We are proud to present our second annual list of 10 women from the venture capital industry who have made notable strides in the past 12 months.
Deciding on who to include on the list (and who not to) was not easy. We had 70 nominations to consider, all of them worthy, so we had a challenge whittling down the rollcall of industry innovators to determine our winners.
The final list is diverse, with women of varying ages and ethnicities. They are also based in six different cities, including San Francisco, Toronto and Stamford, Connecticut. Read all about these amazing women below.
A former executive at Facebook, Box and Starbucks, Monica Adractas brings a unique operator’s perspective and tech-focused outlook to her venture investing. The managing director launched CPP Investments’ venture capital program in 2019, with the multi-billion-dollar platform having already partnered with nearly 20 VC and growth managers under her leadership. The program spans well-known brand names, sector and thematic experts, as well as later-stage venture growth investors such as A16Z, Accel, Arch Ventures, Forerunner, Ribbit, Sequoia and Y Combinator. In her spare time, Adractas sits on the board of international development non-profit TechnoServe, which supports women working in the tech and venture industries.
A former founder, corporate lawyer and strategy consultant, an executive coach and an experienced investor in early-stage companies, Anna Barber has a lot of strings to her bow.
Today, she is a partner at LA-based M13, where she focuses on the future of work, e-commerce infrastructure and Web3. Barber is dedicated to supporting women and underrepresented founders, and developing the local tech and entrepreneur ecosystem. These pursuits are reflected in her roles as an advisory board member for PledgeLA, a member of the board of directors for the Alliance for SoCal Innovation, and a partner at The Fund LA, a community of founders and operators.
Driving diversity in Canadian start-ups
Lise Birikundavyi co-founded BKR Capital to invest in Black tech founders, who have been historically overlooked, writes Claire Coe Smith.
BKR Capital is the first institutionally backed Black-led venture capital fund in Canada, with a focus on investing in Black founders in the technology space. Co-founded last year by Lise Birikundavyi and Isaac Olowolafe, the fund had its first close in June 2021 and is now nearing a final close at close to double its original $10 million target. The Business Development Bank of Canada and Royal Bank of Canada are anchor investors.
“As a team, we are first-time managers of a first-time fund, so we are aiming for a smaller fund to showcase what we can do,” says Birikundavyi. “We don’t operate in a silo, and we aim to support the overall venture ecosystem to see the opportunities that we are seeing among Black-led start-ups. Our goal is to see this niche strategy be no longer necessary in a few years as performance will attract more funds into having a more inclusive investment practice.”
Birikundavyi is keen to point out that BKR is not an impact fund. “There is a general impression that impact investing means sacrificing profit for a social benefit, and that is not what we are doing; however, making an impact is important to us,” she says. “One thing we keep being asked is whether we will be able to find a good pipeline of deals, and in fact since we started, we have been inundated by pitch decks with fantastic opportunities.”
So far, the fund has made four investments in technology companies across Canada, with those including a one-stop app for beauty services, a travel app introducing tech solutions to public transport in Africa, a sustainable homewares online marketplace and a fintech business seeking to make credit more accessible and affordable.
“We really do see the gap that we are bridging as a missed opportunity in the investment space,” Birikundavyi says. “There are a lot of really talented people working on great projects, but they’re not getting the financing they require because of the lack of exposure and network. Venture capital is risky, and fund managers often find it easier to invest in founders they identify themselves with, where it is easier to build trust because of common grounds. That can be hard when backgrounds are different, but we believe that by bridging that gap we will be able to identify opportunities that will really generate outsized returns.”
Birikundavyi began working with Olowolafe on BKR in 2020, having spent the previous five years as an investment manager with impact funds in Africa. Most recently she was based in Côte d’Ivoire, where she ran an edtech impact investment strategy for the Jacobs Foundation. She started her career in the hedge fund industry before moving into emerging markets.
In her spare time, Birikundavyi serves as a non-executive director of Dream Legacy Foundation, an independent investment committee member for HEKS Impact Fund, and a member of the international expert panel at the Tech4Dev Initiative.
She is also working to create a fellowship for Black professionals in venture capital: “The one way to make this sustainable is to also have diversity on the other side of the table,” she says. “If there are not a lot of Black professionals considering venture capital as a profession, or sufficiently trained to move into venture capital, things won’t change meaningfully.”
In addition to supporting Black founders, Birikundavyi hopes that BKR Capital will make a broader impact on the investment ecosystem. “That is first by creating visibility for our investee companies, which will support them in getting more funding from the VC ecosystem,” she says. “Seeing more successful stories from the Black community also has the benefits of inspiring many others through a wider diversity of role models.”
Looking forward, she says BKR is looking at some great opportunities to invest around web3, ecommerce, proptech and edtech.
“The next challenge is around gender diversity, which is not an official part of our mission but is important to us,” says Birikundavyi. “We do see a lot more men pitching to us than women, and we are keeping a close eye on this during our decision-making process.
Black Opal Ventures
Market peers applaud Tara Bishop’s healthcare technology venture capital firm Black Opal Ventures for its “depth of skill” and commitment to diversity. Before co-founding Black Opal, Bishop was chief medical officer at health insurance start-up Bind, where she is understood to have helped grow revenue by more than 10 times in three years. In addition to her passion for improving healthcare, Bishop’s on-the-ground experience as a primary care doctor and as an associate professor of medicine and healthcare policy at Weill Cornell Medicine set her apart in the industry.
Making a difference in women’s health
FemHealth’s Maneesha Ghiya says women’s healthcare is ‘under-invested and overlooked,’ writes Claire Coe Smith.
Maneesha Ghiya has been investing in healthcare for more than 20 years, but it was a traumatic experience 13 years ago when her daughter was born that prompted her focus on women’s health specifically. “My daughter was delivered at Columbia Hospital in New York City and there were major complications,” she says. “She was delivered by emergency C-section, and she was healthy, but I wasn’t.”
A significant internal bleed was missed, and a second operation required four surgeons and several blood transfusions to save her life. “The obstetrician told my husband she didn’t think I would make it, and they rushed my newborn to ICU to see me because they didn’t think I had much longer,” says Ghiya.
She made a full recovery, but the traumatic experience nagged at her. “We have a fantastic healthcare system in the United States, I was in a fantastic institution with a fantastic medical team, but there was still so much more that could have been done,” says Ghiya. “It’s been my calling since then to do something. Over the course of my career, I have looked at many conditions, and generally speaking, women’s health is under-invested and overlooked.”
Three years ago, she developed and published a pioneering framework for approaching women’s health. It splits women’s health into three categories: conditions that appear only in women, mostly in women and differently in women. Since its publication, the framework has been adopted by many others working in the space.
“My hope is really to revolutionize the way people think about women’s health,” says Ghiya. “To move away from thinking about it as a niche into thinking about the health of the whole woman and not just the reproductive organs. Every one of the 30 trillion cells in our bodies has a sex, and even skin cells that look the same will have either XX or XY chromosomes, so every disease can present differently in men and women.”
Since founding FemHealth Ventures in 2019, Ghiya has worked tirelessly on raising a $50 million debut fund, achieving a first close last October. She has now built a team of five professionals and has already completed her first two investments, backing innovations in women’s health and focusing on drugs, devices, diagnostics and digital applications.
Prior to FemHealth, Ghiya worked as a partner at ExSight Ventures, an early-stage investor in ophthalmic drugs, devices and diagnostics, where she continues to be a senior adviser. Before entering the VC space in 2014, she was a senior healthcare analyst at hedge funds Kingdon Capital and Highline Capital.
A scientist by background, Ghiya has a dual degree in management and technology from the University of Pennsylvania, a degree in finance from The Wharton School, a computer science degree from Penn Engineering and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
FemHealth Ventures has already made two investments, the first in a skin graft business called BioAesthetics that hopes to revolutionize breast reconstruction. The second is called Raydiant Oximetry and involves a new technology for more accurately detecting fetal distress during labor and delivery, with the goal of decreasing the number of medically unnecessary cesarean sections.
“Right now you have a fetal heart rate monitor used almost ubiquitously across hospitals that dates back to the 1970s and is actually not very good,” says Ghiya. “We have had huge innovations in so many parts of healthcare in the past 50 years, but nothing has been done to improve that until now. That just points to the under-investment and the opportunity to do more.”
Key categories for future investment include fertility, mental health, pregnancy/post-partum health, menopause and the cancers most prominent in women. “There are hundreds of opportunities we have reviewed in this space, and so many new developments, so sourcing dealflow is not an issue,” she says. “More and more founders and entrepreneurs are focused on this and recognizing the opportunity here.”
Supply Change Capital
As managing partner of early-stage venture firm Supply Change Capital, Noramay Cadena’s investing thesis centers on two major forces affecting the food system: culture and climate.
Cadena co-founded the firm in 2020 with the belief that rising multiculturalism in the US is having a deep impact on the food industry on the demand side, and that climate change is a defining force on the supply side. Cadena is also a lead investor in Portfolia’s Rising America Fund, which invests in people of color and LGBTQ founders, and she is a founding board member of LatinxVC, an organization dedicated to expanding the ecosystem of Latinx funders and founders.
Gayle Jennings-O’Byrne’s impressive resume includes more than three decades of Wall Street, technology, philanthropy, training and professional speaker experience. Today she is co-founder and general partner at WOCstar Fund, an early-stage investment fund focused on tech innovation being brought to market by inclusive teams and women of color. Jennings-O’Byrne uses her experience to help entrepreneurs scale their businesses, while also participating in a range of initiatives that foster innovation and champion women of color. This includes co-founding Ally Capital Collab, through which funds led by women of color are working together to address systemic capital raising challenges. She is also one of Wharton Social Impact’s Nazarian Social Innovators-in-Residence.
The early bird gets the growth
Annie Lamont had the foresight to lead Oak Investment Partners into growth investing before everyone else piled in, writes Claire Coe Smith
Annie Lamont spent more than 20 years working with Oak Investment Partners before co-founding Oak HC/FT in 2014. Today, the venture and growth equity firm, which focuses on investing in tech-enabled healthcare and fintech companies, boasts more than 50 employees and $3.3 billion in assets under management.
Oak HC/FT raised $1.4 billion last year for its fourth and largest fund to date and made 21 new investments. The firm’s portfolio includes big-name healthcare investments like Devoted Health, Firefly Health and VillageMD, alongside fintechs including Cart.com and Rapyd, while Lamont counts Aspire Health, Ooda Health and Poynt among her most successful exits.
“Our timing was incredible in 2014 and both of those sectors have really been on for the last eight years,” she says. “Clearly if you talk to anybody in the growth company space right now, they are focused on their portfolios, making sure their companies are fully funded, disciplined in their management and responsibly deploying the capital they have received.”
The healthcare and fintech sectors remain rife with opportunity “but fewer great companies are raising money right now because many of them raised last year and they know it is a more hesitant market,” Lamont says. “Valuations coming down in the public market leak into the private markets and everyone is just a little more cautious.”
Around one in five of the firm’s investments are pre-revenue start-ups, while the majority are led by serial entrepreneurs. Lamont says the two things she is focused on right now are efficiency solutions that address staffing challenges in healthcare, and the “payvider” model, which combines payers and providers to deliver cost-effective healthcare.
“In fintech, we are really focused on the democratization of financial services,” says Lamont. “We love payments, which is the gift that keeps on giving, and particularly B2B payments. We are also really focused on insurance and ecommerce.
“The next year for us will frankly be an amazing time, because we will be looking at lower valuations when we invest, and our existing portfolio companies are mostly fully funded. We now see a generation of repeat entrepreneurs – smart people who have come from tech, got interested in healthcare and really understand the challenges in the system. They are prepared to create great new healthcare companies, and that is really exciting.”
Lamont is passionate about her mission to lower costs, enhance access and increase the focus on outcomes in the healthcare industry.
“Healthcare is so fundamentally broken that if you’re focusing on integration of provider and payer, and outcomes-based payment, then there is unlimited opportunity,” says Lamont. “In the past 20 years we have seen some progress, but the next 20 will see a lot more. We are at a tipping point and we are really excited about that.”
A venture capitalist her entire career, Lamont graduated with a degree in political science from Stanford and landed at Oak Investment Partners in 1982. She currently serves on the boards of a list of trailblazer healthcare firms, among them Advise Health Holdings, Brightline, CareBridge, Clearco, Main Street Health, Modern Age, Quartet, Truepill, Vesta Healthcare and VillageMD.
Like most professional women, Lamont is adept at multitasking. The mother of three loves to be outside running, hiking, golfing, and playing tennis or pickleball, her latest passion. She recently co-founded the Tidal River Investor Network to provide seed funding for female entrepreneurs in Connecticut. As if her plate weren’t already too full, Lamont has also served as First Lady of Connecticut since her husband, Ned Lamont, was elected governor in 2019.
Alda Leu Dennis
Alda Leu Dennis is a general partner at Initialized Capital, where she has led investments in a number of unicorns and played a key role in the early-stage VC firm’s fundraising efforts. Leu Dennis began her career as a lawyer, including in-house roles at fund managers, before joining Airtime as COO and then 137 Ventures as managing partner. She moved to Initialized Capital in 2017, where she draws on her legal and operational expertise to help founders navigate complex processes. Leu Dennis is passionate about backing founders with the “capacity to make a positive impact on the world,” and investing in women, underserved minorities and companies that help modern families.
Jenny Zeng founded Chinese growth equity and venture capital firm MSA Capital in 2014 and has since been building out its investments in China and emerging markets. MSA is understood to have backed more than 25 unicorns, including automobile manufacturer Nio. The firm now has almost $2 billion in AUM and seven offices worldwide. As managing partner, Zeng leads on DE&I at the firm, which is a signatory to ILPA’s Diversity in Action initiative. Half of MSA’s team are women. Prior to MSA, Zeng founded Chinese financial advisory Maple Valley Investment and was an executive director at the China Venture Capital and Private Equity Association.