By Tom Stein, VCJ Correpsondent
It’s hard enough being a VC these days. If you’re a female VC, your job is even tougher.
Women make up a small minority of the business and are confronted with questions their male counterparts never have to consider, like: Will having kids kill my career?
In a wide ranging report on the role of women in VC, the Kauffman Foundation concluded that “the venture capital industry is among the last bastions of male dominance in the business world.” In the six years since that report was published, very little has changed for women.
If anything, the situation has gotten worse. As a result of consolidation in the venture industry, the percentage of women VCs today is less than what it was a decade ago, according to new research conducted by Cynthia Padnos at Illuminate Ventures. Among the 50 most active VC firms in the U.S., only 5% off all investing partners are female, according to her research.
So, does the venture industry really have an ingrained bias against women? Perhaps there is no overt sexism. But in a business where friendships, connections and personal networks mean everything, women are often the odd man out.
“I have no proof of this, but I believe there is some prejudice against women,” says Mike Kwatinetz, founding partner of Azure Capital. He actually makes a point of looking for women-backed companies he believes have been unjustly ignored by the venture community. “Our firm has invested in a lot of women CEOs and has done pretty well that way,” he says.
We talked with five prominent female VCs about their experiences in venture and what it takes to succeed. Here are the most common questions women VCs are confronted with and their advice on how to deal with them.
Do I need to downplay my femininity to succeed?
No. Embrace who you are and don’t apologize.
Camille Samuels, managing director at Versant Ventures, is unabashedly feminine. She dresses stylishly, wears her hair long, and doesn’t make any effort to hide that she’s a mother. She even embraces the “female” qualities she brings to portfolio companies.
For instance, she chairs the compensation committee at almost every one of her startups. Yeah, she knows, that’s like being the head of human resources—the traditional role of female executives. But she doesn’t care. “Why is it a negative that women in senior positions are often the heads of HR?” asks Samuels. “I would turn that around and say it’s a positive. First and foremost companies are about people, and making sure they are happy and well-compensated is one of the most vital roles.”
Sure, Samuels would love to see more women in venture, but she says that’s just part of the story. The real story is that those who have broken through are absolutely unapologetic about who they are. “It seems to me that the women in venture 20 years ago were VCs despite being women,” she says. “Today, I am a VC and I am a woman.”
Sam Colella, her mentor and a managing director at Versant, would go a step farther and say she is a natural born VC. “Cami is an incredibly fast learner and a sponge for knowledge,” he says. “I have often told her that venture capital is a marathon and not a sprint, and she is well on her way in this journey.
Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, a managing partner at Accel Partners, also derives a sense of power from her gender. She wouldn’t be caught dead in khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt. She favors designs from Nanette Lepore, Dolce & Gabbana and Chanel.
If anything, Ranzetta thinks there are certain benefits to being a woman in venture. For one thing, entrepreneurs tend to remember her. In a sea of money people who look alike, dress alike and talk alike, she stands out. “If I’m at a conference where entrepreneurs are meeting dozens of other VCs, I’m not going to get confused with John, Joe, Mike or Steve,” says Ranzetta.
Will I get pigeon-holed because of my gender?
It has been known to happen. But how you respond really depends on the situation. In some cases, you can use it to your advantage to show just how capable—and tough—you are.
For example, Nancy Floyd, co-founder and managing partner of energy VC Nth Power, has found herself being called on quite frequently to fire CEOs because there is a general perception that women do a better job of letting someone go without the situation blowing up.
In her 17-year career as a venture capitalist, Floyd has had to fire 10 CEOs. In all 10 cases, her male colleagues on the board of directors insisted that she be the one to deliver the news. In one case, Floyd had to face down a notorious hothead prone to violent outbursts. The situation was so volatile, off-duty police officers had to be called in.
If I was in a firm where I had to squash the guy next to me to do well, that would not fit with who I am. I want to do well, but not at the expense of others.”
Did You Know? Floyd played on a boys’ ice hockey team in junior high school.
As the co-founder of Nth Power, Nancy Floyd’s venture career nearly imploded before it ever began.
When she started the firm with Maurice Gunderson back in 1993, she had three strikes against her: she had never done a venture deal, she was focusing on a sector (energy) that was alien to the venture world and she was a woman. But, clearly, her gender was the least of her worries.
Back then, her No. 1 problem was raising the $65 million to launch the firm. It took three and half years and hundreds of meetings with potential investors, but she and Gunderson ultimately got it done.
“Most people said that what we were doing was impossible and insane,” recalls Floyd. It’s now 17 years later and Nth Power is on its fourth fund, a $170 million vehicle it raised in 2006.
Both Floyd and Nth Power have always been ahead of their time. When it comes to cleantech investing, the rest of the industry has finally caught up. As for being a woman in venture, there is still much work to be done. “I’d like to think there could be an equal number of men and women in the industry someday,” says Floyd. “But, honestly, I don’t foresee it in my lifetime—and I expect to live for a long time.” —Tom Stein
Profile: Cynthia Padnos, Illuminate Ventures
AB magna cum laude from the University of Michigan, 1977; MBA/MSIA with honors, Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business, 1980.
Member of Management Development Program, AT&T, 1980-84; management consultant for Arthur D. Little, 1984-88; principal consultant for Booz Allen & Hamilton, 1988-89; director of strategic and product marketing for Ingres Corp., 1989-91; director of product and partner marketing for Interactive Development Environments, 1991-93; VP of marketing for Scopus Technology, 1993-95; president and CEO of Acumen International, 1995-97; founder, CEO and chairman of Vivant Corp., 1998-01; independent venture consultant, 2002-03; director for Outlook Ventures, 2004-08; founding managing director of Illuminate Ventures, 2009 to present.
Padnos says she led Outlook’s Series B investment in 2006 in Xactly, which has since become the market leader in its sector, increased revenues 20x in four years and successfully raised additional financings, all at increased valuations. She says she also co-invested in the Series A for BrightEdge, which rapidly achieved sales to companies like PayPal, Intuit and VMware and raised a sought-after Series B led by Battery Ventures.
Current Portfolio Companies: BrightEdge, Calm Sea, Red Aril, Sim Ops Studios/Wild Pockets, Xactly.
Did You Know?
Padnos decided to forego a career in modern dance to focus on business only after a near-fatal leap into an orchestra pit.
When Cynthia Padnos joined Outlook Ventures, she never went out of her way to fund women-led startups. But every so often she’d be knocked for a loop when it came to gender issues.
One day, she got a distressing call from a female CEO asking if she should step down. The CEO explained that only a tiny percentage of venture dollars ever make it to women-led companies, and she wondered if she was doing her startup a disservice by remaining at that helm. Padnos talked her off the ledge.
Padnos was never quite able to get the incident out of her head. She finally took action in 2008. Her two partners at Outlook had just informed her they were getting out of the venture business and would not be raising a new fund. That’s when it hit her. Why not start a new venture firm that was more inclusive of women entrepreneurs?
Women represent an untapped market. I really think we will deliver some great returns and change a lot of minds.”
Padnos knew she’d probably get a lot of funny looks from potential investors. So she spent the next year gathering data to support her thesis: that limited partners could actually make more money by backing high-tech start-ups led by female entrepreneurs.
Her research showed that more women than men were building capital-efficient companies that deliver venture-level returns. And here’s the kicker: They were doing so with less funding and fewer failures than the norm. Based on her findings, Padnos launched Illuminate Ventures in 2009.
“Women represent an untapped market,” says Padnos. “I really think we will deliver some great returns and change a lot of minds.” —Tom Stein
Profile: Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, Accel Partners
In March “sometime after the computer but before the Internet”
Jakarta, Indonesia. Grew up in Middleport, N.Y.
Bachelor’s in engineering magna cum laude from Brown University, 1990; MBA from Stanford, 1994.
Product manager at Silicon Graphics, 1993-93; Consultant for Bain & Co., 1994-96; VP of business development for Release Software, 1996-99; partner at Accel Partners, 1999-present.
Zimbra, acquired by Yahoo for $350M, 2007; AdECN, acquired by Microsoft for undisclosed amount, 2007; Interlace Systems, acquired by Oracle for undisclosed amount, 2007; PeopleSupport, went public in 2004, then acquired by Aegis in 2008.
Current Portfolio Companies:
ForeScout, Glam Media, Imperva, Jasper Design Automation, Kosmix, LearnVest, LetsTalk, Trulia, TRUSTe, Webroot and Wetpaint.
Did You Know?
Ranzetta grew up in a town that was so small that it didn’t even have a traffic light.
If there is sexism in the venture industry, Theresia Gouw Ranzetta hasn’t seen it.
The Accel Partners managing partner says Silicon Valley is tame compared to her first job as a design engineer at a large automotive company. She was one of the only women in a building of 1,000 engineers. Business lunches at the firm were not exactly a dignified affair. More often than not, they occurred at the local strip club. “Nothing fazes me after that,” she says.
Ranzetta says she is very receptive to business ideas in which women are an important part of the audience. Her most recent deal is LearnVest, a personal finance site for young women that was founded by 26-year-old Alexa von Tobel.
One of Ranzetta’s best great skills, she believes, is the ability to see what lies behind the data and understand how a small market can one day become very big and valuable. “Believe me, I am very data driven,” she says. “If the target audience happens to be female, it’s probably easier for me to see how it will get big. I’m sure some people think LearnVest will always be small, but we hope to prove them wrong.” —Tom Stein
Profile: Camille Samuels, Versant Ventures
Washington, D.C. Raised in New York City
Simply being able to understand and appreciate that women are an important constituency can be a real advantage.”
Theresia Gouw Ranzetta
Education: Bachelor’s in biology from Duke University, 1993; MBA from Harvard University, 1998.
Joined Versant in 2000. Previously, she was responsible for business development at Tularik Inc. (acquired by Amgen), worked in corporate development at Genzyme and Millennium Predictive Medicine, and was a management consultant to health care and biotech companies at LEK Consulting.
Genomic Health, $60.2M IPO, 2005; Novacardia, acquired by Merck for $366.4M, 2007.
Current Portfolio Companies:
Achaogen, APT Pharmaceuticals, Kythera Biopharmaceuticals and Transcept Pharmaceuticals.
Did You Know?
Working as a U.S. Senate page, Samuels once accidently shredded a senator’s bill right before he was about to introduce it on the Senate floor.
has the good fortune of being a biotech VC, which is perhaps more inclusive and welcoming of women than the general technology sector.
That’s partially because medical schools are producing an equal number female graduates, while engineering schools are not. Samuels also believes it’s because women are compelled by the notion of doing well by doing good. “There is an additional psychic benefit you get from working in health care that tends to attract women,” she says.
Her firm is a perfect example. Two of Versant Ventures’ seven founding partners—Barbara Lubash and Beckie Robertson—are women. But it was one of Versant’s senior male partners, Sam Colella, who first took Samuels under his wing.
“Sam’s nickname was the Velvet Hammer because he’ll deliver the tough message, but he’ll do it with kindness and humor,” says Samuels. “I was a young, hard-driving associate when Sam gently dropped the hammer on me. He told me turn it down a notch, and I can’t thank him enough for that.”
Hard-driving or not, Samuels has found a perfect home at Versant, which she describes as a “kinder, gentler VC firm.” She’s not sure she could have thrived in a more cut-throat environment where venture partners have to claw and scratch for every bit of carried interest. “If I was in a firm where I had to squash the guy next to me to do well, that would not fit with who I am,” she says. “I want to do well, but not at the expense of others.” —Tom Stein
Profile: Lucinda Stewart, OVP Venture Partners
Tokyo, Japan (on a U.S. Navy base)
Bachelor’s in political science from the University of Puget Sound, 1992; MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, 1997.
Work History: Employee No. 5 for National Surgery Centers, 1992-1997; investment banker for Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, 1997-99; associate for Frazier Healthcare Ventures, 1999-2001; associate for OVP Venture Partners, 2001-2004; managing director for OVP, 2004 to present.
Stewart says Talyst, a provider of automated medication management systems, is set for notable strategic activity in the year ahead. And Tigo Energy, a cleantech company with $17.7 million in backing, is on course to raise a new round at a significant step-up, she says.
Current Portfolio Companies:
AdmitOne, Aggregate Knowledge, LucidCommerce, Symform, Talyst and Tigo.
Did You Know?
Stewart has completed nine marathons—half without even training for them—and once qualified for the Boston Marathon.
As a college student, Lucinda Stewart took a summer job on a commercial fishing boat in the Bearing Sea. She was at sea for six weeks straight with a crew of 120. There were only two other women aboard. At first, she was put in the back room, where she packed fish into little boxes for 16 hours a day. But Stewart had other plans. She wanted to work the big machinery at the front of the boat.
One day, she stormed on deck and confronted the foreman. “If my production isn’t in the top 5%, you can stick me in the packing room and I won’t come back on deck for the rest of the summer,” she said. The foreman gave her a chance, and Stewart became the very first woman on that boat to work the heavy equipment.
It was an experience that prepared her well for the venture world. “I learned that you have to have guts to take on the massive challenge,” she says. “But you also have to be super prepared to deliver. If you speak up a board meeting, you better be able to back up what you say with your ability.” —Tom Stein