I’m sure many of you saw the news/not at all news a few weeks ago. In 2018—once again—female founders got just 2.2% of all VC dollars. As Fortune put it,“In 2018, all female founders put together received $10 billion less in funding than one e-cigarette company, Juul, took in by itself.” And that collective $2.88 billion was split across nearly 500 female lead teams. All-male teams (all male-teams!) got 76% of the total. That pretty much cuts most women out of the startup game mostly because they were born women. It’s hard to build a track record when we can’t get named to mixed gender teams, let alone raise money for our own ideas.
Like most female founders, I feel it. I feel it with every conversation I have with a VC. It is a backdrop in my world. Every GD dollar I’ll need to bring into this company will take longer and be harder to raise. And I’ve done the “easy” part. It’s comparatively easy to get a $10,000 or $20,000 check to test out an idea. But getting a $1 million or greater check? That’s when potential investors are looking for reasons to say no, not reasons to say yes. And—no matter what they think about me—building a company for working women is not going to be one of a few yes’s for a lot of the industry dominated by men with stay-at-home wives.
The 10 biggest deals of 2018 all went to companies run by men. Other data has shown that only 5% of women “lucky” enough to raise any capital will ever raise a Series B. Every female founder I know worries about pivoting and getting to profitability years earlier than male founders I know do. Because we have to. As I told Reid Hoffman recently, his new book Blitzscaling mostly doesn’t apply to us. Out of those “Lucky” 500 or so female-run teams who got any money, you can count on your fingers the ones who have raised the kind of money that you need for the Blitzscaling playbook.
I’ve been so angry with the state of gender and the VC industry, the endless talk and no change, the endless stories I hear from so many other founders in addition to the sexist treatment we all endure, I had to cool down for a week before I could write about it. There’s no doubt that the venture world is slipping behind even the woeful state of inclusion when it comes to large tech companies.
Sure, there are lots of places gender bias shows up in my life, and I’m used to a lot of it. I get paid less for speaking gigs than male authors who are less well-known. I’m booked less on TV than male journalists whose reporting has had way less impact than mine or have way less experience. It’s harder to be taken seriously in a lot of professional ways. I’ve been talked over and done emotional labor, had people repeat my ideas back at me and confuse a meeting with a date, blah blah blah.
But while it’s subjective, the biggest delta between what I feel I’ve earned and what I actually get as a woman—the delta between what I think male Sarah Lacy would get versus actual Sarah Lacy gets—is in venture fundraising, especially now that I’m building a company aimed at women. And bear in mind, I say this as someone who has twice beaten the averages that women raise in venture capital, when they are lucky enough to raise any at all. I am well aware of my comparative privilege. Which is why I talk about how frustrating it is. It doesn’t help anyone for those of us who have raised capital to pretend it was as easy as it should have been.
The reality is this: It is far easier to sell an HR director on Chairman Mom memberships for an entire 2,000 person company than it is to get a VC to write us a $1 million check. Companies know they need to build diverse worlds and workforces to support women or they will suffer. A small 5-person or so venture firm simply doesn’t have those KPIs, those priorities, that religion. And there’s this: An executive at a large organization likely has to use data to back up a purchasing decision. A VC only has to go with his “gut.” Enter pattern recognition and bias every time.
Previous data has shown that firms with even just one female partner tend to invest in twice as many women. And yet, like a lot of female founders, my experience has been far better raising money from men than women.
Is that because men control so much of the capital that those are simply the odds? Maybe. I would like to think so. I debate this topic with other founders nearly every week: Do female VCs support female founders enough where it really counts or are they overly worried about being pigeon-holed as only doing “female deals”?
2019 will tell us a lot. Because the only number that did change in 2018 was the number of female investing partners in the industry. In 2018, Silicon Valley added 36 women as investment partners.
Let’s see if 36 more women with checkbooks makes a difference. Where we go from here is increasingly on those women. If they help move the numbers, then the press and LPs and the community will turn up the heat on firms to add even more women as partners. It will be a data-driven solution to an embarrassing problem that plagues the industry. If they “cool girl” it out, the patriarchy continues to win and nothing changes.
(All of this obviously goes one billion times for women of color who are far less represented on both sides of the negotiating table…)