Studies show that women entrepreneurs outperform all-men teams by 63 percent; however, despite the data, female founders still receive only about 2 percent of venture capital funding.
The gap is nothing short of staggering, which is why venture capitalist and entrepreneur Nisa Amoils (pictured right) decided to take matters into her own hands. Last year, she published her book WTF is Happening: Women Tech Founders on the Rise, which profiles dozens of female entrepreneurs who are working in disruptive technologies and, in the process, building a new world for us all.
Worth recently had the chance to speak with Amoils about her book, women in tech, funding female founders and why shifting mindsets is so important to closing the funding gap.
Q: So, I read your book, and it’s fantastic!
A: I’m so happy to hear that.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your inspiration behind writing it.
Being in venture capital, I realized that female founders were not getting the funding that they deserve and that there were a lot of women in tech areas, but they didn’t know how to get to the investors.
And the investors didn’t think that existed because it’s all about your network. So, I wanted to highlight the problem, present the business case for investing in women and include a lot of data. But I also really wanted to highlight all these different female founders in all of these different areas of hard tech. I felt like most of the coverage of female founders centered around food, beauty, e-commerce and fashion companies. And it was very convenient to put women in a corner of pink and say, “OK, you can do that little business,” you know? And I was like, no, no, that’s actually only part of the story, and this other part of the story isn’t getting covered. And, I would literally start to write in Forbes about different women, and I would get hate mail from men.
Oh my gosh.
And I said, you know what, I’m just going to write a book and put them all together. And that’s what I did.
That’s great. I love the way you really let those female founders tell their own stories in their own words. Did you have a specific reasoning for that?
I think the power of storytelling is so important and it’s getting at that motivation behind the founder, like what was it about their life experiences that led them to that path? Being an entrepreneur is really hard. It requires a lot of grit, and you really need to have that passion behind you. So, the goal was trying to bring [that passion] out in their own words.
Something that I felt was somewhat of a theme throughout the book—and I think we read about it a lot when it comes to advice for women in whatever industry—is that women can often be their own worst enemy in a way, that their fear of failure can sometimes hold them back. So, I was wondering if there have been any similar situations that you’ve had to deal with on your way to success? What has your experience been like on that end?
I think you’re talking about imposter syndrome.
I think women, especially in this country, are raised in a certain way. And that manifests as an adult in this imposter syndrome. Of course, everybody has fears and gets nervous and whatnot. But I feel like with women, female founders in particular, a lot of the advice that you hear around is, “Oh, this woman just needs to be mentored. She needs to learn how to pitch. She needs to talk to investors.” But you know what? No. This is a systemic problem—this system is built for men. Stop telling the women everything that they need to change about themselves. The system has to change. And that’s what I was really trying to get at: This is a systemic issue.
One of the questions I had for you after reading the book—and I think some of the different founders touch on this—is with blockchain and some of these emerging technologies, have you seen, both as an investor and after interviewing these founders, that in these emerging areas of STEM there is a more level playing field for women?
When I read Emily Chang’s book Breaking Up Brotopia, she kind of ends it with here are all the problems that happen in Silicon Valley in tech. And then, you get this new system, relatively new system, let’s say 10 years old, that’s global, that supposedly stands for democratic access and decentralization and all of these things. Yet, you have this same kind of [problematic pattern] persisting, which I’ve personally observed. And I’m hoping that that could really change because there are more and more women getting into crypto and blockchain, and they just need to be elevated to positions of power and have capital to be able to really execute.
But I think the jury’s still out on that. I’m hoping that we’re not bringing the worst by combining finance and tech, the worst of tech with the worst of finance in this behavior. I hope that people really understand that there are great founders everywhere, and diversity of thought outperforms. I think the BLM movement has certainly done that, but I don’t know how much of that is going towards gender. I think gender’s really been hurt in the pandemic.
Yeah, definitely. Some people are calling it a “she-session.” It’s been really hard for all women, from female founders to women just working regular jobs. I know that as an investor, you work to support female founders. And I think you hit the nail on the head with the fact that we need to be investing more in female founders. Tell me a little bit about your actual process when you’re looking at a company and talking to founders. What are you looking for when you talk to founders, whether they’re women or men?
To really make it simple, I’m always interested in: Why you, why now? Because the “now” part, I think a lot of investors don’t really focus on as much. And if you look historically at returns, a lot of the best returns happen because of timing, like something shifted in the market that allows you to have this business right now, allows it to grow. And a lot of that we can see playing out right now, like telehealth has been around for years and years, but now it’s gaining more prominence because we’re in a pandemic. Or virtual reality and gaming, which has also been around for years, but now that people are home more and looking for outlets, that’s on the rise as well. And I think there has to be—so much of this is market winds—are the winds at your back?
And “why you” is really the…Are you going to have the grit as an entrepreneur to stick it out? And what is really driving you? And also, I think team dynamics are very important, partnership dynamics, especially in the beginning and formation. And then, there’s the usual checklist of things like market size and competition and a bottom-up approach to looking at the size of the market and unit economics and all of these different things that you would look at with any business. But I think the timing and the people, especially at an early stage, are very important.
What stage companies do you generally invest in?
Mostly seed and series A.
Is there anything that you have been seeing emerging as a trend out of this pandemic—outside of telehealth and the big things that everyone’s talking about—that you kind of have your eye on?
2020 has been all about DeFi, or decentralized finance. And while it had been around for a couple of years, it’s really gaining more prominence right now. And as the macro drops, and as the U.S. dollar starts to devalue, and with what the Fed is doing with their recent speech about inflation, et cetera, you’re starting to see much more acceptance at an institutional level for crypto or digital assets in general. So, that could be Bitcoin. It could be tokenization of real assets, like real estate, on the rise. It could be these alt coins that I’m talking about.
I think that there’s a lot more understanding that the U.S. probably will not be the reserve currency of the world anymore. There has been a lot of the attention about the trade deal with China and how far ahead China is versus the U.S. in terms of these technologies because they took it really seriously. So, I’m seeing a lot of that. I’m seeing a lot of regulatory movements in terms of FATF and the travel rule and what’s happening with different exchanges and how they have to know their customers and anti-money laundering regimes. So, there’s definitely a lot of activity, in terms of fintech and payments more broadly.
I think the decentralized finance world is very interesting. I know you have a lot of blockchain entrepreneurs in your book, and you mentioned it’s really starting to gain traction at the institutional level. What does that mean for your average investor though?
I don’t know that DeFi is gaining traction at the institutional level yet. At the institutional level, it’s mostly Bitcoin, Ethereum, etc., and allocating more toward digital assets in general. But I think in DeFi, it’s, primarily right now, a retail-driven phenomenon, and it’s probably crypto native people who are trading on speculation, but that will run its course. And eventually, the rails that are being built right now in DeFi are going to be the foundations of how peer-to-peer works for more institutions and more retail investors.
That makes sense. I have to ask: How did you go from being a lawyer to getting involved in all of this?
I was a securities lawyer. I knew regulation. I knew like Reg A+ and Reg D and Reg Cf, crowdfunding, so it was kind of a natural progression; I was already investing in tech, as a generalist VC. So, we had already made investments in the sector, so I was watching it from early on.
Yeah. That makes sense. What advice would you give female entrepreneurs? I know you asked that of many of the people in your book, and I’m wondering what your own advice is?
In general or sector-specific?
Let’s say in tech right now. What would be your advice for a young woman who has a great idea and wants to start a company?
I would say build your so-called advisory board before you need it. Get other experts around you and probably have a cofounder with complementary skill sets. And study other success stories, and if you’re raising capital and it’s really early, early, try to go to these angel groups that are focused on female founders first. Try to get your connections that way to warm introductions for other venture investors, if you choose to go that route, not every business is a venture investment. You could get debt or a bank loan or other methods of doing finance.
I would say the reason you’re seeing so much in terms of growth of entrepreneurs is because it’s cheaper than ever to start a company, and you don’t have to physically be present anymore. You can start that company and be wherever you are. And the rest of the world has kind of caught on with that now with the pandemic. Whereas we’ve always been working decentralized, now people are like, “Oh, I don’t need to go into the office anymore. I don’t need to fly here for this meeting anymore.” The rest of the world has caught up. So, it’s a good time.
Definitely. So, what do you hope people get out of your book? Obviously, you’re looking to raise awareness, I think, and obviously, the end game is to help more female founders get capital. That’s apparent from the book, but how do you get your book and your message out there to the world? I feel like it’s a very important message, and I know an interview like this can help a little, but it’s such a great message. So, how do you see this progressing?
I think one of the ideas that really needs to shift in the mindset of especially women…if you look at Melinda Gates, and I think it was MacKenzie Bezos who recently gave a huge philanthropy donation…a lot of women are trying to educate other women about the idea of investing—and not just philanthropy. They’re different. So investing is you get a return and you’re looking for return on your capital. And that allows women to accumulate much more wealth than a tax deduction from a giveaway, from a philanthropy, a donation. And I really feel like people equate impact or ESG investing with philanthropy. And it’s not. Philanthropy is a tax code designation. This is completely different.
I feel like that message really needs to get out there, and the mindset needs to change. I know this organization, SheEO, that had a really interesting hybrid model where you could just give a thousand dollars and get some tax donation deduction for that. But you were investing in female founders, and I feel like there was such a hard time converting people over to that. And while people will spend a thousand dollars for a ticket to go to a [charity] dinner and get dressed up, they’re not investing to get more money back. And I think it’s really important to understand that from a wealth creation opportunity; blockchain and crypto are the biggest wealth creation opportunities of our time, probably. And it’s really important for women to participate in that so that we can close this gender gap.
Is there any question that I didn’t ask you that you were hoping I would or something else you wanted to discuss?
I don’t know if we talked about it directly, but it’s really important that this macro shift happens at the highest levels. I’m talking about pensions, endowments, sovereign wealth funds, the ones that control who is ultimately going to get the money. Now if you did, let’s say, even a public service announcement, the pensioner is saying, do you know who’s managing your money? And you have got a picture of all white men. I’m sure there are teacher’s pension funds that are not going to be so thrilled with that. But I feel like pensions need to get Alpha. Everybody’s seeking Alpha. And why are you not looking in a place that’s undershopped, undervalued, but overdelivered?
Why are you not looking there? And I just feel like it’s up to limited partners to make this change because they’re the ones that control most of the capital. All these grassroots efforts that have happened, like I said in the book, all these angel groups and all of these gender lens funds, now they’re like 80 of them, and all of these different educational initiatives and mentoring and this and that. But we’re still at 2.7 percent of the capital that’s actually going to female founders. Why is that? Why hasn’t the needle moved at all? This is why.