The VC World Is Still a Boys' Club -- Here's How to Change That

Women provide a unique perspective that is often missing in venture capital firms.

learn more about Alison Wistner

By Alison Wistner

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According to a recent analysis by Axios, the venture capital (VC) world is overwhelmingly dominated by men, with women making up fewer than 9 percent of all decision-makers in the industry. What makes this even more shocking is the fact that this is an improvement over 2017, when only 7 percent of decision-makers were female, and 2016, when women made up just 5.7 percent.

Related: How Coaching Can Help Women Get Ahead in the Tech Industry

I've worked in the VC space for more than 20 years, and these figures actually seem generous. When I think of the breakdown in my home state of Utah, where even fewer executive-level positions are held by women, the gender gap can certainly feel like a barrier for females looking to break into predominantly male venture capital networks.

While we are seeing improvements in terms of hiring diversity, we have a long way to go. The VC world has historically been an extremely small and exclusive club. Investment professionals in leadership positions have spent years gradually moving through the ranks and being groomed for their roles. The issue is not simply that there aren't enough women at the top. It lies instead with the talent pipeline: There are simply not as many women in the VC field to train and eventually transition into positions of leadership.

Interestingly, companies who hire women in the name of gender diversity actually perpetuate the problem and may place employees into roles for which they are unqualified due to lack of experience. VC is an apprenticeship business by its very nature. Those who reach partner have been exposed to mentorship and training opportunities through their career, specifically for these highly specialized roles through apprentice programs.

That being the case, the solution isn't to simply implement a quota to ensure a greater volume of women. Such initiatives often lead to misplaced hiring objectives and also limit the talent pool. An alternative approach hires the right women with the right experience for the right positions across all levels of the organization. As decision-makers, we must do our due diligence when recruiting talent and proactively seek out employees with experience required to succeed in the role. Since experience is often sector-specific, it is important to closely evaluate a candidate's background to ensure it matches the goals for the position.

Related: Missing: Women CEOs' Career Development. Here's How to Fix it.

For example, attracting operators or founders who have previously raised venture capital can significantly broaden the pool of talent at an investment firm. More often than not, however, we see this happen through the hiring of male entrepreneurs-in-residence. The strategy can and should be implemented equally to include female entrepreneurs.

Venture capitalism can be daunting if you're not used to the boardroom, which is why gradually building experience every step of the way is so critical. My advice to individuals looking to advance through the ranks is to develop a discipline and a sector expertise that differentiates your voice in these scenarios and make your experience as unique as possible. For instance, while my background was predominantly in finance, I dove headfirst into healthcare IT and healthcare services to add an additional layer of qualifications to my resume. This made me stand out from the crowd and eventually led to my current position as leader of a healthcare company.

While creating this unique perspective may seem like a challenge, there are actually a number of relatively simple ways to expand your horizons and differentiate your skill set. Employees looking to grow should attend networking and fundraising events and pay careful attention to the insights imparted by speakers and peers. They must also pinpoint their passions and make every effort to immerse themselves in their industry by consuming books, videos and articles, and by attending seminars and conferences. Over time, they will become a bona fide expert in the space.

Humans naturally spend more time with people of similar backgrounds, gender and education. Be aware of the network bias effect when seeking mentorship and overcome it by building relationships with executives and peers you admire and want to learn from, regardless of gender.

Related: 7 Women Investors Reveal What's Different When a Woman Evaluates Your Pitch

While employees should actively seek out these opportunities, employers also play a pivotal role in making them available to staff, especially women, to encourage growth at every level of the organization. What's more, employers should also encourage their workforce to partake in these opportunities and use available resources for professional growth. Equally important is finding a niche and excelling in it through a combination of self-education, diligent research and training.

Women can also use their minority position in VC to their advantage by illustrating a distinct understanding of an addressable market, including new technologies and new consumer products. Lack of gender diversity at a VC fund can sometimes limit the overall aptitude required to assess markets that attract largely female consumers, or similarly, those that leverage the tremendous buying power of females. In the same way I never would have understood the market or investment opportunity of esports without having a teenage son, companies are unable to appropriately debate and assess certain investments without diversity of gender, thought and ethnicity within a firm. Women can use this to their advantage and leverage the opportunity to insert their voice.

While the numbers may tell a different story on paper, we are making progress with leaving the days of the "boys' club" behind. As a society, we've recognized the need for change, and the time for more women to get involved in the investment world. While there has historically been a disproportionate amount of funding for male founders compared to female founders, successful investors are now realizing the inherent value of gender diversity across their investment practice. Look no further than companies such as Spanx, 23andMe, General Motors and Epic Systems. Not only does the VC space at large benefit from more diverse work environments, recent research has also shown some significant financial benefits of gender diversity. According to Thompson Reuters, companies with boards that maintain more balanced gender ratios experience better stock prices and hold greater overall value.

While the gender gap remains a significant issue, the tides are in fact changing for the better. Investment professionals have the power and resources to reduce the gender gap in this lifetime. Leaders must work together to ensure women are equipped with the tools to excel. With mentorship and training, we can shape the next crop of VC up-and-comers and make it the most diverse generation yet.

Alison Wistner

CEO of UpWell Health

Alison Wistner leads UpWell's corporate strategy and operational leadership, bringing a broad range of investment experience in healthcare services and HCIT companies to her role. She was named a Top 40 Under Forty by Utah Business magazine and received the Trailblazer Award from the Women Tech Council.

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