ICYMI, the startup investing ecosystem took a nose dive. Again. It was a nose dive of about 0.5%, and represents the amount of US-based venture capital dollars allocated to women-led startups in 2022.
And that’s down from 2.4% in 2021, which was down from 2.7% in 2020, the highest it’s ever gotten. 2.7% in and of itself is pathetic.
I’ve been sitting on this data for a little bit, because it never gets any easier to continue to digest and internalize as our reality. Despite being lucky enough to wake up every day and work with amazing founders, investors and ecosystem builders – talk about positive energy – I have a never-disappears pocket of pure rage that I regularly manage, and sometimes have to talk to and work with directly as we plug away to reach our North Star.
In case it’s not clear: This is not just sad. It’s shameful. It’s embarrassing. It’s disgusting. It’s telling. And it’s unacceptable.
Still unacceptable. Unacceptable again. Always unacceptable. Again. Still….. I’m tired.
When is it going to change? How much do we need to keep talking about it?
I’m not going to link out to data set after data set that points to the continued benefits of investing into women founders (and founders from other traditionally underfunded groups), or the data sets pointing to the true misery of the numbers (see above). Certainly not going to give you anecdotes.
And there are also a couple of things I just really, really don’t want to do.
I don’t want to take another year trying to convince people of the situation, and presenting data. I don’t want to take another year encouraging people to change their mindsets. I don’t want to take another year to figure out the other ways our industry can get crucial growth capital to women-led startups. Yes, we’ll still do all of those, but boy ‘o boy – and I use that term very intentionally – I sure don’t want to.
No, we’ve reached a point where the long-brewing calls for accountability need to be front and center. Because it’s now extremely clear that if we don’t, we will only go down from 1.9%. If we wait one more year, we will only go down.
The day James made an introduction
James is a guy – not a bad guy – who does some things, important things, for a few of the women in his life. He’s very proud of this, and, at the end of the day, he pats himself on the back, and he makes his family (of all women), the best cinnamon toast they’ve ever had. Because “that’s just the type of guy he is.”
I come back to this piece a lot. One of the main driving points is that “people in positions of power in corporate America – which, more often than not**, are white men – are increasingly congratulating themselves for doing the bare minimum when it comes to gender equity.”
This can be exactly translated to the VC space, and is proving itself through the numbers. I said I wouldn’t give you anecdotes, but, for the sake of storytelling, here are just some of the ways this can play out:
- Firms creating mini funds to earmark capital for traditionally underrepresented founders. And by mini, I mean less than 2% of their overall AUM (pay attention to the numbers here!), run by fund managers who are not even afforded full decision-making capabilities to write out cheques. Good for you.
- Investors congratulating themselves for making that one investment into that one woman-led company, and it’s doing pretty well! Good for you.
- Fund managers speaking on panels and getting quoted in the press about their commitment to leveling the playing field – sometimes even with “Women Founders are the Future” tee shirts on! – while actions behind the scenes would suggest otherwise. Good for you.
- Firms writing out the largest cheques we’ve ever seen to non-women founders who’ve not only gloriously failed before (“failure is good!”), but are known quite globally for being absolutely toxic additions to the ecosystem. Good for you.
- Investors continuing to lean on stats about making deals into mixed-gender teams – teams with at least one woman – (or media continuing to highlight the “good news”have “skyrocketed” to, in this case, 17.2%), with a complete lack of acknowledgment that little to no research or data collection has been done on this particular sub-set of startups in regards to gender dynamics (it needs to be done), and that it’s likely “skyrocketing” because of the exact same awful set of behavior that’s also gotten us to the 1.9%. Good for you.
Or full circle, how about this extremely simple, but stark one:
Traditional investors patting themselves on the back for any of the above or 100 other “good deeds”, and still being 100% responsible for a 30% decrease in capital allocations to women startup founders from two years prior. Reminder that it’s a 30% decrease from the already pathetic number of 2.7% in 2020.
OUR ENTIRE INDUSTRY IS ONE BIG JAMES MOMENT. OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER AGAIN.
**There is a link here in the original, sending you to data, in case you needed it to make sure it was true. You can go there to get that data.
Or you can just say “yes, that’s true”.
2023: The Year of Accountability
It’s been just under a year since we’ve changed our name to SWITCH (from Women 2.0). Part of what we pulled from the word “switch” is a sense of intention and urgency.
There’s a lot more on our full philosophy here, but I wanted to resurface some of our branding thoughts that stem from ideas we hold core, and ultimately dictate how one could respond to and act within an ecosystem that continues to show us an unwillingness to change.
I’ll repeat one piece of that:
“There is an urgency that leaves less room for people to be complacent, and forces us to resist gradual shifts and be more immediate in restructuring and building our future anew….asking us all to change drastically and quickly.”
WE – a collective “we” that includes the people and organizations focusing daily on issues of representation and equity in our space, or have it built into our investing theses – WE cannot be the ones continuing to break things, to have to be the only ones breaking things, to put in the lioness’s share of the work, to give away our time, expertise and emotion to painstakingly move the mountain that is the traditional capital structure in the “right” direction, small inch by small inch.
So I put it to you. The mantra for 2023 is “Hold yourself accountable”.
Who is “you”? Well, I’m going to give you the big, audacious task of identifying yourself. Because that’s part of the process. But if you read any of this piece and questioned where you fall, or felt some discomfort, or perhaps wondered if you’re a James (even just a little bit!), that’s a really great place to start.
Do more than just listen and learn, more than a few good things, and certainly more than patting yourself on the back.
Truly let it sink in that you are not only an active participant in whether we go up or down from that 1.9%, but you are the most important participant. Not your partner, not your co-investor, not the other firms, not the rest of the industry.
My wonderful friend Corey Ponder, who is also our Senior Director of Empathy and Allyship, always has the perfect words:
“Shifts don’t just “happen”. They represent the stories we honor or ignore. Be the leader that doesn’t just observe the trend, but actively engage with your choices, experiences, and perceptions in relation to it. That conscious effort to embrace the role we play in the stories of others is leading with empathy.”
Accountability and Empathy
When I don’t have to talk to or work with my rage as much as I am right now, I get to talk to and work with my empathy – thankfully that’s the vast majority of the time.
One of the biggest “first steps” in anyone’s journey to becoming an empathetic leader is self-awareness. It’s so important that almost half of our Empathy Training program REWIRE focuses on heightening awareness of our behavior and mindsets, as it’s the only way to move forward.
How we’re wired drives how we show up in the world. Whether it’s through past experiences, use of available data, unconscious pattern recognition, you name it. But the more we can consciously identify how we’re wired, the more we can hold ourselves accountable for that wiring and its impact on the world around us.
With self-awareness, which is often coupled with discomfort (that’s ok! good even!), we’re able to identify intrinsic behaviors or thought patterns that may be inhibiting, allowing us to increase our empathetic outlook on the world around us, understand our place of power, and open a pathway to action and change.
You’ve followed me this far, through my rage, my frustrations, my calls to action, and my directives. Thank you. Rage is not often the place I tend to start, and it’s not where I intend to stop today. To bring this conversation back to a place of productive intention, I asked Corey this morning if he had a thought I might include that encompasses the intense urgency of Accountability and the thoughtful impact of Empathy. He gave me two, one of which is above.
The second one he offered to me – to US, to YOU – is so utterly powerful and demanding of us all that it is quite simply the only way to close, and to ask you to turn around and embrace 2023.
“Nature teaches us that beautiful outcomes are birthed under immense pressure. As leaders, we are changed by the stories or experiences we choose to let in. That empathy can make us uncomfortable; however, it’s necessary for radical change.”-Corey Ponder, Founder of Em|PACT Strategies and Senior Director of Empathy and Allyship at SWITCH