WIPP Works in Washington: The Complicated Business of Changing Investment Behavior

I don’t know if you watch the Oscars, or like me, go to a party having barely seen any of the movies. I am usually pretty bored with the thank-you speeches from the winners, but this year one acceptance speech got my attention. It was the speech from the winner of

Anne Sullivan

Ann Sullivan, WIPP Chief Advocate

Best Actress, Frances McDormand, for her role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Referencing women in the audience who “had stories to tell and projects to finance,” she said, “don’t talk to us at the parties tonight, invite us to your office in a couple of days…and we’ll tell you all about them.” She asked the women to stand and told Meryl Streep, “if you do it they’ll all do it.”

The speech caught my attention because women entrepreneurs in all industries including Hollywood share the same vexing problem—access to capital. A damning statistic, women only receive 4% of all commercial loan dollars and 2% of venture capital, shows women entrepreneurs struggle with obtaining adequate capital. Yet, over 36% of businesses are women-owned and are growing at four times the rate of businesses owned by men, so it appears there is no shortage of women seeking operating or investment capital.

Asked why women get so little VC money in Fortune article, Julie Wainwright, founder and CEO of a consignment website The RealReal, thinks it comes down to the lack of female VCs. “When you have different businesses that aren’t proven that may appeal more to a female [customer], a female investor is going to be able to evaluate that” better than a male investor could, she says. “I think in general, most VCs are trying to do their jobs, but there are a lot of unconscious biases.”

A study from Harvard Business Review also points to an additional reason for this deficit—male and female entrepreneurs are asked different questions by VCs, which in turn affects the level of funding they receive. According to the study, when investors asked male entrepreneurs questions they used a promotion orientation, meaning they focused on their hopes and achievements. Alternatively, when questioning women entrepreneurs, they mostly used a prevention orientation, which focused on questions regarding responsibility, security and vigilance. Researchers found that this has a substantial impact on funding outcomes, thus helping to explain the large disparity in VC funding for women entrepreneurs.

Given these barriers, why are so many women starting businesses? It seems to boil down to two reasons: they were either inspired or frustrated. Inspired because they had a good idea, built a better “mousetrap” or decided to create wealth for their families by taking the risk of entrepreneurship. Frustrated because they weren’t getting equal pay for equal work, were tired of a hostile work environment or saw no ability to advance.

A case study by the National Women’s Business Council highlights both of these. The study examined reasons why women become necessity entrepreneurs and of the nine women interviewed, eight cited gender-specific issues, thus making entrepreneurship a necessity. The study also highlights the financial need as the driver to start businesses. “I can relate to many of these women because I’m a prime example of a necessity entrepreneur,” said Kari Warberg Block, NWBC council member and founder and CEO of EarthKind®. “I was fresh out of alternatives with no job options, and I had to do something, anything, to take care of my family. I had an idea to create a safe, natural option for pest control, and 10 years later that has turned into a $20 million-dollar business.”

What are some of the solutions to this vexing problem? Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet but rather a host of solutions necessary to turn this tide. For starters, investors and lenders can start asking the right questions and including women in their review process. Women who sit on the boards of these companies can monitor lending/investing in women-owned companies. And on the policy front, WIPP’s Economic Blueprint suggests a host of policy changes that will help.  They include understanding the data from lending institutions with respect to lending to women, freeing up a regulatory environment that discourages smaller banks from lending to small businesses and developing a track for women to become investors through government backed programs like the Small Business Investment Companies. Lastly, Congress should require a comprehensive review of the Small Business Innovation Research program, which awards only 16% to women.

Even though access to capital for women business owners requires changing cultural biases and policies, all of us can start by educating those around us. If one of us stands up, everyone will stand.