More than a Token: Why I’m Betting on Female Leaders

Amy Wildstein
springboardgrowthcapital
5 min readAug 20, 2020

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Amy Wildstein with Payal Kadakia, Founder and Chairman of ClassPass.

A certain female leader has recently found herself under the microscope, with her behaviors analyzed under an umbrella of contradictions. She’s been praised as “incisive” and “charismatic,” while also described as “angry” and “disrespectful” for her pointed questions. She’s been called “too ambitious” (as if that’s a negative quality), yet criticized for not taking an assertive enough stance. Is she leadership material?

Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for VP in 2020, is a living embodiment of some of the most challenging aspects of female leadership. As the first Indian and Black female candidate on a major party ticket, she redefines what the role looks like, by definition. The contradictory descriptions highlight an unconscious reality: leadership qualities that are celebrated in men are often perceived differently when displayed by women.¹ If only we could widen our range, and long-held visions of leadership, more women would be seen as authentic, capable and boundary-pushing leaders.

I believe that more visible examples of women in leadership positions will allow for these historical norms to be adjusted over time. I co-founded SGC to provide growth equity to market-leading brands and consumer-facing technology companies, and notably requiring portfolio companies to have a key woman in the C-suite. While each of SGC’s investments to date, including those in The RealReal, ClassPass, Hint, AQUIS, and Fleur du Mal, are in companies founded by women — our requirement is simply that each company have a woman in a key role in the C-suite, with an equity stake that is commensurate with her position. While providing investment capital and support, we seek to elevate the women leaders in our portfolio while building the iconic brands of tomorrow.

Being the Token

Having landed in private equity right out of college in 1992 — dubbed “The Year of the Woman” by The Washington Post, believe it or not — I can relate to the challenge of being the token woman in the room. I started in an analyst class of just four at Blackstone, which had less than a hundred employees in the whole firm, and unsurprisingly, I was the only woman investment professional at that time.

We had just closed on a third fund of $1.3 billion, and I found myself in the company of brilliant colleagues. I was on a plane to Mexico nearly immediately, in meetings with management teams, clients and service providers on a regular basis. I had an opportunity to represent the firm in conversations with CEOs, often on my own, and was in the investment committee meetings from day one.

While I was struck by the effectiveness of the nimble, entrepreneurial culture that has served the firm so well — evidenced by the over $500 billion in assets under management today — the challenge of being the sole woman professional was daunting, and the lack of women in portfolio company management had a compounding effect.

When I moved on from Blackstone, the scarcity of women in private equity continued to shape my experience. (Even today, while improving, fewer than 10% of senior PE roles are held by women.) At a certain point, I realized how critical it was to surround myself with women role models. I recall once being advised by a senior partner to broaden my shoulders, take up more physical space in the boardroom, and project my voice louder. Did he not notice that I was a full foot shorter, that I didn’t share his football-player stature, or have the bellowing voice to match?

Amy Wildstein, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of SGC, with Kara Goldin, Founder and CEO of Hint.

When I had the opportunity to join Springboard Enterprises’ National Advisory Board in the early 2000s, acting as a screener, coach and mentor to Springboard companies, I was immediately receptive. I welcomed the chance to be in the company of strong women leading in their own way.

Betting on Female Leaders

Today, I can confidently say I’ve managed to surround myself with strong female leaders. I have two inspiring partners at SGC, Kay Koplovitz and Lori Wachs. I’ve gained endless inspiration from visionary Springboard alumnae like Julie Wainwright, founder of The RealReal, Helen Greiner, founder of iRobot, and Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, as well as the 800+ female entrepreneurs who have collectively raised over $10 billion. I have been an active member of the New York Fashion Tech Lab Expert Network, and also played a part in incubating Golden Seeds, now among the largest female-focused angel funds in the U.S., launched out of my office back in 2004.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve had a chance to support founders who bring their own authentic style and personal experiences to our portfolio, including Payal Kadakia, whose passion for dance — and challenge finding local classes to exercise that passion — inspired her to launch ClassPass. Then there is Kara Goldin, whose pursuit of a healthier lifestyle and quest to make drinking water more interesting led her to found Hint. And Britta Cox, searching for a way to dry her hair faster, discovered the benefits of protecting hair from water, and founded AQUIS out of that need.

The SGC team with AQUIS founders Britta Cox and Suveen Sahib, celebrating the Series B financing.

SGC has made a dozen investments to date, including three in 2020 alone, with follow-on investments in ClassPass, Hint and AQUIS. In ClassPass, our investment closed on the heels of the $285M Series E financing led by L Catterton and Apax Digital. In Hint, we led a $25 million Series D financing to support the company’s growth, building on our partnership with Verlinvest, an investment company focused on mission-oriented consumer brands. In AQUIS, we recently completed an expansion of the Series B financing we led last year, to bring in additional capital and to welcome True Beauty Capital, an emerging growth fund focused on beauty, wellness and personal care.

I’m a believer that you have to “see it to be it,” and I’m optimistic that my daughters (and son) will grow up seeing more examples of strong female leadership, and leadership empowered by meaningful, female-focused investment.

¹ According to a report from the International Labour Organization’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities, unconscious gender bias remains a significant barrier to women’s career advancement.

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Amy Wildstein
springboardgrowthcapital

Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Springboard Growth Capital, investing in visionary entrepreneurs and companies positioned to be market leaders