Start-ups led by women receive just 18 percent of angel investment in NZ. Business editor Nikki Mandow reveals the added challenges that make it so hard for women to establish food businesses here.

It was always a weird idea – or so my male friends reckoned. A week eating food from companies owned, or at the very least run, by women. Why? Because I wanted to see how easy (or not) it was.

Spoiler alert: it turns out it isn’t at all easy.

And I wanted to feed that highly subjective and incomplete dataset into the wider narrative around the paucity of women at board and executive level in businesses, and the difficulties faced by women entrepreneurs. 

Here’s the week that was.

Day 1: The beginning

I start with two phone calls. One to the Food and Grocery Council and one to my friend Tesh Randall, who founded and runs Raglan Food Co and puts together annual getaways of New Zealand food entrepreneurs. She knows lots of foodies. Both she and the council send me lists of what Randall calls “lady brands”.

What’s evident is women are making some amazing gourmet products – mueslis and cereal bars, chia drinks, chocolate, salami, chips, pestos and spreads, honey, plant-based meals, dessert slices – and more. Breakfast will be easy. Dinners might be more difficult. I might struggle to get ordinary staples: fruit and vegetables, meat, milk, butter, oil, eggs, tea, coffee.

I have Yum granola with Boring Oat Milk, Raglan Food Co yogurt and Chia Sisters juice for breakfast. Then I have them for lunch. I have Verkerks salami and fried marrow for dinner. The marrow is cheating – it’s out of my garden. But I argue (to myself) that I grew that oversized courgette, and I’m a woman.

To start with the stats

The Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs is a good place to start putting my day into context. The annual survey compares and ranks the representation of female business leaders in 58 economies and looks at how countries compare in terms of factors supporting or hindering women entrepreneurship – factors like access to capital, government support for SMEs, and enrolment in tertiary education.

And in New Zealand, things are good. The latest survey, out last month ranks New Zealand second overall, after the US and just ahead of Canada. 

We got bonus points for the Government’s Covid support for businesses and the quality of our governance, and were ranked seventh in the index for number of women business owners (31.9 percent). We also did well under “women business leaders”, at 42.1 percent.

Percentage of women business leaders 2021 v 2020. Source: MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs

“This is a remarkable achievement given 75 percent of leadership positions such as senior officials, managers and CEOs are typically assumed by men,” the report said.

Still, before we get too smug, a Stuff article in 2019 noted there were more chief executives of NZX-listed companies called Mark than there were female CEOs – by some margin.

A survey released last year by HR consultant Stephanie Love noted there were only four women CEOs of NZX50 companies (8 percent), At the same time, women made up just 25 percent of people on executive leadership teams and 16 percent of chief financial officers.

Day 2: Hunger

I receive a hot tip from a colleague about Midnight Baker, a small woman-owned bread company baking out of premises just round the corner from the Newsroom Auckland office. They are sold out at Farro, but I pounce on the one remaining loaf at Commonsense Organics, where store manager Teuila Field directs me to a few (but not many) other products: Pasture Poultry eggs, Hunt & Gather honey, limes. At least I won’t get scurvy.

I have avocado on toast for lunch, after seeing on the Food and Grocery Council list that the general manager at packhouse Seeka is a woman. Too late I search the company website and realise Verena Cunningham is indeed GM, but the CEO is a bloke. Bugger.

I recheck Verkerks salami, and find with relief the company is indeed run by a woman, Mary-Anne Verkerk, the daughter of a Dutch master butcher who emigrated to Christchurch after the Second World War.

I have eggs, toast, salami and courgette for dinner.

To grow or not to grow: Midnight Baker

“I was suffering from bad allergies,” says Midnight Baker founder Yeshe Dawa. “I was looking for a way to heal my body with good food, but the gluten free breads I found all used highly refined ingredients. I couldn’t find what I needed, so I made it myself.”

Six years on, Midnight Baker now has four staff and four different bread products. Early growth was “explosive”, but Covid hit the business hard, as Dawa mainly supplied the cafe and hospitality market.

Yeshe Dawa worries about fitting kids around growing the business. Photo: Supplied

Now Dawa finds herself thinking about the next stage: to grow or not to grow?

“I’ve seen my peers engage in this process and it’s very challenging. Because it’s just me, it can feel daunting. Sometimes I think I’d love to grow further, expand the range of products, but I’d need bigger premises, machinery, staff, capital – it would mean large-scale investment to do that. 

“Theoretically, I could expand and expand, but sometimes I wonder, do I want to be that big? There might come a point where I’m happy where I am; I’m making enough money and feel fulfilled with where I am.”

Dawa doesn’t have children yet, but that’s a consideration too.

“Having kids and being a small business owner – you really have to think about that. How are you going to run it while you’re away on maternity leave? How is my business going to fit around my home life and vice versa?”

Day 3: Must be time for a drink

I need a glass of wine, and hunting around I find there are a few choices: Jules Taylor, Soho, Jane Hunter. in a quick hunt I ring a couple of bars before I go out to find one that stocks women winemakers. People think I’m a bit odd.

I hear about Three Fates, a small Hawkes Bay wine growing and winemaking business started in June 2020 by Holly Girven Russell, Casey Motley, and Hester Nesbitt.

Between them, they’ve worked in all sorts of wineries all over the world “but we are united in our approach to focus on careful, gentle winemaking”, their website says.

“Respect is shown to the fruit, letting the grapes show themselves through fermentation and into the bottle with little intervention necessary along the way.”

The Three Fates’ first vintage, 2021, is mostly sold out. Photo:

The wine is pretty pricey for a Wednesday night: $30 a bottle.

It’s also pretty much sold out.

The funding conundrum

Mary Jo Vergara is a relatively rare breed: a young, female bank economist. She likes the normal economist-type things – the excitement of a data release day, for example – but she’s also interested in the human side of economics. She’s written about the disproportionate impact of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns on women’s jobs. 

I ask her why she thinks I’m having trouble finding much variety in my women-only diet. 

Maybe home ownership has something to do with it, she suggests.

CoreLogic figures show women make up 17.4 percent of people who own a house on their own, compared to 19.2 percent for men. 

“Low home ownership rates can make finding funding difficult. I do hope this is changing.”

The Covid pandemic has boosted women setting up their own business, Mary Jo Vergara says. Photo: Supplied

Vergara also mentions a silver lining from the lockdown’s hit to female employment – the growth in women working for themselves. 

Between March 2020 and March 2021, the self-employed workforce grew by 7.5 percent, Vergara says, with women accounting for 70 percent (17,500) of that growth. 

“Modern-day technology and the rise of social media has certainly provided a helping hand with the venture into self-employment.”

Figures show about 13 percent of all workers are self employed, and almost 12 percent of self-employed women work in retail, accommodation, and food services industry, she says. 

“Given the nature of the pandemic employment losses, I suspect most growth would have been concentrated in the latter two industries. So it’s good to see more women move into that space. But as always, there’s room for improvement.”

Day 4: (Slightly) expanding options

I look again at my lady brand lists and discover some more options.

I put Pitango soup, San Remo pasta (the country manager is a woman) and Verkerks salami (I’ve run out) on the family shopping list and send the 18-year-old to the supermarket.

He comes back without the pasta or the salami. I consider writing him out of my will; lucky for him the soup is delicious.

Food for good: Boring Oat Milk

The Mastercard index report states “almost half (47.8 percent) of female entrepreneurs report being driven by a desire to contribute to the greater societal good”. Looking at New Zealand food providers, the situation here is no different. It might be health, or the planet, a desire to reduce plastics, or pay the living wage, or all of the above. There are wider values behind most of the companies whose founders I speak to.

Tesh Randall at Raglan Food Co reckons it’s something to do with the female nurturing instinct. She started her yoghurt business because her then partner couldn’t eat dairy. The company has since become a B-Corp – a global certification programme measuring a company’s entire social and environmental impact.

“I see that come through in my female-led foodie founder friends. They take great care of their staff, they want to do the right thing.”

For Morgan Maw, it’s oats. Yup, oats. 

The Guardian’seat this to save the world” sustainable food list contains oats high up; the Washington Post uses the word “superfood”. Cheap, good for the soil, versatile, yummy. Even better (from a local perspective) when the oats are grown and used in New Zealand.

Maw’s first product was Bonnie oatcakes, but four years ago she realised oatcakes were “never going to be more than a fancy cracker”. To scale up her business she needed an everyday product. 

It took Morgan Maw three years and the same number of funding rounds to find a suitable investor. Photo: Supplied

Oat milk from Swedish company Oatly was going gangbusters overseas – there were shortages in Britain, for goodness’ sake.

“And I thought, Well, how hard can it be. You get some oats and some water and I’m sure a few other ingredients, and we’ve got lots of manufacturing in New Zealand, and we do lots of UHT lines …”

Boring Oat Milk got initial funding from Callaghan Innovation, and Maw took a trip to Sweden to try oat milks and check out the market. 

Then she went looking for investment to get the company going.

And that’s when it got super-hard.

Raising money was ‘just so painful’

For a start, raising capital for a food business is notoriously hard, because angel investors and venture capitalists prefer whizz bang new tech inventions which will become The Next Big Thing and (hopefully) make loads of money fast.

By contrast, launching a food product tends to be expensive and low margin, it’s not always easy to find a scaleable product where the manufacturer can add a lot of value to the raw materials.

Food companies are more of a brand play, says Rudi Bublitz, the so-called ‘chief cat herder’ for Flying Kiwi Angels, a group of around 70 early stage investors.

Angel investor Rudi Bublitz says only around one in four start-ups he sees are driven by women. Photo: Supplied

There are some specialised fast moving consumer goods funds around the world, with particular expertise in food manufacturing, he says. But it’s not that common.

“A yoghurt is a yoghurt. Success depends on consumer taste and the outcome is fickle.”

Maw was up against that. But she was also up against being a woman – even worse, a young woman.

The first investors were two men who had started up a private equity fund. They were always trying to make her take on a general manager to run the business, she says.

“Typically they would suggest a male, middle-aged white guy. They definitely didn’t have belief in me.”

“I think when it comes to raising capital, there’s a real ‘fake it till you make it’ kind of mentality …  A lot of my male contemporaries are just really good at that.”
– Morgan Maw, Boring Oat Milk

Just to be clear, this is a business which once it finally got the investment it needed, looks set to go from zero to $5 million turnover in the first year. That’s with a woman at the helm.

Why was it so hard?

“I think when it comes to raising capital, there’s a real ‘fake it till you make it’ kind of mentality,” Maw says. “But I was very open – with what I was good at but also what I was not. And I think that’s a really female thing. There are so many studies that show that women typically undersell themselves.

“But for me it wasn’t about underselling myself, I was just being really really realistic. And I think a lot of my male contemporaries are just really good at, I guess, faking it till they make it.

“It’s a man’s world –- definitely.”

After the first investor round fell over, and following more months of mainly fruitless conversations, phone calls, pitch meetings and coffees, Maw found another potential backer. This time it was an already-established business with a bunch of different brands that Boring, and Maw, would hopefully fit in with.  

Only when she got down to the nitty gritty with the owners did it become clear the fit was totally wrong.

“For me, my values around changing the farming landscape and New Zealand food are really important. And the same around recyclable packaging and manufacturing in New Zealand, even though it’s more expensive than overseas. But for a lot of people in this industry it’s about trying to get as much margin as possible, and they wanted to get it made overseas and put it in Tetra Pak, and that was non-negotiable for me. So I was like ‘See you later’.”

In the end Morgan Maw got investment from Apollo Foods, which manufactures her product. Photo: Supplied

While this second investor wasn’t an all-male company, the CEO was a guy, and in the driving seat when it came to decisions, Maw says.

“So the third time round, I was quite clear who I wanted to do business with, and I had a ‘no dickhead’ policy as my number one.”

Maw did eventually find an investment partner: Hastings-based food and drink manufacturer Apollo Foods, which was making Boring Oat Milk.

“They were going to be my contract manufacturer, but we ended up deciding to partner together in August last year. It’s a majority female-led business and there’s incredible diversity in there in terms of ethnicity, and there’s an incredible amount of trust and empathy within the business.”

She says the whole process of starting the company took three years and was very stressful.

“It was extremely difficult to raise money. It was just so painful.”

Day 5: The Big Dinner

Breakthrough day. My new favourite person, Teuila Field from Commonsense Organics, gets in touch.

“After you left the store I had a think about your women’s food only challenge and I can’t believe I forgot to put you onto Vicky Ha’s House of Dumplings range.”

Field sends me a new list, which includes – hallelujah – three types of Ha’s dumplings and accompanying sauce, OOB frozen fruit and vegetables, Over the Moon cheeses, She Universe chocolates and Mamia’s Ethiopian sauces. 

Reading the story behind Mamia’s Ethiopian sauce range. Photo: Jean Bell

Mamia means ‘mother’ and the main recipe is adapted by creator Yeshi Taye from a similar dish her mother, Almaz, used to make when Taye was a child. Almaz died in Sudan five years after then-11-year-old Taye and four of her siblings arrived in New Zealand as refugees in 1998. Taye still misses her mum and the sauces are a tribute.

“I would cook the sauce for my friends and make wat [a sort of stew] with meat or lentils,” Taye told NZ Life and Leisure magazine. “One day, my friend asked, ‘Is there sugar in it? No. Is it gluten-free? Yes. Why don’t you cook the sauce and sell it?’ As a joke, I said, ‘Okay, sure.’”

At Commonsense Organics and – at last – a full(ish) shopping basket. Photo: Jean Bell

Mamia’s sauces won best new product in the Healthy Foods Awards in 2018 and gold in the Outstanding NZ Food Producer Award in 2019. 

I put all my new treasures together and have a four-course homemade dinner with a friend – dumplings and dipping sauce, vegetables with Ethiopian curry sauce, cheese, and then chocolate. It feels like a feast.

Male, scale

It’s not scientific, but I start thinking about some of the big brands associated in my mind with women founders – Lisa’s hummus, My Food Bag. These are examples of companies which, as part of the process of growing bigger, were bought by companies run by men. Because by-and-large, medium-sized and bigger companies are owned or run by men. 

In other cases, a male CEO might take over a woman-owned business, or the company has to take on a bunch of male investors who then start calling the shots.

Lisa Er sold to Sanitarium Health Foods in 2003; the top executives are men. 

My Food Bag was listed on the NZX and ASX in 2021. Founders Nadia Lim, Cecilia Robinson and Theresa Gattung now own less than 5 percent. The chair, CEO, CFO, chief digital officer and head of supply chain are all men.

Day 6: Compromise

I’m out with the family when the kids clamour for ice cream. I buy a Tip Top bar on a stick. Tip Top is owned by Nestlé and Nestlé’s New Zealand chief executive is a woman, Jennifer Chappell. It takes me about five seconds to make up my mind that’s okay.

In a man’s world

Some more statistics: 

► In 2018, a Boston Consulting Group study reported women entrepreneurs generate more revenue than their male counterparts despite receiving lower financial backing. For every $1 of investment raised, women-owned ventures generated $0.78 in revenue, the study says, compared with $0.31 generated by male-owned ventures. 

► A study by Angel Association New Zealand the same year found women-led ventures received just 18 percent of angel investment in New Zealand. 

► Globally, in 2020, just 2 percent of venture capital funding went to female founders, according to Lauren Fong, who runs ArcAngels, a New Zealand-based woman-only investment fund and network. And one of the key contributors to this disparity is unconscious bias, Fong says. 

A Columbia & Harvard study [“Male and female entrepreneurs get asked different questions by VCs – and it affects how much funding they get”] reported 66 percent of female entrepreneurs are asked ‘prevention questions’ when pitching for investment, as opposed to the ‘promotion questions’ asked to men. 

“For example, VCs are likely to ask women negative questions such as ‘How will you prevent your company from failure?’ versus men being asked positive questions such as ‘What does growth look like in 10 years’ time?” 

In July 2021, the University of Auckland Business School’s Janine Swail published a study. Called “Raising capital in Aotearoa New Zealand: Insights from women entrepreneurs”, the research came from Swail’s interviews with 26 women entrepreneurs and 26 investors (12 women, 14 men) in 2018-2019.

Her study is a window on the world of women trying to start and expand businesses. 

Janine Swail wanted to address structural gender biases and inspire women entrepreneurs through her research. Photo: Supplied

There’s the lack of diversity in investor forums: one woman remembers a pitch panel with 10 people, all of them white, all over 50 and eight of them men.

And that matters, the study found. Traditional investors are (perhaps subconsciously) looking for a “certain kind of investment and a certain kind of founder,” one entrepreneur said.

“I think female investors have a slightly different take on investments,” another one said. “Where male investors might be more traditionally focused in terms of: ‘How many users have you got? What return are you getting? How are you growing? What’s your pathway to other markets?’ In my experience, female investors look more holistically at the founder – who they are and what they can bring to the table.”

“Female investors are more easily able to resonate and relate to women who are pitching, and I think get a better sense of what a woman is capable of,” said a third.

Tesh Randall is often the only woman in the room in business meetings. Photo: Supplied

It’s not just investment, Raglan Food Co’s Tesh Randall says. It’s a man’s world day-to-day too.

“I just find I’m always outnumbered. If I go into a meeting with an accounting firm, or a law firm, there will tend to be more men in the room and often I’m the only female. A lot of the suppliers we deal with are all male-dominated – engineering or packaging or labelling businesses. But I think it’s changing – we are moving in the right direction.”

Raglan Food Co has just appointed a general manager to run the expanding business – they chose one of the few female candidates, because her values more closely aligned with those of the company, which is a B-Corp, Randall says.

The expansion into the US is also being led by a woman.

“Anyone looking to get involved with us in the future would see a very strongly female-led company. I hope they would be interested and intrigued by that and maybe even come on board because of it, and all the different things that brings with it.”

Subconscious bias

Perhaps the most shocking part of the University of Auckland research relates to conscious and subconscious gender bias. You only have to look at the comments quoted in the study:

► “The questions I have include, ‘Who looks after your children? Are you in a relationship? How are you going to travel with children?’ Do they ask my male counterparts these questions?”  

► “When he first met me [lead investor] I was wearing something very bright and he said to me, ‘Look Deborah, when I take you to meet my friends [other investors] you need to dress more conservatively … and don’t mention that you’ve got kids.’”

► “I met with one investor who said he was really interested … and he said, ‘Oh, and I’ve got one last question, how old are you?’ I said 29. And he asked, ‘When are you planning on having children, because this will affect whether or not I invest.’”

► “The worst comment that I got from a high-profile angel investor was that I should tell people I’m single because I’d probably raise more capital.”

“The worst comment that I got from a high-profile angel investor was that I should tell people I’m single because I’d probably raise more capital.”
– ‘Insights from women entrepreneurs’ study

One young female entrepreneur learnt things went better if she primed the investor panel in advance that she was a woman. The no-surprises approach.

Things are better than they were, one founder said. Sometimes being a female-led project could be an advantage, as people were looking for more diversity, or for the values-led propositions that can often go with women in businesses.

But juggling their business around the needs of family, particularly children, is also a problem when you are trying to scale up, Swail’s research shows.

“I am planning to raise up to a million, that is gonna commit me to producing a $10 million company,” one entrepreneur told her. “And that is a hell of a thing to do to yourself. It’s a hell of a thing to do to your partner and your kids. 

“I get the impression women generally weigh things up in terms of their collective family and commitments. Whereas men are more likely to just assume that someone’s got their back.”

It’s certainly not a level playing field yet, as one older founder said.

“We [women] all make our own choices, we can get funding, we don’t have to get our husbands to secure our mortgages anymore. A lot of people really do think that the job’s been done but I think the minute you start thinking that, then you stop making an effort … it is the unconscious bias that’s killing it… It’s got a long way to go.” 

Day 7: Day of reckoning

Final day, and I’m pretty much in the groove with my new diet. There is food in the fridge and freezer I know I can eat.

I’ve tried some delicious food I’ll definitely eat again, and learned (second hand) about the good, the bad and the ugly of being a woman food producer. 

But it’s not been easy. Mostly I’ve been able to get yummy treats and delicacies, and a few main dishes – soup and dumplings. But what’s missing is the staples I’m used to: flour, sugar, milk, butter, meat, fruit and veges (apart from frozen), oil, rice, tea, coffee.

Finding food has also been time-consuming, and expensive.

The food products made by women-owned companies tended to be top quality but relatively expensive. Photo: Nikki Mandow

A loaf of bread at the supermarket might be $3-$4; my Freedom Loaf is $16. A 500g pack of standard frozen peas is around $2.50, my OOB organic ones are $5. A jar of supermarket curry sauce might be $5; my Mamia Ethiopian sauce is $11. Countdown’s double cream brie wheel is $4.20, Over the Moon’s triple cream wheel is $10.80. And so it goes on.

I’m not knocking the female producers – they produce amazing food and I don’t begrudge spending the money. But I suspect my food shopping has cost somewhere between two and three times more than it would do on an average week.

That meant changing my original plan. I thought at first the whole family could try the women-only food week. I quickly realised it would be too expensive, and too hard catering for our various dietary requirements.

I enjoyed the challenge. But a week was enough. Tomorrow it’s going to be awesome to just open the fridge or go to a store and grab whatever I want to eat. And not have to Google anything. 

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

Leave a comment