Diverse investing is not about lowering your standards, it’s about lifting your perspective — Inspirefest 2016

Inspirefest didn’t get its name for no reason. Attending the conference for the first time this year left me feeling not only inspired, but uplifted, educated, motivated, empowered, excited and most of all ambitious. Ambitious to drive diversity and inclusion at its core and derive the endless opportunities that diversity brings, and ambition to drive actions to make the changes necessary to improve diversity in every industry, and that is a key responsibility for everyone who attended the conference, Ann O’Dea, Founder of Inspirefest concluded on Friday evening. The event enabled attendees to build long lasting communities and relationships, but Ann emphasised that we now need to take action to begin making changes at every level in every organisation.

Each speaker was highly engaging and brought fresh perspectives to the table. From gaming to fashion to networking to the science of happiness, there was something for everyone at Inspirefest.

However, the panel that I was particularly interested in was the investor panel, for obvious reasons. The panel consisted of Sharon Vosmek, CEO at Astia Angels, Victoria Pettibone, MD at Astia Angels, Claudia Iannazzo, Partner at Pereg Ventures and Adam Quinton, Founder & CEO, Lucas Point Ventures, with Kara Swisher from Recode chairing the discussion. Vosmek began by speaking about unconscious bias and the need for education around VC as a viable career path. “Women need to be educated on why VC is a great industry”. Vosmek went on to discuss how there is “very little self-reflection and little room for discussion” in a typically structured VC firm. It’s like an 8–10 year marriage, where we typically look at the people we already know, whether consciously or unconsciously. Study after study has demonstrated that more diverse teams lead to greater performance. Vosmek poised the question that we have known this for over 15 years but yet, “nobody with capital or power have checked this box yet”. This highlights the work that remains to be done in the industry as the case for greater diversity becomes even more compelling.

Iannazzo added that in order to reach diversity targets, the industry needs to begin looking at “out of the box candidates. This does not mean that we have to lower the standards, its more about lifting our perspectives”. Recruitment needs to be re-invented, starting with less “male-dominated events”, such as golfing trips and football tournaments. Iannazzo said that we need to start shining a light on the problem, which is that the number of women in VC is actually declining which in turn leads to obvious social and economic problems.

“This does not mean that we have to lower the standards, its more about lifting our perspectives”

Iannazzo went on to emphasise that women need to be supported to go out and start their own funds instead of waiting to be let into the traditional ones if we want to see any major change. There is no lack of evidence to show that women are beginning to take action and disrupt the industry by doing just this. The emergence of female founded funds is on the rise and the ecosystem has exploded over the past few years. And there are not only funds, but accelerators, leadership programs, networking groups, media and competitions galore. Female Founders Fund, Golden Seeds and SoGal Ventures are just some of many VC funds that are aimed at investing in women-led firms. Global Invest Her helps female entrepreneurs get funded while many women VC’s are leaving the big players and setting up on their own; Jennifer Fonstad and Theresia Gouw of Aspect Ventures, Adele Oliva of 1315 Ventures, Aileen Lee ofCowboy Ventures, Susan Mason and Jodi Jahic of Aligned Partners, to name but a few. Yet, with all the support women receive and their success, access to venture capital remains a stubborn challenge.

There are not only funds, but accelerators, leadership programs, networking groups, media and competitions galore

Vosmek and Pettibone emphasised that their aim is to focus on who is around the table in order to create a network of men and women investors who want to invest in great ideas and great people. Angel investing is one area where women are making tremendous progress. A whopping 36% of all companies seeking angel funding in 2014 were female founded and 28% of all angel-backed companies are female founded. In large part, this is due to the dramatic rise in women angels. More than one in four angel investors (26%) are now women, an impressive 318% growth in the last 10 years. These trends offered some encouragement that things might be starting to change, but change in just one area of investing is simply not enough.

More than one in four angel investors (26%) are now women

The panellists offered some great insights into what’s being done in VC with regards to changing the gender ratio. Building a more diverse VC industry leads to improved performance, accomplishments, and financial rewards for everyone involved. We still have a long way to go but it is time for VC professionals to take action — the ultimate outcome of Inpirefest; have difficult conversations with colleagues, brainstorm ideas, introduce new initiatives, re-think the recruitment process, and keep demanding and working towards a more diverse ecosystem in the venture capital industry