Project Sage 2.0: The rise of the intersectional venture fund

Image: Tracy Gray (left), founder of The 22 Fund, at the Kravis-de-Roulet Conference in 2018

In January, Wharton Social Impact Initiative and my firm, Catalyst at Large, released Project Sage 2.0, a global scan of 87 private equity, venture capital, and private debt funds that incorporate a gender lens in their investment strategy.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing with you what I believe are some of the most interesting themes to emerge from the study, starting today with the way that new forms of diversity are showing up in investment criteria — or as I put it in the title of this piece, the rise of the intersectional venture fund. (The views expressed here are my own as Catalyst at Large, and not with my Wharton Social Impact Initiative hat.)

This isn’t a new trend — we noted it last year in Sage 1.0 — but it’s one that just keeps growing. And the dynamic, diverse approaches to ethnic, racial, and other forms of diversity in the funds involved are well worth talking about.

Of the funds we surveyed in Project Sage 2.0, more than a quarter have an intersectionality agenda that goes beyond gender. They are explicit about saying they are paying attention to racial and ethnic diversity or LGBTQI diversity in their investments, either in the entrepreneurs they invest in, the target markets the portfolio is addressing, or both. And most (but not all) have diverse fund managers.

Some of the North American funds in our scan that take this approach include Reinventure Capital, The 22 Fund, Reign Ventures, Backstage Capital (which since our report was released has now launched in four new markets), Next Wave Impact, and Urban Innovation Fund. New Voices Fund didn’t make it into the survey due to timing, but also exemplifies this approach, with its focus on women of color. Other notable fund managers that didn’t make it into the scan for different reasons include the Impact America Fund and Illumen Capital.

There are also important initiatives like Pipeline Angels and Digital Undivided which are raising awareness, moving capital, and engaging investors around these issues in a powerful way, but which aren’t in Project Sage 2.0 because they don’t have funds or structured vehicles attached to them. I’ve also just learned about another initiative — Jump Canon, which has an intersectionality lens in the US. And the VC Pathways initiative, from Village Capital and UBS. And then you have initiatives like SheEO, which isn’t a structured vehicle in our scan because it does not return capital to investors, that has a tremendous track record on gender (100% women entrepreneurs) and diversity.

I’d like to learn more from the funds outside of North America about how they employ diversity criteria in their investment decisions as we didn’t see that in the data.

Some of the funds in the report are self identified as impact funds while others are more commercial first; some use language like “women or minority” while others prefer “diverse” or “underestimated founders.” Some are also explicitly raising from communities of color as investors. Many of them, although not all, prioritize racial and ethnic diversity in their fund management teams. But all of them are being explicit about their focus on not just gender, but ethnicity, race, and/or sexuality, as well.

The growth in these types of funds and initiatives reflects two broad shifts: the mainstreaming of US critical race scholar Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality in conversations about gender equality; and the growing recognition of black and Latinx markets, in North America.

On the social impact side, people are waking up to understand that if we want to lift all women — not just straight, cis, white women — we need to pay attention to factors beyond gender. At present just 0.2% of venture capital goes to women of color, an alarmingly small slice of the pie. As investors are thinking about these issues in other parts of their lives, they are increasingly wanting to incorporate them into their investment decisions as well.

On the financial side, there is a recognition of the sheer demographic shifts taking place in the United States, where African American and Latinx markets represent more than a $150 billion opportunity.

No matter how you slice it, it’s smart to be paying attention to these markets and these fund managers. And it is exciting to have intersectionality becoming more and more a part of the conversation. Now its time to see more money moving with more velocity into these funds, most of which are from first or second time fund managers. For anyone that thinks they would invest in these types of managers but just don’t know where to find them, you aren’t looking hard enough, and you’re missing out.

For more about and a copy of Project Sage 2.0, go to https://socialimpact.wharton.upenn.edu/research-reports/reports-2/project-sage-2/. For a spreadsheet of the funds included in the scan, email catalystatlargepa@gmail.com. Know about funds that we missed (see the full scan) ? Email us! Thanks.