17 firestarters driving change in the investment monopoly

19 Dec 2017

Car token and dice on a Monopoly game board. Image: Kamira/Shutterstock

These investors, entrepreneurs, mentors and advocates are blazing a new trail for sci-tech entrepreneurship.

Change takes effort, and it also costs money. While the system supporting start-ups is broken, within its cracks a new breed of investor, advocate and mentor is growing.

There are investors putting their money where their values are and supporting out-of-the-ordinary entrepreneurs and under-represented founders. Alongside them are those who are transforming the typical investment model, as well as the fixers focused on the pipeline problem.

One of the major issues in the start-up ecosystem is gender diversity. It seems that no matter how you cut the figures, the number of women-led companies receiving venture capital (VC) and the number of women directing the course of capital investment is far from even breaking the 10th percentile. In stark contrast, however, our Sci-Tech 100 segment of trailblazers for change in the start-up community is 100pc women. Go figure.

Sara Brand

Sara Brand

Sara Brand, founder of True Wealth Ventures. Image: True Wealth Ventures

Sara Brand founded Austin-based fund True Wealth Ventures in 2015 after working in a myriad of roles, including investing with Fremont Ventures. Brand is an active participant in efforts to create a more welcoming ecosystem for female founders, investing in early-stage women-led companies in the health and sustainability sectors in Texas. By supporting female-led and diverse teams, True Wealth aims to lift the businesses that would otherwise find it tough to get funding.

‘We think there is a financial advantage to having gender-diverse teams’

Brand is a firm believer that more women in powerful positions leads to positive advancement of companies: “We think there is a financial advantage to having gender-diverse teams.”

Susan Lyne and Nisha Dua

Susan Lyne and Nisha Dua, BBG Ventures

From left: Susan Lyne, president and founding partner, and Nisha Dua, partner, BBG Ventures. Images: @smlyne/Twitter and Nisha Dua/LinkedIn

Susan Lyne is the president and founding partner of BBG Ventures, an early-stage fund that supports consumer internet and mobile start-ups – as long as they have at least one female founder. Lyne brings to the table her years of expertise in the media industry, and past roles have included CEO of AOL’s brand group, founder of Premiere magazine and president of entertainment at ABC.

Alongside her role as partner at BBG Ventures, Nisha Dua founded the #BuiltByGirls movement to encourage young women to get involved in tech and give girls a starter education in the VC industry. Also a former AOL employee, Dua has a background in law, previously working with Blake Dawson.

Together, the two women work tirelessly to seek out visionary entrepreneurs and keep a sharp focus on “the greatest untapped opportunity in venture capital … backing women who are using technology to address common life challenges and transform daily habits”.

Niamh Given

Niamh Given. Image: Niamh Given

Niamh Given is chief growth officer at Nest.vc, an innovation platform that enables start-ups to achieve the extraordinary through access to investment, partnerships and community engagement across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Given has more than 12 years of operations experience and more than eight years of experience working in product development in China. She was also a founding member of Highway1, a premier hardware accelerator based in San Francisco that has brought more than 60 hardware start-ups through a four-month accelerator programme and raised more than $80m in funding. She will be speaking at Inspirefest 2018.

Arlan Hamilton

Arlan Hamilton, Backstage Capital

Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner, Backstage Capital. Image: Backstage Capital

Every bit the rockstar VC, Arlan Hamilton has charted a journey from homelessness to managing Backstage Capital, a $5m fund for under-represented founders. That umbrella covers all those entrepreneurs who identify as LGBTQ, women and people of colour. Since 2015, the company has invested more than $2m in such start-ups, hitting a round 50 in its portfolio this year.

‘Every VC fund in existence who wants to still be killing it in 10 years should be diversifying their team today’

Backstage Capital aims to reach 100 founders by 2020. But, inevitably, Hamilton wants to put herself out of a job. “The result of what we’re doing at Backstage, for me, is about representation, so that I am obsolete and the fund is obsolete within a few years,” she said.

Ari Horie

Ari Horie. Image: fresco.vc

Ari Horie is an incredible woman, not just as an entrepreneur but also as an advocate for women in business. As founder and CEO of Women’s Startup Lab in Silicon Valley, she’s on a mission to empower women and help them turn their ideas into successful businesses.

‘I want to advance women entrepreneurs, so that they can thrive among men and also influence the world’

But that’s not all Horie is doing. She’s determined to change the mentality in Silicon Valley using the Hito Ethic, which derives from the idea that every person is really the product of a community. That community is for both men and women aiming to create an environment where women can find strength in one another, as well as through collaboration with their male counterparts.

Sallie Krawcheck

Former Wall Street CEO Sallie Krawcheck has teamed up with analysts, entrepreneurs and engineers in her mission to close the gender money gap for women. Her solution is Ellevest, a wealthtech platform tailored for women. Ellevest manages investment portfolios using an algorithm that aligns with women’s incomes and life cycles.

To start on this journey, Krawcheck has herself had to overcome the struggle of seeking funding in a system where female founders get just a measly slice of the venture capital pie. Thankfully, $34.6m in funding led by Rethink Impact has set Ellevest on its way.

Aileen Lee

Aileen Lee

Aileen Lee. Image: Cowboy Ventures

Aileen Lee is the founder of Cowboy Ventures, a seed-stage fund that has backed start-ups such as Dollar Shave Club and Textio. The longtime venture capitalist is responsible for the now-ubiquitous term ‘unicorn’ in relation to privately held start-ups, which she coined back in 2013.

‘A lot of women don’t get credit for being smart, they get credit for being nice and being human’

An advocate for diversity in tech, Lee holds regular dinners for female VCs and has played a major part in the creation of Office Hours, a series of events to support female founders. She wants to change the game for women in entrepreneurship. “I feel like a lot of women don’t get credit for being smart, they get credit for being nice and being human.”

Claire Lee

Claire Lee. Image: Silicon Valley Bank

Claire Lee. Image: Silicon Valley Bank

Claire Lee, who is billed to speak at Inspirefest 2018, is the managing director of early-stage banking at Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), a group that works with founders, entrepreneurs and pre-Series A companies. Originally from Wicklow, she made the move to San Francisco to help SVB “democratise access to capital for entrepreneurs globally”.

Passionate about education, inclusion, international affairs, and providing greater access to capital and opportunity, Lee is an adviser to Astia Global and the US Department of State, and sits on the NationSwell council. She recently told Siliconrepublic.com how investing in people, not strictly in product, is an enduring trend in San Francisco.

Viola Llewellyn

Viola Llewellyn. Image: Ovamba

Viola Llewellyn. Image: Ovamba

Viola Llewellyn, co-founder and president of Ovamba, is connecting African SMEs to sources of short-term capital. Her Cameroon-based fintech start-up aims to improve financial accessibility in Africa, and recently collaborated with Microsoft on the first African language-driven chatbot. Last year, Ovamba won the African FinTech Award in the Lending and Finance category, and this year is set to generate $3.5m in revenue while seeking expansion in Ghana, Senegal and Sudan.

“Ovamba has worked hard to open the doors to financial inclusion,” Llewellyn told Ventureburn ahead of her appearance as the first African female founder speaking at Slush, which she took as “a fantastic opportunity for the world to see Africa very differently”.

Roya Mahboob

Roya Mahboob. Image: Zimbio.com

The definition of a powerhouse, Roya Mahboob became one of Afghanistan’s first female chief executives at the age of 23, starting the Afghan Citadel Software Company. Later, she turned her profits into the Digital Citizen Fund, teaching Afghan women and girls digital and financial skills. Almost 8,000 women have graduated with better job prospects since its inception.

From her new base in New York, Mahboob mentors dozens of young women emerging from the programme with their own businesses. “Technology really helped me,” she said. “So, why don’t we help other girls?”

Natalia Oberti Noguera

Natalia Oberti Noguera. Image: Paola Kudacki

Natalia Oberti Noguera. Image: Paola Kudacki

With Pipeline Angels, founder and CEO Natalia Oberti Noguera is building a network of women angel investors creating capital for women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs. Pipeline Angels recently introduced a VC-in-residence role to give aspiring VCs access to this network and put them in a better position to bring on limited partners (LPs) – but more on that later.

‘If you want to be inclusive, be explicit’

Also this year, Oberti Noguera launched the podcast Pitch Makeover where entrepreneurs receive constructive feedback on their pitch from investors and lawyers. Oberti Noguera has hired women, non-binary people and men of colour at every level of producing the podcast, and is using this platform to put more under-represented founders in the spotlight.

Ellen Pao

Ellen Pao, partner at Kapor Capital and co-founder of Project Include

Ellen Pao, chief diversity and inclusion officer, Kapor Center. Image: Ellen Pao

2015 was the year Ellen Pao lost her gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, but 2017 brought a reckoning. The Silicon Valley sexism Pao had publicly called out was finally in an incriminating spotlight, and ‘the Pao effect’ had unleashed its full power.

‘My lawsuit failed. Others won’t’

But there will be no victory party. No one will revel in the “tremendous sadness” these stories of harassment bring. Now, vindicated and helming a project to change a broken system, Pao is calling for an end to toxic VC culture forming start-ups in its own image.

Anne Ravanona


Anne Ravanona, founder and CEO of Global Invest Her, speaking at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Founder and CEO of Global Invest Her, Anne Ravanona is a powerhouse when it comes to the realm of entrepreneurship. A contributor to Siliconrepublic.com, Ravanona is on a mission to “disrupt the world of funding” for women founders. She is a keen believer in sowing the seeds of entrepreneurship at an early age in her bid to tackle the $300bn funding gap and transform the face of the investment industry.

She stirred up the crowd at Inspirefest 2017 with her call to action: “I am passionate about creating a profound shift in the funding of early-stage women entrepreneurs to help create a more level playing field.”

Vicki Saunders

Vicki Saunders, SheEO

Vicki Saunders, founder, SheEO. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

It’s been a monumental year for Vicki Saunders and SheEO, an alternative funding platform for women entrepreneurs. First, the Canadian company she founded expanded to the US, followed shortly by New Zealand.

‘I don’t want to put my capital into the same old dumb apps that don’t do anything in the world’

SheEO brings together ‘activators’ – women who each add $1,100 to the fund. This group then selects five women-led ventures to invest in, targeting those that have a social impact but also generate revenue. The goal is to have enough activators to amount to a $1bn fund by 2025. Next year, they’ll be on the hunt for activators in the Netherlands, Australia and Mexico.

Sydney Thomas

Sydney Thomas. Image: Precursor Ventures

Sydney Thomas. Image: Precursor Ventures

Sydney Thomas is the investment associate and head of operations at Precursor Ventures, an early-stage investment firm focused on “people over product”. Thomas herself says she is “betting on real people”, meaning small businesses and people who make less than a six-figure annual salary.

Alongside her Precursor role, Thomas has been named the first VC in residence at Pipeline Angels, where she is learning the ins   and  outs of angel investment as well as building relationships with women and non-binary femmes who could be tomorrow’s LPs.

Sharon Vosmek

Sharon Vosmek has frequently commented on the continued tone deafness of Silicon Valley, believing that the investment models currently in place have lost sight of what venture capitalism is truly about.

‘My model is personal. It’s between you, me, your innovation and us changing the world’

Astia, the company of which Vosmek has been CEO since 2007, hopes to “move the needle” by investing in high-growth start-ups led by women and minorities – start-ups that the “corrupted market” may otherwise overlook in lieu of a constant pursuit to find a unicorn.

“Investment is personal,” she said. “It’s as much who I am as what I do.”


Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Super Early Bird Tickets for Inspirefest 2018 are on sale until 24 December 2017.

Car token and dice on a Monopoly game board. Image: Kamira/Shutterstock

Updated, 9.10am, 20 December 2017: This article was updated to clarify that Pipeline Angels has introduced a VC-in-residence role, not a programme.