It’s no secret by now that the world of venture capital (and finance in general) hasn’t been a particularly welcoming space for women. But thanks to a new class of renegades, women are dismantling imbalanced power structures piece by piece, creating companies and providing financial resources to women-run companies for one very simple reason: We deserve it.
Ready or not, the era in which systems that skew towards a homogenous male demographic are coming to a close. And below, we’ve profiled four incredible women who are among the change-makers leading the charge.
When it comes to the new frontiers of finance, Amy Karr is exactly where you want to be: Riding the wave of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, with a bird’s eye view of the future. But the CEO and co-founder of marketing consultancy Ventus Advisors’ path to this point was anything but straightforward—or likely, for that matter.
Karr dropped out of high school and left the farm she grew up on in Kansas, for Chicago. She got her GED at 23 and never went to college. And yet by the age of 28, Karr was an undeniable superstar of the ad and marketing industry, being named a Forbes 30 Under 30 and helping some of the biggest brands in the world reshape their messaging—a career she humbly sums up as being “kind of all over the place.”
And then in 2016, she left it all behind to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as Head of Partnerships. As we’re all well too aware by now, that job ran its course. But Karr’s experience on the campaign shed light on a pivotal realization: “I started to better understand the transparency and accountability issues we are having across the board in our country and the world at large,” she says.
This kernel of thought that was piqued further while Karr took a post-campaign vacation with a friend in Israel, who started to tell her about this new concept of “digital currency” that’s fueled by a new technology called blockchain. “It just kind of stuck in my head, like, ‘OK, this is a concept I should be exploring,’” she says. But as whipsmart as Karr is, we ought to all take a little solace in the fact that she was initially just as confused as the rest of us: “Everything is so complicated to understand!” she says.
It was this complexity that spurred her desire to make it less so—which is in part what she does in her work at Ventus. “There were incredible products being built and incredible companies being developed, but we couldn’t understand what they were, because it was very tech-focused,” she says, “so my big a-ha moment was realizing that in order to build legitimacy, and in order to solidify these new companies in this space and make sure that these new companies exist in the next 10, 20, 30 years—hopefully the next 100—we had to start explaining it in the same way that we explained the companies that exist today.”
Thus, Ventus Advisors exists to help blockchain-focused companies tell stories and convey messages in a way that is accessible to the average consumer. It’s a mission Karr is passionate about in general, but is especially excited about as it relates to the financial future of female founders and women in general: “It’s an incredible opportunity for women to really come up to the same place where men have been in the financial world,” she says. “This is the biggest creation of wealth that’s happening, [and we need to be] making sure that we’re on the front lines for that.”
1. Reach out to the women who are already engaged in the space
“One of the most incredible things is just how collaborative women in blockchain and in crypto are,” Karr says. “It’s beautiful; everyone’s there to support each other, and be like, ‘Hey, let’s hear it, let’s workshop it.’” She recommends looking for online communities as well as in-person gatherings, which you can increasingly find on sites like Meetup.
2. Do your homework
Karr acknowledges that there are not a ton of organized resources out there right now, so it’s important to vet your information within a community you trust. Still, she recommends “staying in for a Friday and Saturday night” and immersing yourself in every bit of information you can find, whether it’s YouTube videos, TED talks, forums or white papers.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and collaborate
“The ethos of blockchain is really to democratize information transparency,” she says, “and people are really, truly there to help each other by sharing information and collaborating.” And while there’s no guaranteeing that this early-days Utopia will last, Karr can’t recommend getting involved enough: “Definitely jump in, and start learning by asking questions.”
There was a point in Tracy Gray’s long and successful career as an engineer, and then an analyst for a venture fund, and then as an advisor to the office of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, that she simply had enough. In her years of experience watching money exchange hands, she bore firsthand witness, over and over again, to the fact that women and people of color were conspicuously being left out of the equation.
“That just didn’t work for me,” she says, simply. It was a problem that she recognized as systemic, where women and minorities have a harder time securing bank loans than white men. “I just thought, ‘We don’t really need to keep rolling these guys, guilting them to try to get them to move their capital to women and people of color. We can just do it ourselves.”
And so she struck out on her own. In 2013, Gray started The 22 Fund, a social-impact venture capital and advisory firm that aims to increase the export capacity of Southern California manufacturing companies that are owned by women and minorities. Gray prides herself on being a numbers person—driven by data. And the data she sees speaks volumes: Women drive 70-80 percent of all consumer purchasing in the country and control the majority of the wealth. “If women understood their power, and they were self-empowered around their wallets and their investments, they can change the world,” she says.
And that’s precisely what Gray has set out to help women do. In 2015, she gave an acclaimed TED talk titled “Why It’s Time For Women To Be Sexist With Investment Capital,” in which she bucks the trend of women leaning in and stepping up, and instead underscores the sentiment of women and minorities simply moving aroundthe structures that were consciously and subconsciously designed to keep them out. Together.
She asserts that the infrastructure that can and should take its place are initiatives like the 22 Fund as well as the educational non-profit she founded in 2016, We Are Enough, which aims to educate women at “every socioeconomic level and of all ages, on why and how to invest in women-owned businesses and/or with a gender lens.”
And she’s confident that the end result is good news all around: “When you invest in women, you’re investing in your community, and women are the ones who are going to change the world. It’s not going to be men. We’re past that now.”
1. Think bigger
Gray relays an anecdote about a woman who raised a fund and tells pretty much every woman who comes in to pitch to double the numbers she put down in her projections. And when men come in, she cuts the numbers in half. “It’s not women’s fault; it’s just that we’ve been socialized to conserve money instead of grow it,” she says, “So think bigger. That’s the biggest one.”
2. Know your story
“Don’t be afraid to know your story and show your passion. Investors, are human beings, so we’re impacted by story and emotion and passion just as much as anyone else,” she says. This sense of passion clues investors into the idea that there’s more behind your motivations that just making a buck, and that in turn speaks to a sense of commitment.
3. Don’t be afraid to fail
“Men wear failure as a badge of honor. You hear investors say, ‘If they’ve never failed in a business, I don’t want to invest in them,’” she says. But she encourages the entrepreneurs she comes across to think of failure as practice. “Move on and try it again.”
For those of us outside the tech industry, our idea of the venture capital world is probably largely informed by the HBO showSilicon Valley: Many douchey techbros, with the occasional woman fending off sexist joke after sexist joke (and much worse). But it’s a caricature that’ll hopefully be ringing less and less true, thanks to a growing group of women entering the venture capital space with the intent of creating more opportunity and visibility for female founders.
And among that class of pioneers are Erin Shipley and Lindsey Taylor Wood, co-founders of the venture-fund-slash-lifestyle-platform The Helm. Hailing from a long and thorough career in the women’s rights space where she worked for numerous NGOs and eventually, a network geared towards high net-worth individuals and their interactions with philanthropic causes, Taylor Wood arrived at a dismaying realization:
“You could pick any metric by which to measure success, whether that’s representation of women in front of and behind the camera, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, paid leave policies, women in the finance industry—we have flat lined.”
It’s something she attributes to her many years working with money and its relation to social good. “What I recognized was that, for all of the limitations [in the structure of charitable organizations], the things that people really responded to is a strong sense of community—things that are emotionally resonant and mission-oriented, which are antithetical to the transactional nature of finance,” she says.
But it got her to thinking: “What if we could take those best practices and apply them to a different asset class? Could we get different people at the table to create different outcomes?”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Shipley, who spent her education and early career steeped in the world of traditional business and finance: undergrad at Wharton, a job in investment banking straight after, a job in investment banking in the Middle East after that, and then a transition to entertainment finance and strategy with none other than the Weinstein Company—“Certainly environments where I was the only woman,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I started working in venture that the wrongness of that became so exposed to me.”
In her time working for the venture fund, she did indeed see female founders come through, but the ways in which funding was considered for them was markedly different from men: “They’re often pointed in these directions of capital that operates in isolation: female-led angel syndicates, or grants—all of these things that are capital, certainly. But they aren’t necessarily forms of capital that’s integrated into the broader systems of funding, and those systems are incredibly crucial if you think about achieving venture scale growth.”
The founders see it as part of a broader conversation about women and power–how we’re positioned right now to capitalize on women increasingly holding positions of leadership and power, and dispelling the notion that women are obligated to spend their money solely for the benefit of others. Because while philanthropy is certainly worthy, why aren’t men compelled to do the same?
“I think that we are at a time when were finally starting to have conversations around women owning the power that they have around their own money, and how to invest and deploy their own money in ways that aren’t just altruistic,” says Taylor Wood.
Thus, The Helm is the venture fund that seeks to address the staleness of the way we’ve collectively been thinking about venture capital and how women should or should not be investing their money. “I grimace when were described as a VC,” says Taylor Wood, “because that’s not how I would communicate our company. We are a platform and a community that is interested in re-imagining in how people invest in female founders, and one of the ways in which we do that happens to be through our fund.”
Speaking of which, The Helm has differentiated itself even further by its point of access: Investors can come it at a minimum of $50,000, which is markedly lower than most venture funds. “We don’t want to only have a really exclusive product; the mission is to level the playing field.”
1. Understand the kind of funding your business needs
Even though they run a venture fund, Taylor Wood stresses that venture capital is not the right fit for everyone—not by a long shot. “There’s this cultural assumption that if you are an entrepreneur you should be raising venture capital. There’s this link between them that is very much in the zeitgeist, and it is 100 percent incorrect,” she says. Explore all your options.
2. You should like the people who are investing in you
“You’re building a relationship with the person that is going to be investing money in your company,” Shipley says. “So, beyond just the importance of acting with integrity, it’s really important to make sure that your expectations are aligned with the people that you raise money from, and that they are people that you actually want to have a relationship with for the long term.”
3. Read your contracts
It sounds obvious, Shipley acknowledges, but feeling overwhelmed by the legalese and opting to just ignore it can do a lot of damage. “It can feel like a really steep learning curve,” she says, “but embrace that, and make sure you have a good lawyer that you’re working with.”
Words: Deena DrewisPhotos: Courtesy