‘Tech VC funding is and always has been a boys’ club’

19 Oct 2023

Image: Ekaterina Almasque

Ekaterina Almasque, co-founder of European Women in VC, says politicians need to take ‘more action’ to encourage women in a hostile VC environment.

For the past number of years, Ekaterina Almasque has dedicated herself to advocating for women in the venture capital industry. She is a co-founder of European Women in VC, an advocacy group she helped set up with a group of women who were equally frustrated with the blocks preventing talented women from breaking into the scene.

Like most advocates, her dedication is based on her own experiences; she had to overcome a lot of hurdles to break into venture capital almost two decades ago. She told SiliconRepublic.com that while Europe was bad in terms of representation of women, Silicon Valley was downright hostile back in the mid-00s. At times she was the only woman in the room and she was routinely ignored. It was a boys’ club.

Breaking into the scene

Nowadays, she is a general partner at VC firm OpenOcean with a keen interest in tech-focused start-ups. She owes her knowledge of tech to the years she spent working at the cutting edge of technology, building software companies and some of the first AI products. This was back in the 90s.

She recalls attending tech conferences with the founders of what are now some of the world’s biggest tech players. She worked for Siemens and was based in Europe for some time, but she became frustrated by the conglomerate’s “risk-averse” attitudes on a corporate level, which she felt were hindering its growth.

She wanted to take advantage of new opportunities in the market. “I was thinking about what would be the best thing for me to do and venture capital was an attractive option.” She made up her mind to pursue it when she was encouraged by a professor she knew. “They said, ‘Well, your profile is actually perfect for venture capital’.”

Hostile environment

She made some investments for Siemens and some other corporates in Silicon Valley, before partnering with Open Ocean in 2019. Somewhere in between, she tried to set up her own private fund. She managed a pledge fund for family offices for several years while living in Brazil. Her path was not an easy one. Despite a wealth of knowledge and business experience behind her, Almasque found it extraordinarily difficult to gain not only respect but basic recognition from her wealthy, male peers.

‘In the US, I went to events where men wouldn’t talk to me. I would have been one person in the audience and people wouldn’t even approach me’

“Everyone knew everyone,” she says. “In the US, I went to events where men wouldn’t talk to me. I would have been one person in the audience and people wouldn’t even approach me – not to say I wasn’t used to that in the technological industry.”

She recalls one particular occasion when she was leading a tech conference and she had to give a talk. “There were 1,000 people at the conference and I was the only woman in the room. And I was on the stage, speaking. It was such a hostile environment in a way because I felt like I wasn’t welcome entering the room.” Almasque laughs at the absurdity of it. “It was very shocking.”

Plodding progress

These days things are “slowly changing” but it is clear that change is not coming fast enough. For the past few years, European Women in VC have been campaigning heavily to raise awareness of the need for increased access to funding for women VCs. In 2021, the organisation addressed European commissioner for innovation and research Mariya Gabriel on a Zoom call. They presented the findings of a report they had commissioned on the gender disparity for VCs in Europe along with a series of recommendations.

The following year they released a report and this year they released yet another. The latest report says that general partnership in Europe is “still a boys’ club” in 2023.

Almasque says the “message is getting across, but what we need to see is more action”. The group would love to see things like state-owned funds “to be more in tune with the real economic situation; many women come into the industry and they cannot really invest a lot of capital. Many women come from not-so-wealthy backgrounds, and just with their brains and hard work, they make it happen. They cannot really put €1m towards creating a fund.”

“I think a lot of people in government don’t realise how hard it is,” says Almasque, adding, “There is a lot of talk about interests being aligned, but not to make it happen”.

On a more positive note, when we ask her about Ireland’s start-up scene she is full of enthusiasm. While she has no Irish start-ups on her portfolio currently, she says she is looking at several – although she is reluctant to name names. “If I do then everyone will be interested,” she says with a smile.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic