In my role at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, I have the privilege of advising entrepreneurs, students, faculty and others who are determined to change the world for the better. I derive great joy from helping a budding entrepreneur define their vision, refine a business model, and make connections – a joy rivaled only by the clothes-folding technique Marie Kondo taught me.
This year, I am giving a lot of thought to why we don’t have more female-founded startups and why women have a hard time gaining traction with the investment community. During my 20-year investment career, I was one of the few women on the frontlines and, pardon the pun, man, it was lonely. I repeatedly heard “people like to invest in things they can relate to.” It’s no surprise, then, that predominately male institutional investors preferred to invest in male entrepreneurs who had easy-to-understand products. It’s no wonder the founders of Spanx and Rent the Runway had to persevere to “prove” there was demand for their products.
When I started my third company in 2011, I was able to raise a modicum of seed funds due to some connections. But when I look around today at the talented students and faculty at Johns Hopkins and Baltimore, I see innovation, an abundance of solutions, smart business models − and ingenious women leaders. But what will it take to make them successful in raising venture funding and building scalable companies? Particularly since being a female founder/entrepreneur means having the deck stacked against you from the start, as only 2.2% of venture capital dollars went to women in 2018.
Before the last Summer Olympics, I became intrigued with an ad campaign by one of my favorite companies, UnderArmour. “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you in the light” had one commercial featuring Michael Phelps that makes me choke up every time I watch it. But another ad featured the tireless training of the women’s U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team that I could not shake from my mind. The intensity, time and focus that these young women devoted to stay at the top of their game left me in awe. Then there is my latest guilty pleasure, Netflix’s “Cheer,” which follows Texas community college coach Monica Aldama as she guides her cheerleading teams to win 14 national championships.
The documentary “Maiden” tells another story of female determination, that of Tracy Edwards, who raised the money for and led the first all-female sailing team on the Whitbread Around the World Sailing Race. Edwards and her crew were mocked, underestimated and told they would never make it through the first leg of the competition. They fixed up a used sailboat and had only one sponsor; Edwards remortgaged her house to see her dream come true. By the time they sailed to the finish line after 167 days at sea, they claimed second place in their division and were greeted by thousands of adoring fans.
Why does this matter? As female entrepreneurs, we follow our passion, hone our craft, build a team and, with enough luck, grit and perseverance, magic happens. But we also need champions along the way. To the investment community that is looking for the next great return on investment: The world is not just dudes in fleece vests. Come look at the Baltimore ecosystem, and you’ll find many shining examples. There is Gemstone’s Emily English and Sharon Gerecht, revolutionizing the way we treat wounds. There is Lolita Taub who, when not at workforce development startup Catalyte, coaches a diverse group of first-time founders on how to build a business and raise money. There is Jess Gartner, who left behind a career in finance to reinvent educational equity through her company, Allovue. There is Amanda Allen, chief design officer at emocha, working to make sure patients adhere to the proper medication regime.
There is a saying in the startup world that most thriving entrepreneurs are “10-year overnight successes.” These people got up early to devote time to their passion before going to work. They hosted investors and customers on evenings and weekends, doing whatever they could to gain that initial traction. Like the U.S. gymnasts in the ad and the “Cheer” team, they were doing the equivalent of 1,000 sit-ups every day in the form of spreadsheets, user-interface testing and hiring. I hope that 2020 is a year we acknowledge the lengths that female entrepreneurs go and that they can find the sponsorship in the form of mentors, investors, board members and believers in a more equal way.
Parity is upon us, ladies. I’m with you, cheering for you (without the jumps) and happy to take your call in the dark (since 5 a.m. is the best time to reach me).
Disclosure: I am personal investor in Allovue. Johns Hopkins has equity in Gemstone and emocha.