Funding female founders is so much more than ticking a checkbox
Regina Lau, Chief Financial Officer at Weavr.io, a plug-and-play finance solutions enabling businesses to integrate any financial service anywhere their customers need it.
This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe
To say that being a woman holding a c-suite position in the finance and technology industry is difficult would be an understatement. In fact, simply existing as a female businesswoman in any industry can be difficult. When I walk into a board meeting, or an event for fellow CFOs, I often feel the gender imbalance quite heavily and I long to see someone else like me when I glance across the room. However, I’ve become quite accustomed to seeing few women in senior roles in fintech and, when I do, it’s a pleasant surprise.
While the gender role gap is beginning to improve, opportunities for fellow businesswomen haven’t progressed as much as we’d like. Capital available for women still falls short of that available for men. While it peaked in 2020/2021 at 2.5%, venture funding globally has remained flat at about 1.5% in the past five years for women. Comparatively, it was 1.2% in 2008.
Similarly, misconceptions of women’s business capabilities are still rife. Men are asked promotion questions about potential for gains, while women entrepreneurs are asked prevention questions about the potential for loss. Research shows that entrepreneurs asked promotion questions receive twice as much funding as those asked prevention questions (Articles 8). I am excited to be the CFO at embedded-finance platform Weavr, leveraging the skills I’ve developed over the past 20 years, to grow a startup that is scaling at a rate of knots.
In addition to being CFO at Weavr, I also support DEI projects at The Payments Association, and separately Dali Spaces as their CFO and CCO to help female founders launch their businesses and turn them into success stories.
As a woman from an underrepresented ethnicity, at times it seemed like I was presented with particular opportunities to meet a company’s diversity needs instead of being sought for my business capabilities. After spending over 20 years in the finance and payments space, this ‘checkbox approach’ became somewhat demotivating. I wondered "what more do I have to do for them to see my worth?" Ensuring that there would be an objective validation of the capabilities I brought was especially critical - it’s clearly how any individual would like to be evaluated.
While I don’t think of myself as being a ‘female’ CFO, it is obviously quite rare within this sector, and beyond. In fact, my aim has always been to become a well-rounded business leader with a role in the c-suite. Now as a CFO, the role is not only about calculating the numbers. It’s about what you can do with numbers. At Weavr, I partner cross-functionally to unlock growth and solve problems that are key to our commercial, operational and strategic needs on a daily basis.
The higher the barrier, the higher we'll climb
Statistically, women encounter more barriers to raising capital than men. Research published by London Business School showed that female entrepreneurs are 63% less likely than men to receive funding for their ventures. There are many reasons for this, a key one being that less than 10% of VC decision-makers globally are female. Business investors and investment committees are overwhelmingly male-dominated, four out of five in fact, (Articles 6) making it more difficult for women to cultivate strong interpersonal connections with those they are pitching to.
However, McKinsey research shows that companies with more than 30% female executives are more likely to outperform companies that don’t. Female representation ultimately hits the bottom line, as the “Women Count Report 2020” drives home: listed firms where at least one-third of the bosses are women have a profit margin more than 10 times greater than those without. Meanwhile, venture-capital-backed companies with female founders or predominantly female leadership groups have been found to sell or go public faster, and at higher valuations. Despite this, VC funding for female entrepreneurs dropped to one percent as a percentage of overall investment during the pandemic, while total VC investment grew.
When the shoe’s on the other foot and women invest, they’re more inclined to do so in ways that align with ESG values. Women lead the call for more business models that aren’t completely financially driven but rather balance the needs of society with profits. It’s worth stating the obvious: stakeholders and shareholders do not exist at the expense of one another - quite the opposite in fact - and their coexistence grows the pie of wealth. While there are ESG-focused investors and also investors striving to improve diversity through industry certification, the focus is still quite small, unfortunately.
Some people think women aren’t bold enough when pitching for capital, which is another barrier we face. However, women are relentless at achieving their goals and go above and beyond. Sadly, misconceptions like this can have real-world impacts. That’s why it’s so important to root out the cause of the problems, such as unconscious biases, stereotypes, the lack of women among both venture-backed entrepreneurs and VC investors. They are all DEI initiatives The Payments Association and Dali Spaces are championing.
Women helping women
Whilst I have been fortunate in my successes as a female businesswoman in recent years, it was hard for me to ignore the declining landscape for the growth of female founders. Through the Dali Spaces InvestFem initiative, our team supports underrepresented groups in business, including female entrepreneurs and founders. With our collective experiences, we help women gain access to business-progressing opportunities, whilst offering support in our areas of expertise. Whether it be sharing useful content, shaping pitch decks, refining brand messaging or facilitating effective networking, our goal is to help female founders take the next steps in their growth journeys.
Both the Dali Spaces and InvestFem missions have helped form strong communities of inspirational female founders, investors, and other senior business leaders, which have become invaluable in supporting businesses at all stages, from launch to growth. These communities and networks were particularly impactful during the pandemic. It’s easy to forget the power people can harness when they join forces to work as a team, but in doing so, distant dreams can become a reality.
Of course, we must consider the wider impact of supporting women on business journeys. At the most basic level, by investing in women, people invest in passionate individuals who are driven by ambition, helping them to achieve their life goals. Not only this, many of the women supported through DaliSpaces and InvestFem have businesses that are rooted in solving societal problems, benefitting local economies, communities, and the environment.
Considering the under-representation of women in this field, we also have to consider the added benefit of inspiring younger generations of women to break through the invisible ceiling and believe in their ideas too. In doing so, the future of business would look all the brighter.
When speaking to fellow ambitious women, the greatest advice I can give is to be open to the thoughts of others, learn from your mistakes and, most importantly, have confidence in yourself and your business capabilities. Believe in yourself. Being a business leader is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are many hurdles. Along the way, you’re almost guaranteed to approach hurdles that may seem impossibly high. However, with the right support, raising good capital is possible when you continue to drive forward.
Similarly, never be afraid to accept help. Keep your eyes open for support programmes, organisations, and resources you can tap in to in order to leverage your operations. Don’t let yourself become lonely as a business leader, embrace community and build a support network that can grow as your business does. Your small community will become invaluable in times of hardship, spurring you on with inspiration whenever you need it.
The most important thing I’d want any female founder to take away from this article is that raising capital is clearly still possible for businesswomen, no matter the adversity we face because of our gender. This International Women’s Day, the theme is #EmbraceEquity, which recognises that not all people have the starting point in life, in particular when you compare that aspect between men and women. I think it’s a theme that will become much more relevant in business deals coming out of 2023.
Moving forward, I hope that investing in women will become the norm. I also hope that, where we’re highlighting the successes of women, it’s because they have accomplished amazing things, not just because they’re women. Women’s successes - and they are innumerable, inspiring and game-changing - are an investment into a brighter future for everyone.