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How to Empower Female Investors

Los Angeles VC firm Upfront Ventures recently appointed Kara Nortman as partner. Unfortunately, this is an isolated bright spot. Women are losing ground in venture capital: The number of women that VCs have at the partner level has dropped from 10 percent in 1999 to 6 percent in 2014, according to research by Babson College. But while the number of women leaders in the VC world has decreased, the number of U.S. women angel investors has increased from 12 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2013, according to the Center for Venture Research. Thanks to initiatives, such as Pipeline Fellowship, an angel investing boot camp for women that creates capital for female social entrepreneurs, successful women are investing their own money in women-led businesses and, in turn, helping create more female-friendly startup and fundraising ecosystems. Founded by Natalia Oberti Noguera, Pipeline Fellowship has trained over 80 women who have committed more than $400,000 in investment. And it has expanded from New York to Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. I am honored to be one of the inaugural L.A. Pipeline Fellows. Throughout this program, I have met amazing women VCs such as Bedy Yang of 500 Startups, Shanna Tellerman of Google Ventures and Kathleen Utecht at Core Innovation Capital right here in Los Angeles. As Natalia says, “While the numbers are low, they’re not zero.” This takes us back to Upfront Ventures. They recently led a $10 million Series A in uBeam, a Los Angeles-based startup with a breakthrough technology that will allow you to charge your phone without plugging it in. After the funding was announced, uBeam and Upfront were under powerful attack from members of the tech community who believed this technology would not work. I cannot help wondering, would there have been as much pushback had the founder been a guy who happened to be a 25-year-old old tech genius, instead of the actual 25-year-old tech genius behind uBeam, Meredith Perry, who happens to be a woman? A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the 2014 L.A. Pipeline Fellowship Pitch Summit – imagine “Shark Tank” with the Pipeline Fellows serving as sharks, minus the drama, in a boardroom in downtown L.A. About halfway through the process, I found myself asking all these talented women entrepreneurs these questions again and again: “Don’t you feel that given the momentum that you have, you are far too conservative in the projected growth rate?” and “I’m sure you have thought of ways you can expand your business, so what are they?” The most astounding thing was that each time, the woman entrepreneur would reply with an answer well thought out. I asked myself, “Why weren’t they presenting their ideas as the billion dollar business several of them had the potential to become? Where was the big, bold, visionary attitude that is the hallmark of a ‘successful’ entrepreneur?” I then realized that I was judging these women entrepreneurs by a narrow – and gendered – definition of what a “successful” entrepreneur is supposed to do and say. I could have easily found male entrepreneurs bragging about their billion-dollar business idea who, unlike these women entrepreneurs, might not have been able to answer my follow-up questions. There is no silver bullet that can level the playing field for women entrepreneurs. While a lot of attention has been focused on getting more women entrepreneurs to “lean in,” it would be wise for all of us investors to be more aware of our own biases and give women entrepreneurs the space to be disruptive and visionary by “leaning in” ourselves. After all, women-led companies tend to have a better return on investment. And a better ROI sure sounds like success to me. Grace Woo is an executive at a Fortune 500 company and a 2014 L.A. Pipeline Fellow.

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