Interview with Joanna Kirk : “Venture capital can and must be a growth lever for female founders”

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Along her career, Joanna Kirk has worn many hats — from PR strategy & influence to empowering refugees & displaced people with technology, this serial entrepreneur is nothing short of inspiring!

“I work with and represent international players in France and Europe, connecting them with local Venture Capital funds, tech companies, ecosystem leaders and ambassadors, …”, explains Joanna. After founding her PR & Influence consulting business, she got involved in a first non-profit organization, StartHer, which aims at promoting inclusivity and giving visibility to women in tech through international events, content, education, network and community. Shortly afterwards, Joanna also heads up the French Chapter of Techfugees, which organizes hackathons and events to empower refugees through technology across the world.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Joanna and discuss her views on inclusion, diversity, female founders and the importance or role models in education.

Hanoi Innovation Summit (HIS): we’re curious to learn more about how you can empower refugees through technology — can you tell us a bit more on this?

JK: We started by asking ourselves how we could bring something helpful from our tech community to refugees and displaced people — for instance, we realized that organizing hackathons, opening our networks and transmitting our know-how was one of the most valuable things we could do to support existing projects with a specific technology or some expert knowledge to move forward.

Equally important is to be mindful of inclusion from the very start. When we launched our first event in Paris in March 2016, we made sure to gather entrepreneurs, tech-savvy people, but also NGOs and refugees, to avoid building things FOR refugees, and rather working WITH them. This is one of the main values we carry: co-constructing and innovating with the people who have been through the status of refugee or who are on the field, and ensuring we are listening to what people truly need rather than building apps no one will use.

HIS: co-constructing is all about taking into account people’s diversity — but beyond events such as these, how can companies enhance diversity and inclusion?

JK: In 2018, we launched the #TF4Women Fellowship programme for refugee women who want to pursue a career in tech. This year again, every Thursday evening for 6 months, 14 fellows take part in training, mentoring and networking sessions in a series of key tech companies across Paris, with the aim of being eventually recruited in a tech company. We think it is important not only to empower entrepreneurs, but also people who want to join innovative companies — bringing diverse profiles into an organization can foster many things including creativity and competitiveness.

During a StartHer conference, II recently met a female founder who shared some insightful wisdom with me: she had experienced first-hand how in a startup, from Day 1, if the co-founders place inclusion and diversity at the very heart of their strategy, the first employees will reflect these values and instill a culture of diversity which will be strongly rooted in the organization once it scales. Fostering such diversity can be difficult for large companies, which, even if they launch internal initiatives, may have a harder time getting things moving.

HIS: do you have any examples of best practices to try and overcome these difficulties?

JK: The best examples I have come across are when the founders or management set the example. I think this sends a powerful message to the teams. I also think that it is useful to set up times dedicated to communication, where people can listen to each other and learn from each other. These moments are especially efficient to help people understand their peers’ perspective and be aware of potential biaise in certain situations.

HIS: is Europe ahead of the game when it comes to diversity?

JK: The european tech ecosystem clearly lacks diversity : only 15% of european co-founders are women (2nd European Start-up Monitor), of all funds raised by European VC-backed companies in 2018, 93% went to all-male founding teams (State of European Tech study by Atomico) and there are fewer women in tech now than in past years. Considering that Tech is part of our everyday life and concerns us all, it is crucial that women and profiles from all origins and backgrounds are represented in this sector and the change that comes with it.

It’s not only about the number of women and diverse profiles in Tech, but also the roles. In France for instance there are few women in C-level and management roles, and even fewer on boards. Highlighting role models, focusing on education at an early age and working on female funding are three things we can do to tackle this.

HIS: how do you tackle these matters?

JK: With StartHer, we have a new programme called StartHer Academy. We bring in a variety of different Tech profiles to teach and introduce pupils (age 13–15) to Tech and entrepreneurship in schools. Importantly, our speakers are all female, but we do this in classes with girls and boys. We believe men are part of the solution and that we need to work together to move forward. It is super important to encourage youngsters to pursue careers in tech, and to have female role models. Our conviction here is that the best way to move forward is to establish an open dialogue between everyone to avoid biaise at an early age.

The other main challenge we need to tackle is the polarization of investments. Every year, StartHer co-edits a study with KPMG where we list the level of investment and funding rounds achieved by women — spoiler alert: it’s still way too low! We should talk more about the issues women face when raising funds, and the small number of female investors in funds.

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Hanoi Innovation Summit is the new must-see global event for innovation in Vietnam. It will take place from the 29th to the 30th of August, 2019.

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