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Closing the Gender Divide in the Impact Space

Investing in women-led startups isn’t about checking a box

It’s a grim fact that, even in 2023, wage disparity due to gender is still prevalent in the workplace. Worse, when it comes to securing financing for startups, women are barely in the picture, with women-founder teams attracting less than two per cent of all funding available.

Compounding the challenges, women spend 50 per cent more time going to 50 per cent more meetings than men to raise less money. In fact, women founders are regularly tasked with doing more with less than their male counterparts, navigating bias and systematic underinvestment that has been in place for decades.

Allowing this chasm of inequality between men and women to persist is not just irresponsible, it’s holding our economy back. Some economists estimate that if 10 per cent more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were led by women, it would add approximately $150 billion to Canada’s GDP.

It follows that we, in the impact space, have a role to play in scaling down this mountain by intentionally investing in more diverse, women-led ventures. Doing so not only helps women. Gender diversity goes hand-in-hand with economic growth. It is good for business.

Leveling the playing field

At the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good, we’re intentional about being early-stage investors in women-led ventures. At this point, over 40 per cent of our portfolio is made up of companies led by women.

We have many great examples of the opportunities and fresh perspectives that come from investing in more women-led startups.

Equality mural art with woman's face

Mycocycle, for instance, has developed an innovative way to transform toxic chemical byproducts into a reusable material that can then be used to manufacture new products. Founder Joanne Rodriguez developed this method of mycoremediation, which uses fungi to break down pollutants and decontaminate the environment, after working for 30 years in the construction materials industry.

Our investment in Mycocycle aligns with our impact mandate to support game-changing environmental solutions – in this case, contributing to a closed-loop economy by converting waste destined for the dump into upcycled materials.

But, certainly, more must be done.

Women tend to view the world through a more inclusive lens and create products or services with a broader range of benefits, rather than purely economic ones.

The problem is not just with the VC decision-making process. We simply do not have diversity at the capital-allocation table, with bias — even unconscious — baked into the enterprise-vetting process. Roughly four out of five VC firms have never employed a woman in a senior role. Another study found that VCs tend to be more risk averse when it comes to women – asking startups led by men questions about potential gains, while women were asked about potential losses.

The lack of investment in women at the ground level – whether it’s pre-seed or seed-round funding – becomes magnified the further down the road you look. The result is there are fewer mature ventures led by women to invest in with series A, B, or C funding, which only perpetuates the cycle of bias. You can’t fund a pipeline that doesn’t exist.

We need to have more women in decision-making roles at the investment table among VCs if we hope to change the landscape of capital allocation. In doing so, we can enable a virtuous cycle of support and innovation: Women investors are three times as likely to invest in companies with women CEOs, and women entrepreneurs often seek out women investors to partner with and grow their companies.

Fortunately, the number of funds working to increase opportunities for women-led enterprises are growing. The Business Development Bank of Canada has helped 7,500 women entrepreneurs since 2018 with their Women in Technology Fund and the Thrive Venture Fund and Lab for Women, a platform that is made up of a direct investment fund as well as an innovation lab. In addition, The51, an investment and funding platform, brings together women and gender-diverse investors and women-led startups to evolve how business is done.

The economic benefits of these efforts? One Boston Consulting Group study found that, for every dollar of funding, women-led startups generated 78 cents of revenue, compared to 31 cents generated by startups led by men.

The view from 30,000 feet

When we look in spaces that have been chronically ignored – like women-led and minority-led ventures – we discover countless innovative ideas that no one has invested in yet. Women tend to view the world through a more inclusive lens and create products or services with a broader range of benefits, rather than purely economic ones. Moreover, research found that women factor environmental, social, and governance concerns into their investment decisions.

Asian woman with glasses

What’s more, it needs to be understood these are not concessionary investments; a World Economic Forum article noted that women-led businesses tend to outperform the market when it comes to median revenues. They’re innovative companies run by people who think outside the box because, as women, they frequently have to.

As the Pollinator Fund is entering its third year of operation, we can already see positive portfolio growth. That is due, in part, to the diversity of our investments. The fund is TELUS’ bias for action, in action. It’s a real-time demonstration of our longstanding belief that we can leverage business as a mechanism to do good, and doing good can be, and is, a meaningful way to drive value for businesses.

Ultimately, we believe that investing in and empowering women are essential elements in creating a more sustainable and durable economy. It’s time for more corporations, communities, and investors to step up and invest in the next generation of responsible women-led businesses.

As Managing Partner of TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good, Blair Miller has made it his mission to leverage TELUS’ resources to fund and empower the next generation of startups focused on doing good and driving social impact for Canada. From transforming healthcare, to supporting sustainable agriculture and reducing environmental footprints, ... Read more

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