Business 08 January 2018
Though still a small sector of greater Silicon Valley, a growing number of venture capital firms have notably taken the initiative to fund female-led companies. These aren't pity investments or social/moral obligations, either — investing in women entrepreneurs makes financial sense.
“There is a perception that investing in women and POC-led/founded/invented companies is an impact investment play; as if somehow these deals are not as quality as traditional Silicon Valley deals and thus, investment is only made to create a better world. I disagree," said Rafferty Jackson, an angel investor who's invested in Ellevest, Poshly, and Goodworld via Astia Angels. “I see these opportunities as undervalued opportunities in which I can deploy my capital. By looking at the deals that Silicon Valley simply cannot sort, there is a ton of opportunity out there to invest and make money."
We reached out to VC firms with one goal: to see which were actually putting their money where their mouth is in terms of funding female-led businesses. (Note that while we see clear movement in angel networks as far as investing in female companies, we opted to focus on VC firms for this article.)
Location: San Francisco
Which female-led companies have you invested in? “We focus on deep-tech companies, and I'm very proud to see 15 percent of our portfolio companies have female founders and co-founders who are extremely technical in multiple disciplines. For example, Ginkgo Bioworks, CapellaBio,
Savioke, and Kindred.ai," said Shelley Zhuang, founder and managing partner.
How much have you invested in each? > $2 M
What do you look for when investing in a female-led company? “The same things I would look for in any company: does the founder deeply understand the problem she is solving, what is the market size, what is the company's unique product/technology, why is it better than the competition, does the business model make sense? We love breakthrough technology companies in AI, AR, robotics, space, data-driven health."
Success Story: Ginkgo Bioworks (“the organism company"), co-founded by Reshma Shett, is now worth over $1 B.
2. 500 Startups
Location: San Francisco
Which female-led companies have you invested in? “Our entire thesis is really driven by investing in underrepresented founders. We believe talent is everywhere, but resources are not. Our collective portfolio is about 25 percent female founders at the moment, and companies with female leadership is closer to 40 percent," said Tanya Soman, a venture partner. Examples include Shearshare, Mejuri, Ellebox, Tradesy, Ipsy, Shippo, and Canva.
How much have you invested in each? $150k/company
What do you look for when investing in a female-led company? “I look for the same things if I were evaluating any other company. I assess the market size, the growth potential of this business in that space, and especially with early-stage companies, I look to see if this is the right team to execute. Female founders are great at building solutions for women. This is often times overlooked by men by nature of the problem. I am particularly interested in retail, beauty, and fashion innovation solutions."
Success story: “Ellebox is a monthly subscription of organic pads, tampons, and goodies. The company was founded by two sisters who have personally experienced the pain of toxic solutions for periods. They are building a company with a strong brand appealing to first entrants in the market: tweens."
Location: San Francisco
Aspect focuses on helping companies bridge the gap between seed investment and late-stage ventures. Notable companies with female leadership they've invested in include Birchbox, Baublebar, Grokker, Nanostring, Stem, The Muse, The Real Real, UrbanSitter, and Vida.
Invested in each: Aspect closed their debut fund at $150 M and opened a second in June 2017 with a goal of $175 M.
Success story: Birchbox was founded in 2010 and is considered a pioneer in the world of “subscription boxes." Subscribers receive a monthly delivery of deluxe beauty and skincare samples, which they can then purchase online as full-sized versions. The company experienced rapid growth early on and boasts over one million subscribers and 4 M total customers.
Location: New York
BBG Ventures focuses solely on women-led technology companies at seed stage. They seek and support “founders who are creating market-defining consumer applications and services that make our lives simpler, better, more delightful. We believe the greatest untapped opportunity for venture capital lies in backing women who are using technology to address common life-challenges and transform daily habits," the website states. Portfolio examples include Glamsquad, rocksbox, Kiwi Crate Inc., Rockets of Awesome, LOLA, Full Harvest, and Spoon University.
Invested in each: Investments range from $100,000 to $250,000.
Success story: Lola takes a modern approach to feminine care by offering 100 percent organic tampon delivery on a monthly basis to subscribers. They're credited with “changing the tampon industry" and giving women more options when it comes to menstrual care.
Location: Boulder, Colorado
Which female-led companies have you invested in? Examples include MALK Organics, 4th & Heart, Birch Benders, Quinn, Caulipower, and Greenspoon
How much have you invested in each? “We typically invest between $1 to $5 M in a particular business," said Abby Oppenheim for BFG.
What do you look for when investing in a female-led company? “We don't think we go out in the market actively looking for female entrepreneurs, but as it happens, much of our portfolio is comprised of female-led businesses. We think this stems from the fact that we view these deals as real partnerships, and when looking for businesses to invest in, we are seeking founders that are humble, kind, driven, and easy to work with. What is great about the food and beverage industry is that there are simply more female leaders than other industries like tech, healthcare, and biotech that traditional skew more male. As far as trends, we are looking for large and growing categories and businesses that have a better-for-you angle."
Success Story: “Caulipower launched only ten months ago, but has already clearly struck a nerve with the American consumer. By taking a lot of the carbs and sugar (and gluten, obviously) out of traditional frozen pizza, it is not only opening the category to consumers who were not able to eat pizza in the past, but also providing a healthier option for folks that love pizza but don't want to feel so guilty about eating it. This easy value proposition has allowed Caulipower to gain access to over 6,000 points of distribution in its first year of business."
Founded: November 2017
Location: Ithaca and Saratoga Springs, New York
Which female-focused companies have you invested in? Chloe Capital is a brand new micro VC fund that's first investment was Mi Padrino, founded by Kim Gamez. “Our thesis is around diversity, innovation and impact. We invest in frontier technologies and diverse, rapidly growing markets that are currently underserved by technology innovation," said Elisa Miller-Out.
How much have you invested? $50 K
What do you look for when investing in a female-driven company? “Our technology focus includes: SaaS, Blockchain, AI, Chatbots, Voice, IoT, Clean Energy Tech, AR and VR. We also invest in a handful of high growth companies from other sectors that have an innovation focus."
Success Story: Here's the story from our accelerator program and our first investment.
7. Crystal Towers Capital
Location: San Francisco
Which female-focused companies have you invested in? Fifteen percent of the companies CTC has invested in have a female CEO, and roughly 30 percent have either a female CEO or at least one female founder. Examples include Tushy, Sweeten, Eligible, Flex, Able Health, Medal, Care Revolutions, Stork Club. “We pursue awesome founders, irrespective of gender. I do think the fact I'm a woman and I make up 50 percent of our fund's partners — relative to less than 10 percent in the general VC world — may have something to do with our relatively high number of female founders. But to his credit, my partner Tikhon Bernstam has always been very gender-blind and non-discriminatory; several of the bigger investments we made in female founders were spearheaded by him," said Arianna Simpson.
How much have you invested in each? In aggregate, over $10 M.
What do you look for when investing in a female-driven company? “Really the same things I look for in male founders: drive, passion, deep domain expertise, founder-market fit, and a certain charisma."
Success Story: “Miki Agrawal, the founder of Tushy, was previously the founder of Thinx, which she grew from zero to tens of millions in revenue. Miki is a force to be reckoned with and makes it her mission to disrupt taboos, be it menstruation or pooping!"
Location: New York
“Women experience greater successes — and fewer failures — than their male counterparts. Yet traditional venture capital does not reflect this. Female Founders Fund was founded to change that," states the FFF website. They're a seed fund that invests solely in businesses with female founders. Their focus is e-commerce, web-enabled products and services, marketplaces, and platforms, and their portfolio includes Rent the Runway, Zola, Ringly, Eloquii, Maven, Rockets of Awesome, WayUp, Winky Lux, and Women.com.
Invested: As of April 2017, FFF's “Fund I portfolio of 25 companies has built over $1B of enterprise value and raised over $400M of venture capital funding. In total, these companies led by female founders employ over 600 people in New York, San Francisco & Los Angeles."
Success story: WayUp connects students and recent college graduates to great jobs. In 2016, they hit the “one million users" milestone, and in less than a year, that number hit 3.5 million.
Location: Los Angeles
Halogen Ventures, founded by Jesse Draper, is an early stage VC fund focused on female-founded consumer technologies. Their portfolio includes BeautyCon, Werk, Clover Letter, Sugarfina, Eloquii, Carbon38, The Flex Company, and Barn and Willow.
Invested: Halogen Ventures has raised over $10 M.
Success story: Werk is an unprecedented job placement model for females in the workplace. “The founders are two moms, who realized that they couldn't continue to work unless they made work more flexible. They offer full-time time job placement options for motivated women who want to keep their foot on the gas [pedal]," Draper told Forbes.
Location: Oakland, California
Which female-focused companies have you invested in? “Over 40 percent of our CEOs have been women. It is not part of our investment criteria, but we go out of our way to ensure that we have a very inclusive deal flow strategy, and then we simply pick the best investment opportunities," said Cindy Padnos. Their portfolio includes Vivant, Wild Pockets, Red Aril (acquired by Hearst Corporation), Allocadia, Jacobi Strategies, Peerlyst, PEX, Modsy, and Xactly Corporation. “Also important to note is that 80 percent of our portfolio companies have diverse founders, and roughly half have one founder that was born outside of the US," she added.
How much have you invested in each? Eight-figure investments across multiple funds into these companies.
What do you look for when investing in a female-led company? “We look for the same attributes in a woman co-founded startup as any other company we consider for investment. We start with people first: is this a team that brings a unique set of skills and experience to address a clear business problem with a demonstrable ROI? Are they passionate leaders who can attract top talent and business partners to support their vision?"
Success Story: “I was launching my own firm in parallel with Shanna launching her first startup, WildPockets, a web-embedded 3D development platform that could be used to build mobile games and for other business applications. We became Shanna's first institutional equity investors from outside of the Pittsburgh region, and helped her gain access to other similar investors. Three years and two rounds of venture financing later the company was acquired by Autodesk. They established a significant base of operation in Pittsburgh as a result."
Location: San Francisco
Forerunner focuses on early-stage ventures in commerce. More that 40 percent of their investment portfolio is made up of businesses founded or co-founded by women, including Birchbox, Draper James, Glossier, Joor, Guildery and PS Dept.
Invested: We were unable to reach Forerunner Ventures for comment, but can report that they have three funds for which they've raised over $215 M.
Success story: Guildery is a platform that brings “mass customization to the $200 B home décor market with robust digital printing technology allowing anyone to create and customize fabric and soft home goods," the website states. It was acquired by Minted in 2016.
12. The JumpFund
Location: Chattanooga, Tennessee
The JumpFund invests only in female-led ventures in the Southeastern portion of the United States. This location-based focus is the JumpFund's response to the fact that less than six percent of venture capital is directed towards female-led companies in the area compared to the nation's already low 15 percent. Their portfolio includes eDivv, Coursicle, Torch, Rooibee Red Tea, Stony Creek Colors, and Fleetwood Coffee.
Invested: We were unable to reach The JumpFund for comment, but can report that they have invested roughly $5 M to date.
Location: Boulder, Colorado
“MergeLane discovers, accelerates and invests in high-potential startups with at least one woman in leadership," states their website. Their portfolio includes Alchemie, EV Match BallotReady, Hidrate Spark, Mapistry, Parkifi, and Kidizen.
Invested: Since launch, MergeLane has 37 portfolio companies for which they've raised $23.8 M.
14. Renewal Funds
Located: Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada
Which female-led companies have you invested in? Goddess Garden, Sweet Earth Foods, Better Bean, Prana Foods, Farmhouse Culture
How much have you invested in each? $2 to $5 million
What do you look for when investing in a female-driven company? “We seek out environmentally sustainable companies in organics and envirotech that are shifting the needle in terms of how we live on this planet," said Kate Storey.
Success Story: “Sweet Earth is a great example of a sustainable company that can have a profound impact on the environment, while generating a fantastic financial return for all stakeholders. When we met CEO Kelly Swette and President Brian Swette in 2014, they had set out to create delicious products that would make it easy for families to adopt plant-based diets. Kelly and her team systematically built an innovation platform of globally inspired plant-based foods and launched award-winning products across multiple categories into over 10,000 stores. The company was acquired by Nestle USA — the largest food manufacturer in the world — this fall."
15. Rivet Ventures
Location: San Francisco
“We invest in companies in women-led markets where female usage, decision-making, and purchasing are crucial to company growth. We back both male and female founders," the website states. Over 50 percent of the businesses they've invested in have female leadership, including Ritual, Weav, GoldieBlox, and Ice.com.
Invested: They've raised over $50 M since inception.
16. SoGal Ventures
Founded: February 2017
Location: Singapore and New York City
Which female-led companies have you invest in?: “All of our portfolio companies have female co-founders or are focused on the female market," said Pocket Sun. For example: EverlyWell, Function of Beauty, SWAAY, Trustify, Unbound, and HelloAva.
How much have you invested in each? “Our first check is usually $100,000 to $300,000.
What do you look for when investing in a female-driven company? We are interested in tech-enabled companies that are revolutionizing how the next generation lives, works, and stays healthy. We're currently very interested in aging care, frontier tech, and blockchain."
Success Story: “EverlyWell.com is a digital health company that delivered at-home health testing kits to your door, so that you can enjoy affordable, convenient and accurate healthcare at the comfort of your own home. It recently was featured on Shark Tank, and the CEO Julia Cheek walked away with $1 M funding from Lori Greiner, which is one of the biggest deals ever done on Shark Tank!"
17. Valor Ventures
Location: Atlanta, Georgia.
Which female-led companies have you invested in? “We have a unique sourcing model. We benchmark what real founders look like and then make sure we source our investments from a balanced pipeline. It's just like making sure you interview a full spectrum of qualified candidates for any critical opportunity. We know 40% of founders are women or minorities, so we make sure our pipeline reflects reality. Investing in women, or minority-led companies, is a result of our strong sourcing strategy for today's top innovators," said Lisa Calhoun. Examples include MyAgData and Smart Commerce.
What do you look for when investing in a female-driven company? “We look for the same things in all our investments: an early stage software business that's scalable and currently experiencing hypergrowth."
Success Story: “Consider a true pioneer in agtech, Deb Casurella, CEO of MyAgData. After years of working in the ag insurance industry at the highest levels, she realized she could build a mobile ag insurance model that's truly revolutionizing the industry. Hear her testifying to the Senate this summer on the incredible opportunities of mobile ag insurance.
Location: Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles
Which female-led companies have you invested in? “We commit our capital and only invest if there is a woman as part of the senior leadership. Seven out of eight of the companies we've invested in have a female CEO, and in the eighth case there's women in C-Suite," said Edith Dorsen. For example: Vow to be Chic, Newsela, Decorist, Omni Retail Group, EdSurge, Nvoicepay, Proxio, and Ivytalk.
What do you look for when investing? “For us, the first fund was relatively opportunistic. We have been largely focused on Series A companies (generally raised a few million) and are demonstrating revenue traction. It's largely been in consumer internet, enterprise staff, and educational technology."
Success Story: “Nvoicepay is one of our earlier investments. They help companies pay their suppliers electronically and started out focused on the automotive sector. When we looked at the company, we saw great potential for them to expand into other verticals. We were the first institutional investor, and last fall they did a significant P/E round and the company is demonstrating rapid growth."
I have always been in love with all things art- I was obsessed with drawing and painting before I was even walking. In high school, I started a career selling art through various gallery art shows and on Etsy. I then went on to study fine arts at the University of Southern California, with an emphasis in painting, but took classes in ceramics, printmaking, cinema and architecture to get a really well-rounded education on all sorts of art.
During my senior year of college, my career path went through a huge transition; I started my own temporary tattoo brand, INKED by Dani, which is a brand of temporary tattoos based on my hand-drawn fine art designs.
The idea for the brand came one night after a themed party at college. My friends, knowing how much I loved drawing, asked me to cover them in hand-drawn doodles using eyeliner. The feedback from that night was overwhelming, everyone my friends saw that night was obsessed with the designs. In that moment, a lightbulb went off in my head... I could do some completely unique here and create chic temporary tattoos with an art-driven aesthetic, unlike anything else on the market. Other temporary tattoo brands were targeted to kids or lacked a sleek and millennial-driven look. It was a perfect pivot; I could utilize my fine arts training and tattoos as a new art medium to create a completely innovative brand.
Using the money I made from selling my artwork throughout high school and college, I funded the launch of INKED by Dani. I had always loved the look of dainty tattoos, but knew I could never commit to the real thing, and I knew my parents would kill me if I got a tattoo (I also knew that so many girls must have that same conflict). Starting INKED by Dani was a no-brainer.
I started off with a collection of about only 10 designs and sold them at sorority houses around USC. Our unique concept for on-trend and fashion-forward tattoos was spreading through word of mouth, and we quickly started growing an Instagram following. I was hustling all day from my room, cold calling retailers, sending blind samples and tons of emails, and trying to open up as many opportunities as I could.
Now, we're sold at over 10,000 retail locations (retailers include Target, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Hot Topic), and we've transformed temporary tattoos into a whole new form of wearable art.
My 4 best tips for starting your own business are:
- Just go with your gut! You'll never know what works until you try it. Go day by day and do everything in your power to work toward your goals. Be bold, but be sure to be thoughtful in your actions.
- Research your competitors and other successful brands in your category to determine how you can make your product stand out. Figure out where there is a need or hole in the market that your new offering or approach can fill.
- Don't spread yourself too thin. Delegate where possible, and stay focused each day on doing the best and most you can. Don't get too caught up in your end goal or the big picture to a point where it overwhelms or freezes you. You're already making a bold move to start something new, so try to prioritize what's important! I started off in the beginning hand packing every single tattoo pack that we sold and shipped. If I wanted to scale to align with the level of demand we were receiving, I needed to make the pivot to mass produce and relinquish the control of doing every step myself. I am a total perfectionist, so that was definitely hard! From that point on, overseeing production has been a huge part of my daily schedule, but by doing so I've been able to free up more time to focus on design, merchandising, and sales, allowing me to really focus on growing the business.
- Prioritize great product packaging and branding. It's so important to invest time in customer experience- how customers view and interact with your product. The packaging is just as important as the actual product inside! When we were starting off, we had high demand, and I definitely jumped the gun a bit on packaging so we could deliver product to the retailers when they wanted it. Since then, we've completely revamped the packaging into something upscale and unique that reflects what the brand is all about. Our product packaging is always called out as being one of our retailers' and customers' favorite part of our product!