We’re all familiar with the dire stats on funding for female founders. I saw the inequality firsthand when I was pitching my second company — in enterprise SaaS — to investors.
But sadly, what surprised me most was that the sneaky systemic biases in the VC world, which continue to work against women, are often also perpetuated by them.
Biased questions and a lack of allyship
This lack of allyship became clear just from the questions that female VCs asked me when I went out to fundraise.
“What’s a hairdresser doing here running a SaaS company?” one investor queried me.
It's an interesting reading of my background: I left formal education at age 16 and eventually launched my first startup: an on-demand "fast beauty" business including a chain of salon services in London called Blow Bar. During this time, I also had two children. I assume if I had been a man, this would have made me a serial entrepreneur, but no, founding a new company in a different industry was me “not staying in my lane”.
Many female investors advocate and support female founders, but in a strictly paternalist and conformist way
I was ignored by the female VC partner who directed all her questions to my male cofounder (our head of product, who's also my husband). Another female VC asked: “Who will look after the kids, and does your husband know how to cook?” And I witnessed multiple female investors turn up late to “female founder office hours” and look at their phones. I know men do this too, but I expected more!
I know countless female founders have had the same thought: the lack of allyship in fundraising is surprising and worrying. Many female investors advocate and support female founders, but in a strictly paternalist and conformist way, just like their male counterparts, which ends up just perpetuating the same flawed system.
Female-founder-focused funds are also part of the problem
An equally worrying part of this systemic bias are the initiatives that VCs take to give the appearance of helping move the needle on gender diversity.
I spoke to a VC that had a 2027 target for 50% of startups they get pitches from to have a woman on the founding team. That goal is maximising intros and forgetting cheques. Female founders don't need meetings, we need money!
Then there are VCs with a specific mandate to back female founders, but who can only do so if the round is led by another investor, usually one without a diversity lens. Many of these female-focused VCs have an outsized brand presence but small (or no) capital to deploy. The firms take meetings and send lots of follow-ups but are not able to invest. Too much lip service!
This is just as bad as the female-founder-focused funding competitions and pitch days that only offer small tickets with extraordinarily onerous terms sheets.
Sending the elevator back down
Am I doing the same thing I am advocating against? Critiquing the very women who themselves have had to battle to get into the male-dominated world of VC? These enormously successful women have had to work hard to get to where they are, too. Women’s voices are judged harsher than men's every day, and we all suffer from internalised sexism that we just don't see. My critique is more about the power imbalance between female funder and female fund-seeker, making allyship all the more difficult.
For me, when support came, it was from male and female angels, passionate advocates and supporters, who took steps to move beyond traditional funder/fundee models; to support, uplift, make connections, offer advice and go the extra mile. To really change the status quo, they knew they needed to look beyond a reductive power dynamic. You are not the outlier, female founder, it’s these kinds of supportive, understanding investors who are. We need to look for them.
So while I’m not yet at the stage or level of success where I can send the elevator back down, I can help others like me who are still in the lobby, and show them that there is a perfectly good set of stairs, and lots of people like us who will all walk up together.