Women-Focused VCs Are Betting That Leveling the Playing Field Will Result in Women Winning

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Feature Photo courtesy of Chloe Capital

At the end of 2019, a District Court judge in California ruled that players on the U.S. women's national soccer team—that year's World Champions—could go forward with class-action status in their gender discrimination suit against the federation.

This was in the same year that Nike shut down its notoriously imbalanced track and field training program (zero women coaches in the senior ranks) amid accusations of sexist and damaging coaching.

Women in sports have made massive, fast progress toward equality over the past several decades, and a big part of that improvement has been thanks to a concerted, legal, and global effort to level playing fields. Leveling the playing fields has meant letting women have a seat at the table—all of the tables.

For instance, since 2012, no Olympic sports have been allowed to exclude women, and women's overall participation in the games is now nearing 50%.

"There are many parallels between women's positions right now in sports and in business," says Elisa Miller-Out, co-founder of the seed stage venture capital firm Chloe Capital, which invests exclusively in women-led startups.

"Sports exist in an ecosystem, and so does business development," Miller-Out says. "What happens upstream absolutely determines what happens further downstream."

Since 2008, VC investment in women-founded companies has hovered stagnant around 2% and 3%, while the number of deals completed by women founders has steadily risen. But those who do invest in women-led companies enjoy better than average returns on their investments, according to several studies, including a report by Morgan Stanley.

Ready to tackle the inequities head-on and capitalize on the good performance of women-led startups are a handful of new VC firms, including Chloe Capital, which was founded in 2017. "Our founders," says co-founder of Chloe Capital Kathryn Cartini, "are our star athletes. We discover them and nurture them, and they perform."

The natural affinity between women athletes and women in business shows up everywhere, notably at the Aurora Festival and Aurora Games, a newly launched annual showcase of excellence in women's sports that featured, in its inaugural year last summer, 125 Olympic athletes, competition in six women's sports by elite women athletes from all over the world, and a series of events and panels focusing on women's achievement in both sports and business.

Held in Albany, NY, the festival was sponsored in part by Miller-Out's firm Chloe Capital. It was the brainchild of Jerry Solomon, longtime agent and promoter and author of An Insider's Guide to Managing Sporting Events, who is the husband of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.

Cartini, along with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management Advisor Georgia Kelly, hosted a 5-hour seminar at the Aurora Festival. Participants included everyone from C-Suite executives, middle managers, athletic team coaches, and business founders.

Connecting Women to Each Other, Knowledge, and Money

"Kathryn's got a keen sense of what is needed to grow and promote women's business," Georgia Kelly says of Cartini. "I've learned so much from her. She's very thoughtful and diligent in execution. She's focused on the end result, but at the same time on the details along the way."

Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health Magazine Liz Plosser interviewed the Team World basketball players at the session. Also presenting was Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over the trial against U.S. Gymnastics physician and abuser Larry Nassar.

"It was inspiring to see how fully engaged all the participants were, hanging around after the formal parts of the event, having great conversations with each other," Kelly remembers.

Those conversations and connections are the stuff of investment and business success, she asserts. "It's always the surprise connection that pays off, one degree of separation beyond what people predicted."

At one discussion, there was a question from the audience about how to grow women's confidence. Sunny Stroeer, a climber and outdoor adventure sports star and photographer, had this answer: "Do hard things. It doesn't matter if you succeed at them. The trying is the important part."

Good advice, and yet when it comes to women in sports and in business, it's not a lack of trying hard things that accounts for gender inequity; it's discrimination and an inequity in support and opportunity.

And so special venues like the Aurora Games, and special investors who focus on women, like Chloe Capital, are likely to play an outsized role in providing the ultimate remedy.

"The drive, determination, and hard work I see in women athletes who defy odds stacked against them," Miller-Out says, "gives me hope for women in business too."

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Working Moms Open Up About Their Greatest Struggles

Motherhood, no matter how you slice or dice it, is never easy. Running after small children, feeding them, tending to their physical and emotional wounds, and just taking the time to shower them with love— that's a lifetime of internal resources. Now add a job on top of all of that? Geez. We spoke to 14 working mothers to get an open, honest look at the biggest day-to-day challenges they face, because despite what Instagram portrays, it's not all dresses on swingsets, heels, and flawless makeup.

1. “Motherhood in general is hard," shares Rachel Costello. “It's a complete upheaval of life as you once knew it. I have a 22-month-old due any minute and a baby. The hardest part is being pregnant with a toddler — chasing, wrangling, etc., all while tired, nauseous, and achey. Then the guilt sets in. The emotional roller coaster punctuated by hormones when you look at your baby, the first born, knowing that their life is about to be changed."

2. “I'm a work-from-home mom," shares Jene Luciano of TheGetItMom.com. “I have two children and two stepchildren. The hardest part about parenting for me is being the best mom I can be to someone else's children."

3. “I joined the Air Force at 18 and had my first child at 20," tells female power house Robyn Schenker Ruffo. “I had my second baby at 23. Working everyday, pumping at work and breastfeeding at lunch time at the base, home day care was rough. Being away from my babies during the day took a toll on me— especially the single mom days when they were toddlers. I had a great support system of friends and military camaraderie. The worst was being deployed when they were 6 months old, yes both, and I was gone for 90 days. Not seeing them every night was so depressing."

4. “Physically, the hardest part of the parenting experience (and so far, I'm only six months in with twins) was adjusting to the lack of sleep in the very beginning," shares Lauren Carasso. “Emotionally, the hardest part is going to work everyday with anxiety that I'm going to miss one of the twins' firsts or other milestones. I know they are in good care but potentially missing those special moments weighs heavy on my heart when I walk out the door each morning," she continues.

5. “The hardest part of being a parent is social media, actually," says Marina Levin. “Shutting out the judgmental sanctimommy noise and just doing what works best for you and your family in a given moment."

6. “Trying to raise a healthy, happy, confident and self-respecting girl, when I'm not a consistent example of those qualities is the hardest for me," explains Adrienne Wright. “Before motherhood I was a pretty secure woman, and I thought passing that onto my daughter would be a piece of cake. But in the age of social media where women are constantly ripping each other to shreds for the way they raise their kids, it's nearly impossible to feel confident all of the time. Nursing vs. formula, working vs. stay at home, vax vs. anti-vax, to circumcise vs. not, nanny vs. daycare— the list goes on and on. We're all doing the best we can with the resources we have. We should empower each other to feel confident in the decisions we make for our families."

7. “The hardest part is the sense of responsibility and worrying that comes along with it," says Orly Kagan. “Am I feeding my kids properly? Are they getting too much screen time? Are they getting enough attention and love? Are they developing as they should be? It goes on and on and on."

8. “For me, by far the hardest part of motherhood has been managing my own guilt. As many triumphant moments as there may be, the moments when I feel like I did badly or could have done better always stick out," confesses Julie Burke.

9. “Balancing work and doing all the mom things and all the home things and all the husband things are not the hardest part of motherhood (for me, anyway)," shares Zlata Faerman. “The hardest part of motherhood is trying to figure out just how to deal with the amount of love I have for my son. It can be super overwhelming and I'm either alone in this sentiment, or not enough moms talk about it."

10. “The hardest part for me is giving things up," shares Stacey Feintuch. “I have two boys, an almost 3-year-old and almost 7-year-old. I have to miss my older one's sports so I can watch the little guy while he naps or watch him at home since he will just run on the field. I hate that other parents can go to games and I can't. I also really miss going out to dinner. My older one can eat out but we rarely eat out since my younger one is a runner!"

11. “I think if I'm going to be completely real, the hardest part to date has been realIzing that I chose this life," shares Lora Jackle, a now married but formerly single mom to a special needs child. “I chose to foster and then adopt special needs, as opposed to many parents who find out about the special needs after their child is born. It's still okay to grieve it sometimes. It's still okay to hate it sometimes and 'escape' to work."

12. “I'm a work-at-home mother doing proofreading and teaching 10-20 hours a week. The hardest part for me is not yelling. I took the 30-Day No Yelling Challenge and kept having to restart. I love my kids, don't get me wrong," says Michelle Sydney, exemplifying the difficulty of balancing work with family.

13. “I'm a full-time working mom of a 2.5-year-old," shares Anna Spiewak. “I bring home equal pay, keep the apartment clean and take care of dinner. Still my male partner gets all the praise for being a good dad and basically sticking around. It's mainly from his side of the family, of course. What I do is taken for granted, even though I'm the one who still changes the diapers, bathes her and wakes up in the middle of the night on a work night when she cries. I wish all moms got credit for staying on top of things."

14. “I am a stay-at-home-mother and currently working full-time from home on my start-up clothing brand, Kindred Bravely," says Deeanne Akerson, founder of Kindred Bravely, a fashion line devoted to nursing, working mothers. “The hardest part of my parenting experience is the constant feeling of never doing quite enough. There is always more to do, meals to make, laundry to fold, kids that want my full attention, errands to run, or work in my business. And since there really always are more things to do it's easy to feel like you're failing on nearly every aspect of life!"

This piece was originally published July 18, 2018.