Author Janine Firpo: Why We Need More Women Founders & Here Is What We Are Doing To Make That Happen
An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski
Make “You got this!” your mantra. Only when we believe in ourselves and our abilities can we make the rest of the world believe in us too. You do not have to be perfect or the perfect expert before you step into a challenge. All you have to do is to have faith in yourself, believe in the possible, and be bold. And, here is the secret, it gets easier with practice. So, go out there and be bold for yourself and for other women.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Janine Firpo.
Janine Firpo is an author and speaker who spent more than 20 years in executive roles at Hewlett-Packard, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and more. She is a values-aligned investor in companies that make the world a better place and is passionate about teaching women to learn how to invest their own money. Embodying these principles, Janine is releasing her first book, Activate Your Money — Invest to Grow Your Wealth and Build a Better World in May of 2021.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My current work is actually my third career, but I would not be doing it if the other two had not come before. My first career, which sprang out of nowhere, started in the early 1980s. I was in graduate school at the time working towards what I thought would become a PhD in Marine Biology, but was floundering because my heart was not in it. One day I was hanging out at a swimming pool in the middle of the day, because that is what you did in Florida in the summer, when a stranger and I started talking. When I told him of my uncertainty about my future, he said “Computers. They are the future.” It was like a scene out of “The Graduate.”
Mind you, this was in the late 1970s and computers meant mainframes, punch cards, and assembly language coding. But something in me clicked, and a year later I had a Masters in Biology, a Minor in Computer Science, and a job as a programmer.
Fast forward about 15 years. By then I had a solid career in high tech under my belt, most of it in Silicon Valley. I had coded, program managed, and trained. I had worked at Apple Computer, start-ups, and big corporations. It was a fascinating journey because throughout that entire time, the tech space was rapidly evolving and growing exponentially. It was great! But I was getting itchy again.
In early 1995, I ditched my job and set out on a solo backpacking trip through Sub-Saharan Africa. When I left, I and everyone I knew was working in the CD-ROM/multimedia industry. When I returned 5 months later the Internet had arrived at a pace that seemed almost overnight. CD-ROM was over. New opportunity abounded. But, something had I had already decided I was not returning to Silicon Valley. Something had shifted in me while I was in Africa. I had my sights set making a difference with my work and using my skills to tackle the challenges of poverty and injustice that I had witnessed during my travels. And that is what I have been doing one way or another ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
During my second career, I worked at the intersection of technology, business thinking, and international development. Although I worked all over the world, I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Due to the nature of my work, I had the opportunity to participate in many of the conversations that were taking place around the Silicon Valley in the late 1990s/early 2000s about what is now known as social enterprise and impact investing.
One of the conferences where these conversations were a common theme was the Global Philanthropy Conference. About ten years ago, I had a significant “aha” moment at that event. At that time — and even today — those involved in socially responsible investing tended to be foundations, institutional investors, and ultra-high net wealth individuals. Although I was none of those, sitting in that conference, I realized that while I had made this huge shift in my career to address social issues, my money was actually working against me because it was invested in companies and industries that were helping to create the very problems I was actively trying to solve. In that moment, I made a personal commitment to align all of my own money with my values. And that decision — although — it took more than a decade to manifest became the basis of my third career and the work that I am doing now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the activities I am involved in these days, and this gets to the heart of our conversation about female founders, is angel investing. As I started looking more at the question of where my money was invested and how it could be used to greater purpose without giving up financial return, I decided to become an angel investor. And, because they are so underserved by both the banking industry and venture capitalists, I decided to invest almost exclusively in female entrepreneurs.
It is really fun meeting the amazing women who were starting companies, pursuing both their passions and purpose. Seeing so much promise and potential was pretty heady stuff. And so, like many early angels, I allowed my emotions to take over. One founder I learned about was working on a business related to women and their money — something that I had spent a lot of time focused on myself. We were very aligned in our visions and goals around the issue. I liked the entrepreneur, loved her concept, and jumped in — without doing my homework first. Big mistake! Six months later, that business was failing and my investment ended up as a total loss.
While my emotions still jump into the fray, I now know that I need to let them take a back seat while I do the more thoughtful analysis on product/market fit, competitive landscape, financials, and other aspects of due diligence.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Early in my career, I experienced some pretty blatant gender discrimination. At one start-up with about 40 employees, I had a boss who made some very inappropriate comments while simultaneously threatening me a bit. What is particularly shocking about this incident was not so much that it happened, but that it happened at a firm with a female cofounder. As soon as I walked out of my boss’ office, I walked into the co-founder’s office and told her exactly what had just happened. A few days later, my boss was no longer at the company and I had his job.
The way that incident played out made me extremely grateful to my company’s co-founder and it taught me the power we have as women when we support each other. It was also one of the first significant promotions I had received in my career. When I was able to step into the role with no preparation and be successful in it, it also gave me the confidence I needed to break future barriers that were placed in my way.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“The Beardstone Ladies Common-Sense Investment Guide: How we Beat the Stock Market — and How You Can Too.” The book came out in the early 1990s and chronicled the experiences of a group of women in the Mid-West who started an investment club to teach themselves how to invest in the stock market. Their guide did the pre-Internet equivalent of going viral. It led to the formation of thousands of women-led investment clubs all over the country. I was in one in San Francisco, that we called Fog Bank. A group of twelve women would get together once a month. We would have dinner and wine, catch-up on each other’s lives, and then get down to business. I learned an incredible amount, made friends, grew more confident, and had fun.
The book and that experience were part of the reason that I wrote Activate Your Money. I wanted to create the investment guide that women of today need, and I wanted to put the infrastructural elements in place to help them learn together.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Right now, one of my favorites is from Melinda Gates. She said, “When money flows into the hands of women who have the authority to use it, everything changes.” I like that quote so much, that I included it in my book.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I don’t believe the problem is women being held back from founding companies. The issue is that these founders are held back because they cannot raise enough money to be successful. In 2020, only 2.3% of all venture capital in the United States was invested in companies with female founders. 2.3%! And if you look at the percentage that went to black women, you are looking at fractions of 1%. Is that because there are so few female founders starting businesses? No. It is in part due to bias in the system — both conscious and unconscious. And it is due to the fact that current financial structures used to support new businesses don’t meet the needs of many founders.
Female founders are out there. They are just not “seen” in the same way as male founders. Nor are they interviewed in the same way. The Harvard Business Review found male founders tend to be asked questions about the opportunities inherent in their business model, while female founders are asked to articulate the risks.
In addition, when we think about investing in private companies, we are often referring to the venture capital model. However, that approach is appropriate for less than 1% of all the businesses that are started in this country each year. What happens to the other 99%? Where do they obtain the capital they need to build and grow their businesses?
In my opinion, a few things have to change. First, this inequity between how male and female founders needs to be acknowledged. The first step in making any significant change is realizing that there is a problem. Second, more women with the financial means and start-up experience are needed to invest in and support female entrepreneurs. We need to start building a culture and network of female angel investors and VCs. And third, we need more creative financial vehicles to support businesses that are not likely to fit the VC model or become unicorns
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
I am tackling all three of the solutions that I just mentioned. Through my book, partnerships, and broader efforts, I am working to raise awareness about the stories we tend to tell ourselves about women and money. These are often stories that hold women back. For example, only 9% of women believe they are better investors than men. But when we do invest, we outperform men. We are also told that we are not as capable when it comes to running businesses, but research shows that when we do, we outperform. A study by S&P Global Market Intelligence showed that companies with female CEOs had superior stock performance. The same was true for firms with female CFOs. So awareness first.
As a Lead Investor with the Next Wave Impact Fund, I am working to encourage and educate women to become angel investors. The fund is made up of 10 lead investors and 99 limited partners, each of whom invested a minimum of $10,000 per year over a 3-year period. Over that time, we invested in 16 social ventures — all led by women. The LPs who were interested had the opportunity to learn-by-doing during the investment period. They could be as involved in the sourcing, due diligence, and investment processes as they wanted.
In my role as Chair of the Board for Zebras Unite.org, I am working with a group of innovative, boundary-breaking women who are building the community, culture, and capital structures non-unicorn companies (which they have labeled Zebras) need to grow and thrive.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
As I mentioned earlier, there are already a lot of female founders. They are building all kinds of businesses across all kinds of verticals. Of course, it is important to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs, but I also believe that we need to help the female founders that are already in the market be more successful.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
- Invest in them. In 2019, just 2.8% of venture funding went to female founders. In 2020, that figure dropped to 2.3%. And the statistics are even worse for founders of color. If we want female founders to succeed, we need to invest in their businesses.
- Broaden the net. As a friend recently reminded me, we tend to have network bias. When we source entrepreneurs, we look to our personal networks for help. But if those networks are homogeneous in terms of gender, race, and geography, it is not surprising that the deals we find are homogeneous as well. If you want to invest in a diverse mix of founders and businesses, broaden your network.
- Look beyond the unicorns. Women are starting businesses in all kinds of verticals, across all types of sectors. Not all businesses need to grow exponentially to be successful for the entrepreneur or her investors. Less 1% of start-ups receive venture funding. There is a lot of opportunity in the other 99%.
- Build the ecosystem. Although capital is critical, female founders also need business support and access. They need accelerators, follow-on funds, debt capital — all the same infrastructural elements that exist in support of their male counterparts. These structures need to be modified and expanded to not only include women, but to become safe places they can thrive.
- Make “You got this!” your mantra. Only when we believe in ourselves and our abilities can we make the rest of the world believe in us too. You do not have to be perfect or the perfect expert before you step into a challenge. All you have to do is to have faith in yourself, believe in the possible, and be bold. And, here is the secret, it gets easier with practice. So, go out there and be bold for yourself and for other women.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It is my hope that I, along with other like-minded women (and men), create a community which catalyzes a movement to help people recognize that how we spend and invest our money matters. When we make conscious decisions about the people, places, and things we put our dollars towards we have the collective power to make a difference. When we do this as individuals, we realize that our money is an extension of who we are and how we show up in the world, and the things we care about are uplifted. When we do this collectively, we have the potential to change entire industries and create a more just and sustainable world for us all. After all, power flows where money goes.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’ve always been impressed with the work of Oprah Winfrey. She faced many obstacles as a Black woman but she persevered. For decades she has been uplifting others and trying to make the world a better place. Those are admirable traits, and while everyone sees the success, I’d love to have a conversation with her to learn of some of the struggles along the way to being the icon she is now.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can currently follow me through my LinkedIn page or Twitter account. Just search for my full name: Janine Firpo. After May 11th, they can also connect with me at any time through ActivateYourMoney.net, the website we are in the process of developing to go along with my book.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.