People 06 December 2016
Curious. Dedicated. Provocative. Renata George describes herself in these three words, but truth is, we’d be kidding ourselves stopping here describing this dynamic woman.
An entrepreneur – turned angel investor – turned VC, she’s mastered navigating the ins-and-outs of the entrepreneurial journey. And now, after being dedicated to entrepreneurs for years, George founded Women.vc – a not-for-profit initiative to advance women in the investment industry.
BUT SHE ISN’T STOPPING THERE.
She’s also an avid academic, and she’s combined her background in media and journalistic judgment with hard-hitting research to point out the disparity when it comes to women, especially multicultural women, looking for fundraising. While this fact is sadly nothing new for most budding entrepreneurs, George’s approach is truly revolutionary, in that it offers insightful new findings.
We sat down with this incredible disruptor to dish about the groundbreaking work she’s doing for women’s progress.
“I never thought I’d work for the benefit of women,” says George, who describes her brain as “part male,” and adds that most of her friends are men. “I always thought that I would be working with men, but ironically, since my first business, women were my success story, and it turned out I have something valuable for them to offer.”
Now, she’s become a prominent advocate for women, having proved among other findings, that the net return from women’s portfolio companies is on par with, if not better than, the industry average. For an area dominated by men, this is big news.
BUT, THAT’S JUST A TASTE OF WHAT SHE’S ACHIEVED FOR WOMEN IN CAPITAL MARKETS.
George has been recognized on Forbes USA as one of “The Top Women in Venture Capital and Angel Investing” in 2012. And while that already grounds for one strong and effective female leader, her work goes beyond investment in research, and into the hands of budding entrepreneurs.
So where did it all begin? Coming from a family of doctors, her parents expected her to pursue medicine.
George, however, had other plans. “I was a rebel,” says George, who switched from medical faculty to financial management after 3 years of studying in Medical University once she realized medicine is not her calling. Instead, she decided to learn from a female professor teaching financial management, a rarity at the time.
“When I told my mom what I’d done, she cried for a week,” George recalls. “Later on, however, she said that I did the right choice, and she has been very supportive throughout all my career path”.
In just three years, George graduated from two universities with degrees in financial management and government relationships, having finished both on external basis.
She started working in various media platforms from radio to newspapers, then, established her own publishing house with five magazines in the portfolio, and successfully exited the business. After 10 years in media, George became an angel investor.
Renata George by Sam Saraf
“I went through the hell of being a solo entrepreneur without any investors. But only due to this experience I knew what entrepreneurs need and how I can help them”.
George developed a diverse CV rather quickly, working in government innovation and entrepreneurial pursuits for companies around the world. She soon noticed that many of her portfolio companies started entering the United States market. “That was a time I realized I could contribute to their success having a broad international experience ,” she says. “At some point, I felt it made sense to move and work in United States.”
George’s countless conversations with American innovators and businessmen, coupled with her multicultural background led her to an epiphany. “I realized I cannot belong to any country,” she says, adding that she had developed an understanding of how many different cultures approached business.“I realized I can be a connector for [various cultures] to Silicon Valley, because I have traveled so much and learned a lot about people [as well as] their ways of doing business,” she says. “But it was only in the United States where I figured that I can definitely bring value to diverse groups here, including women and other underrepresented groups.”
SO, WITH ALL THIS IN MIND, GEORGE LAUNCHED A SEEMINGLY SIMPLE PROJECT.
She began by making a list of female investors in the United States, who would serve as touchpoints for women entrepreneurs. She also built up educational courses and newsletters about venture capital investing.
“Entrepreneurs can learn how venture capitalists think and then speak the same language with them,” says George, who wrote The Manual For Finding A Perfect Mentor For Entrepreneur and Networking Done Classy. “Knowing how your opponent thinks makes a huge difference in negotiations.”
Despite her momentum, there were still voices in George’s life that she felt challenged women’s value.
In an interview a male general partner of a prominent firm said, he cannot find professional women to hire in their firm. “Most of the people took it as an offense to all women, but I personally was not offended. I assumed that he probably meant something different, and decided to dig into the issues.”
With that in mind, George was motivated to prove this opinion wrong or right with data that hadn’t existed before. “Without data you are just another person with an opinion. I decided to take the other road.,” says George, who used a database to crunch some numbers and evaluate female investors’ success levels. “I wanted to check our performance for myself first of all, so me and several women investors decided to check on how well we’re doing.”George’s findings, which were released in the summer of 2016, showed what everyone wanted to know, but were afraid to ask female venture investors’ performance was on par with, or better, than men’s. “I can’t do everything, but I prefer doing what I can [with this information],” says George, who was finally armed with proof that there is no logical, or economic reason for stifling females in capital markets. And now, with the dramatic shift in the post election political climate, George’s platform is even more timely. “The social climate made diverse groups, especially those who were born outside the U.S. feel insecure, and we realized we can help them too, so we’re broadening our efforts,” she says.
“It may sound controversial, but when people think about themselves as about a cultural, political or business asset, it’s a whole different approach,” says George, who will also be focusing on education through events and information dissemination to help push the needle towards equality. "We want to switch the diversity agenda from personal to professional. Diversity is not merely about gender, ethnicity or sexuality. Behind every different person, there is a value to the community, society and corporations. The problem, though, is not only leaders should see and believe in it, every single person should recognize his or her value to people around. Once you accept it and learn to articulate it clearly, other people will notice that too.”
These days, George is focused on building on a community of multicultural, trustworthy individuals to learn from and support each other. “We want to show people of different gender, ethnicity and sexuality who made it to the top, who represent those diverse groups by their own example. We also encourage professionals among them to provide complimentary advice and mentorship to address current challenges of those who are still on their way to success, such as immigration issues and civil rights. Of course, we focus on assisting entrepreneurs too. Members of our community can actually reach out to these professionals and ask for help.”
This initiative is called Diversity.Capital and dedicated to prove that diversity is a political, cultural and business asset. Renata George is one of the co-founders of the project, which is currently opening branches throughout the United States. Iman Oubou, SWAAY founder, was one of the first supporters of Diversity.Capital and helms the community of influencers and shakers in New York.
7 Min Read
Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.
Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.
Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.
Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?
Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.
It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.
The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.
The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.
In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.
With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?
According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.
“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."
Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.
Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."
Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."
Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.
Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.
While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.
The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."
Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.
“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."
To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.
While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.
When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."
Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.
This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.
As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.
When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.
Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.
Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.
“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."
Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.
This piece was originally published in 2018.