Despite creating some of the most innovative and successful companies in the world, female entrepreneurs rarely receive the same financial support as their male counterparts. With 97.5 percent of American venture capital funding going toward male founders, it’s clear that there is a major problem in the way we invest in passionate female entrepreneurs. Enter The Helm, a new venture capital company that only invests in companies with female CEOs and founders. We recently got the opportunity to sit down with The Helm’s CEO Lindsey Taylor Wood and Managing Partner Erin Shipley to chat about their new business, investing in female entrepreneurs, and the future of venture capitalism.
(Photo via Seher Sikandar of members Priyanka Jain, Anu Jain, Ruth Ann Harnisch, and Komal Minhas)
Brit + Co: Congratulations on your new business! Tell us about why you decided to create a venture capital fund and community that solely invests in companies with female CEOs and founders.
Lindsey Taylor Wood + Erin Shipley: Thank you! We believe that it’s essential for female voices to have a role in driving the innovations, companies, and cultures that define our future. In order for this to happen, we need different voices at the table and different voices being funded. We created The Helm as a place where those two could meet.
B+C: With only 2.5 percent of US-based venture capital funding going toward female founders and an even more dismal proportion going to female entrepreneurs of color, it’s abundantly clear that there’s a problem in the way we invest in brilliant female entrepreneurs. Why do you believe this gender gap in investing is so large?
ES: It’s a great question, and unfortunately there’s no one answer. There are a lot of things about the structure of venture capital that make change slow, and, like many industries, there is a very large concentration of power and resources in the hands of a fairly homogenous minority. To even 10x the amount of capital available today from 2.5 percent to 25 percent would mean close to an additional $13 billion going to female founders. This means that we need new models like The Helm that activate different pools of investment capital for female founders, and it means traditional institutional VC is going to have a big role to play, both at the seed stage as well as later stages. Systemic change requires sustained action; it requires hiring, mentoring, and investing in women. It requires different investors, vehicles, voices, and approaches to both funding and innovation. The Helm is tackling each of these things, and we are in it for the long haul.
(Photo via Getty)
B+C: Prior to founding The Helm, you spent over a decade in philanthropy — specifically dealing with women’s rights and empowerment. What made you make the leap from philanthropy to venture capitalism?
LTW: Philanthropy can be a critical tool for the advancement of girls and women. Yet, all too often, it’s the only way we invest in equality. And it can’t be. After a decade of working in the women’s rights space I wanted to better understand which other vehicles could help drive systemic change, and VC made sense for myriad reasons. One, it’s the most inequitable, with just over two percent of all VC going to female founders. Two, it’s unparalleled when it comes to scale, because the companies we invest in are responsible for creating (or not) companies, cultures, and products that work for all of us. By fusing the best parts of philanthropy and VC, there was a real opportunity to do something different: not only move more unbiased capital toward female entrepreneurs but invite a new pool of investors to the table.
B+C: Other than having a female CEO and founder, what are some other criteria The Helm looks for when deciding on a company to invest in?
ES: As a venture fund, we are truly looking to back businesses that are leveraging technology in a way that is innovative and highly scalable. There are amazing businesses started all the time, but only a tiny percentage of them are the right fit for venture investment. I look for problem-driven businesses, especially those that look beyond the needs of just the one percent — focusing on resource efficiency over convenience, access over exclusivity, and traditionally underserved consumers over the mainstream. I’ve seen close to 200 deals so far, across fintech, retail, healthcare, applied AI, XR, and more, and our focus on investing in a diversified set of industries is an opportunity to channel more capital to female founders innovating outside of the traditional areas where women tend to get funding. We are so excited by the opportunity to help redefine what that traditional archetype of a successful founder can look like! You can learn more about our investment philosophy at our website.
B+C: Despite only investing in companies led by strong women, The Helm accepts any investor — woman, man, or nonbinary person — who wants to invest in these extraordinary female entrepreneurs. Can you talk a little about The Helm’s membership diversity and why inclusivity at the membership level is important to you and your company?
LTW: The Helm is committed to diversity and inclusivity across each and every piece of our company. Our membership community, portfolio, content, and experiences are all designed to ensure that women have a seat at the table. As Gloria Steinem says: “There’s no such thing as white feminism, because if it’s white it’s not feminism.” And thank you for the thoughtful way in which you posed that question. This is a chance for us to clarify that not only do we welcome women, men, and nonbinary investors, but women and nonbinary femme entrepreneurs as well.
(Photo via Seher Sikandar of Lindsey Taylor Wood, Ashley Ford, and Erin Shipley)
B+C: Can you break down how investing with The Helm works? What are some of the benefits that come with being a Helm member?
LTW+ES: Our structure is unique, and we designed it from scratch to ensure that we were meeting the needs of founders and of our members (LPs). The Helm is a place to discover, to learn about, and to invest directly in female-led innovation as part of a community of peers. Members commit capital to the fund on an annual basis, as well as pay a membership fee. In addition to a fully managed venture fund, we offer them a robust platform experience that includes events, bespoke education, content, and products all focused on innovation, technology, and investment.
The Helm’s venture fund invests in female-founded startups at the seed stage, putting capital behind the next generation of leaders in technology and innovation. We prioritize a transparent, expedient diligence process, a larger average minimum check size, and the strategic and institutional support to help companies grow and raise follow-on capital. And because our members are all individuals passionate about supporting fund investment directly, our portfolio of companies has the exponential benefit of their experience and networks.
B+C: Finally, what would you say to someone who would love to invest in female entrepreneurs but can’t quite make the $50,000 minimum investment yet? Are there any smaller ways we can promote gender equality through investment?
LTW: Absolutely. We are building a content platform at this very moment which provides people with the opportunity to discover and invest in women both inside and outside of our portfolio. I don’t want to say much more than that at this time, but we’ll be launching that part of the company in early 2018, and you can sign up here to be the first to know when we kick it off!
What are your thoughts about the venture capital gender gap? Tweet us by mentioning @BritandCo.