More than money: how do we best invest in female founders?

Ignition Law's Stephanie Ng dissects the barriers facing female founders, from investor biases to the lack of advocacy.

The struggle to close the gender gap appears to depend on what industry one is in. Parliament now has 191 female MPs compared to 58 a generation ago, whereas 61 per cent of young lawyers are female, as are 52 per cent of doctors.  By comparison, the start-up scene is firmly imbalanced between the genders – a TechCrunch study found that between 2009 and 2014, funded start-ups with at least one female founder only increased from 9 per cent to 18 per cent. And the latest TechCrunch report is even more unfavourable: only 7 per cent of partners at top 100 venture capital firms are female and under 12 per cent of partner roles at accelerators and corporate venture firms are held by women.

Why are women so under-represented in the start-up scene?  The lack of female investors seems an obvious answer. Allbright, a newly established crowdfunding platform, angel and support network, brings investment and industry expertise together and invests in exclusively female-led businesses.  Allbright’s goal is to deliver the most effective platform to accelerate the growth of female-led enterprises across the UK.

Piccolo, the first business to work with Allbright, successfully raised its £50,000 target within two hours.

Increasing female investor numbers is one solution, but it fails to address the deeper causes, like the continuing gender divide among STEM subject students in secondary education: only 39 per cent of those sitting ‘A’ level Maths are girls; for Physics just 21 per cent; and for Computer Science, a derisory 9 per cent.

These figures impact heavily at university level – although 57 per cent of university students are female, barely 15 per cent of engineering, technology, mathematics or computer science undergraduates are female.  This aftermath continues in the workforce.  In STEM careers, just 13 per cent of employees are female, according to WISE, a community-orientated group established with the specific mandate of increasing female representation.

Senior women are equally rare in big business, comprising just 9.6 per cent of FTSE100 directors, while only 35 per cent of MBA students at the world’s top 100 business schools are female, according to FT rankings. HM Treasury has signed the Women in Finance Charter, supporting the progression of women into senior financial services roles.  

These gender imbalances also impact on the lack of ‘easy access to know-how’ for female founders, a less obvious but equally important tool for entrepreneurs. Seeking angel investors, assembling an advisory board, needing a new CTO or mentor – these tasks are much easier with the help of a valuable network of contacts

Every founder – irrespective of gender – encounters bias and stereotypes from would-be investors who do not understand or comprehend their business.  The most common challenges – finding a co-founder, scarce resources, the challenges of seeking investment whilst continuing to run a business, and the need for more support – are universal.

More often observed amongst female founders is the tendency to underestimate their ability, as reflected by the language they choose when talking about their business. No matter how great the business concept, the impact of how a founder comes across cannot be overstated – it is vital for founders not to undersell themselves or their business idea. When success correlates with confidence as much as competence, a lack of confidence matters.

Supporting female founders makes simple economic sense. Several studies show that companies tend to perform better when they have a gender diverse team – likewise where founding teams include women. Nor is gender equality a female-only issue.  Advocacy groups led by men, such as London Business School Manbassadors and Men as Allies, proactively support gender equality, promoting diversity through education.

The crux of any successful start-up, diversity matters – perhaps even more so post-Brexit. In a survey by Forbes Insights, 85 per cent of respondents agreed that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation”. The same applies for the UK start-up sector: more female role models are needed to inspire the next generation. To get them involved, we must be more innovative – not just in our thinking, but in our actions too.  

Stephanie Ng is a senior corporate and commercial lawyer at Ignition Law, specialising in working with start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs across a range of industries.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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Female founders