of asking for more money. I learned to speak up.”
‘STILL A LONG WAY TO GET’ TO INCLUSION
The panelists advised students to start networking early on every social media platform available. Whether it’s sending a tweet, writing an email, or reaching out via LinkedIn, the best approach was to put themselves out there and ask for an in-person meeting or phone call. And even if that didn’t lead to a job, perhaps it would lead to mentoring that could help guide them going forward.
While most of the panelists agreed that having a mentor was important, most made it without one. However, the consensus was that when they finally had a chance to work under a female leader, the difference in guidance was vast.
Ashley Beckner, a principal at Omidyar Network, said that women were more focused on developing her in a fundamentally different way, while under the leadership of men, she was treated as the reliable staff member who would get stuff done.
“Diversity is one step, inclusion is another,” said Chian Gong, an investor at Reach Capital. “We still have a long way to get there.”