Venture Capital Investing in Women-Owned Entrepreneurs

August 31, 2022

In this episode of Engaging Alternatives Spotlight, Elana Margulies-Snyderman, Director, Publications, EisnerAmper, speaks with Victoria Pettibone, Chief Investment Officer & Managing Partner, Astia Fund, a Silicon Valley-based early-stage venture capital fund that invests in women entrepreneurs.   

Victoria shares her outlook for VC investing in women-owned companies, including the greatest opportunities and challenges, her experience being a woman investment manager in the industry, how the firm is embracing DEI and more.


Transcript

Elana Margulies-Snyderman:Hello and welcome to the EisnerAmper podcast series. I'm your host, Elana Margulies-Snyderman. And with me today is Victoria Pettibone, chief investment officer and managing partner at Astia Fund, a Silicon Valley based early stage venture capital fund that invests in women entrepreneurs. Today, Victoria will share with us, her outlook for VC investing in women-owned companies, including the greatest opportunities and challenges, her experience being a woman investment manager in the industry, and finally, how the firm is embracing DEI and more. Hi Victoria. Thanks for being with me today.
Victoria Pettibone:Thanks for having me Elana.

EMS:
Victoria, tell us a little about your firm and how you got to where you are today.
VP:Sure. So Astia is the global leader in investing in innovative companies led by women. For over 20 years, we've carved a unique path to source, screen and invest in the top performers, building an investment house that's grounded in the value of women as leaders. You may know this, but less than 2% of venture capital funding goes to women CEOs. So to get different results, we have to do things differently. So Astia has innovated on the venture model, building a unique deal sourcing and screening process. We call it The Astia Expert Sift. It's a data driven methodology that uses best in class tools and wisdom of the crowd techniques to identify top performers while eliminating bias that normally gets in the way.

And to fuel this process, we've built a global investment ecosystem of more than 5,000 investors, founders, experts from across the world and whose expertise we leverage. We invest at all early stages through three core vehicles. The Astia Fund, Astia Angels and Astia Edge. Astia Fund is a $100 million venture fund investing in series A and B stage companies. Astia Angels is a direct investment membership program. It enables accredited investors to invest at any stage. And Astia Edge is a seed stage fund for companies run by black and Latina female CEOs. And all three vehicles source their deals from that Astia Expert Sift process that I mentioned.

To date, we've invested over 39 million into 63 women-led companies, alongside a total of 735 million, we've had 16 exits, which includes three IPOs. I joined Astia in 2013. I come from an entrepreneurial background as the former founder of a social enterprise in the media space. And in nearly 10 years since, I've managed Astia's direct investment activity, and then in early 2021, became a managing partner of the Astia fund. And then this past February, I stepped into the CIO role at Astia.
EMS:Victoria, congrats on the new role as CIO of your firm. Very exciting. So given your focus on early stage venture investing in women entrepreneurs, I wanted you to share your overall outlook for this space.
VP:Yeah. So there is just no math that can make sense of the fact that less than 2% of venture capital goes to women CEOs. And even when you expand that lens to having a woman anywhere on the founding team, the percentage is somewhere between 5% to 10%, depending on whose data you're using. So that means that 90% or more of venture dollars are invested into all male teams, and predominantly white men at that. So it's just a broken system. There is so much talk out there, but very few are walking the walk. At Astia, we're focused on walking the walk. We don't mentor women, we don't try to fix women, we don't run yet another program for women, we invest. And that's what we need others to do.

In our own fundraise process for the fund, we found that there are many LPs who claim to invest in diverse managers or new emerging managers. But when you look at the quantums, you'll see an institution with billions of dollars under management and just 150 million set aside for emerging diverse managers. That doesn't really help. I do think progress is happening, but it's slow and we need more leaders to step up. I'll give a quick shout out to Mastercard, who's the anchor LPNR fund because they not only talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion, they put dollars where their mouths are, as have all of our LPs. We just need more to follow suit.
EMS:Absolutely, Victoria. What you're doing is so inspiring, and hopefully, other women-led venture capital firms will do the same. So I wanted to ask you more specifically, Victoria, where do you see some of the greatest opportunities and why?
VP:I think given the state of the world and the crises that we're in, whether it's climate, health, women's reproductive rights, racial equity, you name it, there are huge opportunities to address these issues and have a high growth, highly profitable investment. A few examples from our own fund portfolio are Full Harvest. It's a marketplace for large enterprises like Danone and Mondolēz to purchase produce that would otherwise be tilled back into the ground. And that's a major contributor to climate change. Or we have Goalsetter, which is a financial literacy platform for families with a particular mission to reduce the racial wealth gap. Or we have Pallet Shelter, which makes temporary housing for the homeless to help them transition with dignity from the street to permanent housing.
So these opportunities are emblematic of real world solutions to real problems. And I think there are a lot of exciting opportunities like that out there.
EMS:Absolutely, Victoria. I wanted to shift gears a little and ask you, alternatively, what are some of the greatest challenges you're up against and why?
VP:I think the greatest challenge is that systems are hard and slow to change. So access to capital for women is a challenge. We face it every day at Astia, both watching our entrepreneurs raise capital and our own journey of raising capital for the Astia Fund. Just recently, another GP told me that with the amazingly strong reputation that Astia has in the market, if we were a bunch of white men, we would've raised our fund months ago. And I think that's true. I see it again and again. We just have these systemic problems that are really sticky and hard to challenge.
EMS:Victoria, that segues into the next question I wanted to ask you. Clearly, being a woman money manager is such an inspiration, and I'd love for you to impart your experience about this and what you're doing to inspire others to foray into this?
VP:So, it's a funny question because I never aspire to be a money manager. And my teenage self, I think, would gag at the concept. And I always considered myself a creative type. I danced, I sang, I acted all through school and I thought I wanted to pursue a career in the arts. I actually quickly ended up on the decision making side of the table as a casting director. So for about four years, I was the casting director of Rent, the Broadway musical, not the original cast, but the replacements and the tours and all of that. And I used to travel around the country holding auditions.

So you can think American Idol, but it was before American Idol. And if anyone on this, listening to the podcast, ever auditioned for Rent back in their early days, you would've auditioned for me. So then I launched a production company. I produced theater and film written by women. So I've always focused on gender equity. And I ran and built that social enterprise for 11 years. And it was an amazing entrepreneurial journey. And it led me to wanting to do more to help other entrepreneurs. And I thought about microfinance as the road not taken.

I had spent time in Kenya and Cameroon in high school and college, and I'd studied early days of microfinance and all it could do to empower women. And that led me to get a graduate degree from Columbia's School for International and Public Affairs. But then very quickly, I learned that the microfinance desk job in New York City just wasn't interesting to me. It was too far removed from the entrepreneurs. And at the same time, I was learning about this dearth of funding for women in venture. And I was shocked. And it became a real calling to me. It was an area where I could do something about gender inequity and bring my entrepreneurial experience to bear.
So that's when I dove in, met with lots of people, had lots of coffees, volunteered a bunch and eventually connected with Astia, and the rest is history. But the interesting thing about all of that was that I had had over 10 years of experience running my own company in the media space. And I was really expert. I was expert in producing theater and developing our artistic projects and running a production team. And I had some clout. And here I was, and I was totally new at venture, and I had to go back to step one and it was terrifying.

And I remember only a couple of years in, I was on a panel at a conference and I was thinking to myself, "I have nothing to contribute to this conversation and I should not be up here." And I remember just missing that feeling of being an expert and wondering if I would ever feel that confidence again. But I've always learned by doing. When I started my own company, that was my every day. So I stuck with investing. I learned, I made mistakes. Of course, I still sometimes do. But now, 10 years in, almost 10 years, I do feel an expert or I've started to. And that's great.

And I know some guy would already feel he was an expert on day one, but the reality for so many women who've been socialized differently is it takes some time. So when you talk about inspiring other women, my advice to other women is really less specific to being in the money management space, but more to anyone considering a career change. It's uncomfortable, but embrace the discomfort, and you will feel expert again and you will build your confidence back up. And so my biggest advice is, don't let being a beginner again ever hold you back. Just go for it, and you will get there.
EMS:Victoria, I loved hearing your journey of how you got to where you are today, and a very interesting background. So to shift gears to the next topic, being a woman owned firm, you always incorporated DEI into the firm's culture, but now it's never been more urgent on so many levels, and I'd welcome the opportunity to learn more about how the firm champions it.
VP:Sure. So obviously, the inclusion of women is core to everything at Astia. But we did have a painful aha moment around 2016, we were patting our backs for how our sourcing and screening process mitigated racial bias. We had really good diversity at the end of the funnel, we were feeling good about that, but at the same moment, we realized that none of our investments and this was through our angel direct investment program, none of our investments had actually gone into those companies. We realized we did not have one black CEO in our portfolio of more than 20 companies.

And so for an organization that has DEI as a core tenant, this was a real wake up moment. And at that time, we began to put into place processes to change that. So we started tracking race in a way that we had not been doing so we could really get a baseline of what was coming in and out of the funnel. We began paying attention to how bias was coming in at the investment decision process after the funnel, but really when the investment decision making was happening. And we really started addressing those moments.

We raised some funding to do a pilot to invest in black CEOs and see what levers we could pull to reduce the frictions and drive more investment into those companies. And out of that pilot, which we published our findings on, we developed Astia Edge. So we have now hired a managing director for Edge and she's driving forward our development of that work, including its full integration into all of our investment activity, because this is a holistic problem that we're constantly looking at how to do better in.
EMS:Victoria, we've covered a tremendous amount of ground today. So I wanted to see what your future plans are for the firm.
VP:So when Astia was founded 20 years ago, the goal was to put ourselves out of business within 10 years because we would've successfully leveled the investment playing field for women. Now, fast forward, we see that the problem is just far stickier and far more systemic. So now, we are really focused on building an institution to last. And so when you ask what our future plans are, well, we will continue to invest, plain and simple.
EMS:Victoria, I wanted to thank you so much for sharing your perspective with our listeners. And thank you for listening to the EisnerAmper podcast series. Visit eisneramper.com for more information on this and a host of other topics, and join us for our next EisnerAmper podcast when we get down to business.

Transcribed by Rev.com

About Elana Margulies-Snyderman

Elana Margulies-Snyderman is an investment industry reporter and writer who develops articles, opinion pieces and original research designed to help illuminate the most challenging issues confronting fund managers and executives.


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