Every year, to much fanfare, US business magazine Forbes publishes its Midas List. Named after the mythological King Midas – whose superpower, you’ll remember, was the ability to turn anything he touched into gold – the list ranks the most influential venture capitalists in the world.

On the 2022 list, just one of the top 25 VC investors was a woman. That’s the same as on the 2017 list, five years ago; the same as on the 2012 list too, as far as I can tell. In 2021, just 11 of the top 100 were women, one fewer than the year before.

It’s dismal. 

Data from Women in VC shows less than six percent of American venture firms are women-led, but that’s a picnic compared with the number of women-led companies receiving venture capital funding. Between 2011 and 2021, the percentage of VC dollars granted to women-only teams in the US ranged from 1.8 percent to 2.7 percent; it fell last year – to 2.0 percent.

No one’s counting in New Zealand, but there’s no indication things are different here. In fact, as Newsroom reported earlier this year, a 2021 research paper by the University of Auckland Business School’s Janine Swail called “Raising capital in Aotearoa New Zealand: Insights from women entrepreneurs”, suggests it’s just the same here.

Far too many white male funders are looking – possibly unconsciously, possibly not – to put their money with white male entrepreneurs. And they are reluctant to risk investing in a woman because, surely, she’ll just go off and have children. And you couldn’t have children and run a business too – not if you were a woman.

I kid you not. Swail’s experience from interviewing female business founders suggests while it is illegal for a potential boss to ask the ‘baby question’ in a job interview, it’s not even unusual from the mouth of a potential investor during a VC pitch.

Even Forbes called the situation “sobering”.

If you want more first hand stories, read “A bite of the profits”, Newsroom’s investigation into women entrepreneurs’ experiences in the food sector.

One small step

So, on the surface, the announcement this week of an ‘only-women-need-apply’ research commercialisation award from NZ deep-tech venture capital fund Pacific Channel is hardly earth-shattering. 

Valued at $100,000, it offers $5000 cash, $45,000-worth of expert advice and mentoring support, and the option of $50,000 investment from Pacific Channel for a female STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) researcher wanting to turn their science into a business.

Without at least another zero on the end it’s hardly going to move the dial in VC land.

“From the first meeting you are at a disadvantage. You don’t ‘look like’ a hard-tech entrepreneur.”
Professor Cather Simpson, Pacific Channel

But as Professor Cather Simpson, Pacific Channel partner and one of the country’s leading experts in lasers and photonic technology puts it, it’s a start. 

Cather Simpson: “I know first hand how tough the journey to commercialisation can be.” Photo: Supplied

Simpson is the founder of the Photon Factory laser lab at the University of Auckland and the chief science officer for two spin-off companies, Engender Technologies and Orbis Diagnostics. She knows what it’s like, not only being a woman doing science, but a woman wanting to commercialise that science. 

From the first meeting you are at a disadvantage, she told Newsroom. You don’t “look like” a hard-tech entrepreneur. 

“I’ve had people come on lab tours and talk to my junior (male) colleagues about the technology, rather than to me. When I walked into a room it was assumed I was a support person rather than a founder.”

Same story from Dr Shalini Divya, co-founder and CEO of early-stage battery technology startup Tasmanion, a company that has received VC funding from Pacific Channel. 

“If I need help I’m going to ask for it, but don’t think that means you can make key decisions on my behalf.” 
– Dr Shalini Divya, Tasmanion

Divya has experienced investors asking if she’s going to move overseas with her “boyfriend”, despite the person concerned not even being her partner, just someone who happened to be there. And she is used to advisers misreading ‘considered decision-making’ as ‘inexperienced helplessness’.

If it’s frustrating being a female entrepreneur, it’s even worse being a young woman of colour at the helm of a new technology business.

“If I need help I’m going to ask for it, but don’t think that means you can make key decisions on my behalf.

“Sometimes people get so protective of you they try to take decisions for you, rather than taking you into account.”

Part of the idea of the STEM commercialisation award is about changing the investment conversation, Simpson says.

“Decisions about whether to invest often involve intangibles like confidence in the founders, assessments of their experience and potential. That’s where women (and people of colour) often lose out – it’s when they are NOT in the room, and the conversations wind up and are shaded towards that “no” decision through (often unrecognised) bias.” 

Forbes called it “The illusion of venture capital for female founders”. It’s high time that illusion became a concrete (or even a golden) reality.

Entries for the award close on September 30, with the winner announced on October 27.

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

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