By Nada Shousha, Vice-Chair, Egyptian American Enterprise Fund and Adviser, International Finance Corporation, and Amal Enan, Chief Investment Officer, American University in Cairo
“We invest in strong management and solid businesses, regardless of gender”—this is common rhetoric of fund managers, whose industry is historically dominated by men. Less than 1 percent of the $70 trillion of global financial assets is managed by minority- or women-owned firms1U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: Diversity and Inclusion Report.. As allocators of capital, we’ve become numb to reading management reports of publicly listed companies dominated by men; in fact, only 0.01 percent of all IPOs (initial public offerings) in the United States were led by female founders. We also know that it takes a village to get there, and early backers determine where founders end up. So, where are the investors in female founders along their journeys? Is being gender blind leading us to miss out on the larger opportunities?
Creating inclusive markets that solve problems of limited access to healthcare, education, financial and other services hinges on enabling diverse business leaders. Women are not only half of the market and a large part of the labor force, but they are also drivers of household expenditures. Their inability to access markets excludes entire families from better standards of living.
Countless studies have shown the benefits that materialize from gender diversity in building companies that deliver both financial returns and social benefits. Yet, in the venture-capital and private-equity (VC and PE) industries, which provide entrepreneurs with access to funding when public-equity markets and debt may be less viable sources of capital, women remain severely underrepresented as investment decision-makers and as capable investees and recipients of growth funding.
Billions of dollars are invested in growing startups every year; 2 percent of those dollars go to female founders2Fast Company: “Why it’s incredibly rare for companies led and founded by women to IPO,” Leslie Feinzaig, July 16, 2021.. The lack of diversity is even more pronounced in emerging markets and is dismal in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where we both work. Venture funding in the region reached record highs, crossing the billion-dollar mark in 20203Magnitt: “MENA HI 2021 Venture Investment Report.. In contrast, female founders receiving funding represented only 6 percent of the total VC and PE funding available in MENA4International Finance Corporation: “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital,” 2019.. This is not just a missed opportunity; it’s a grave market fail.
When talking to women business owners, we often ask why fundraising is a challenge. Looking at their pace of growth, funding remains a critical constraint. The data reveals that the median female-led business receives 65 percent of the funding received by the median male-led business. Female founders tend to receive funding at the earlier stages from accelerators and incubators, then fall out of the arena in later (and larger) funding rounds. Male-led businesses are more likely to receive second-time funding than female-led businesses—17 percent versus 13 percent, respectively.
One often-cited limitation is, sadly, behavioral: “I’m not investor-ready”. Women are significantly more conservative in fundraising and avoid investors until they reach higher milestones in their businesses. Further challenges arise around where to meet with investors—here, culture plays an important role. Since most networking events happen during kids’ bedtime hours or over drinks, women in MENA tend to be excluded from the conversation. Social norms are one reason why women entrepreneurs are less likely to go after growth industries. One MENA female founder openly said on a roadshow, “I’d love to see male founders get asked: ‘Who’s taking care of the kids while you are fundraising?’” During due diligence, the founder of a last-mile delivery company was repeatedly asked, “But isn’t logistics too operations heavy for a woman?”
By and large, the anecdotes are many, and there is limited data to quantify the challenges. A few success stories do exist, placing some of MENA’s female founders in the spotlight, as was the case for the exit of the ecommerce platform Mumzworld or the acquisition of the events-management technology platform Eventtus by a US-based player. Speaking to women business leaders, each has battle scars to show and a common sentiment to share: “It was lonely. We rarely found women investors on the other side of the table.”
The VC and PE industries are still largely homogenous. Men comprise 90 percent and 85 percent of investment committees in both, respectively. That’s where decisions are being made and where the future of what our markets will look like is determined.
A mere 11 percent of senior investment professionals in emerging markets’ private equity and venture capital are women. Representation falls to 8 percent when excluding China and is only 7 percent in MENA. The picture demonstrates a major lag of 17 percent compared to female representation in business leadership within other sectors5Ibid..
Not only are few women found in the leadership of private-equity and venture-capital firms, but few women are in the leadership of the companies in which these firms invest. Just 20 percent of portfolio companies have gender-balanced leadership teams, and almost 70 percent are all male—even though, of the gender-balanced leadership teams in their portfolios, 87 percent have better decision-making, 61 percent show enhanced governance, and 60 percent have greater ability to serve larger, more diverse markets and consumers6Ibid..
Research confirms that the paucity of gender diversity is not good for business and financial returns. A Harvard Business Review study concluded that gender-diverse fund managers deliver an incremental 10 to 20 percent in returns compared to non-gender-diverse peers7Harvard Business Review: Study by Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali.. When VC firms increased female-partner hires by 10 percent, they saw 1.5-percent increases in returns for the overall funds and 9.7 percent more profitable exits.8International Finance Corporation: “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital,” 2019.
An International Finance Corporation (IFC) study found that investing in gender-balanced leadership teams yielded 25 percent higher valuations. The median gender-balanced portfolio company was found to have a 64-percent increase in company valuation between two rounds of funding or liquidity events compared to 10 percent for imbalanced teams.
The imbalances in portfolio companies are correlated with the imbalances in investment managers’ leadership teams, since networks play active roles in sourcing investment opportunities and selecting senior management for portfolio companies.
Female partners were found to be twice as likely to invest in startups with one female founder and more than three times more likely to invest in a female CEO9Women in Venture Capital 2020 Report. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, this is in line with the finding that VCs are much more likely to invest if they share the same gender or race as the founder.Without the equal representation of female investors, female founders will continue to be overlooked.
If the research unequivocally supports gender-balanced ecosystems, this is enough reason to turn the tide. We need to acknowledge that the barriers are real, and they range from closed networks, biases and inadequate commitment to gender diversity from allocators. To be overcome, a concerted effort is required from multiple stakeholders.
When it comes to perceptions on gender diversity, a disconnect exists between limited partners (LPs), who allocate capital to funds, and general partners (GPs), who manage a fund and invest the capital raised. According to the IFC study, 65 percent of LPs regarded the gender diversity of a firm’s investment team as important when committing capital to funds. However, GPs reported that less than 30 percent of their LPs emphasized gender diversity when making investment decisions. If only 25 percent asked about gender diversity during due diligence and even fewer made capital commitments conditional on gender outcomes, the pledge to diversity should be perceived as weak at best.
LPs who set clear gender-diversity goals for their investments and underscore diversity outcomes in due diligence send strong signals to GPs that the organization is committed to diversity. The goals then feed into GPs’ portfolio managers’ diversity targets. Fund managers would require gender-disaggregated data from their portfolio companies and commit to improving capital allocation to gender-balanced leadership teams. Reflecting diversity goals in their investment processes and portfolio management is a major action LPs can take towards closing the gender gap while maintaining or increasing returns.
The data demonstrates a clear correlation between the performance of gender-balanced investment teams and higher returns. Despite their vocal interest in diversifying their investment leadership teams, less than 10 percent of GPs have strategies for achieving it. It’s a perpetual cycle, as hiring is dependent on networks. With fewer women in investment leadership roles, there are fewer partners who can tap into the talent pool of junior and senior women who have paths to partnership. Similarly, subjective evaluation criteria such as “cultural fit” in a male-dominated industry place women at a disadvantage and feed the cycle. Committing to internal diversity targets for hiring and promoting female staff and managers levels the playing field and improves women’s access to the opportunities already available to their male peers.
As the research shows, investing in gender-balanced leadership teams yields higher valuation and returns. Yet, less than 40 percent of surveyed general partners track gender-disaggregated employment data, and only 33 percent actively pursue diverse candidates when sourcing talent for portfolio companies10International Finance Corporation: “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital,” 2019.. Here again, a concerted focus on achieving gender-diversity outcomes is needed through GPs’ diversity tracking; playing an active role in making the business case for diversity and giving feedback on strategies will go a long way in achieving gender balance.
Accountability toward these actions allows LPs and GPs to make headway in closing the gender gap, generating employment opportunities and providing access to markets, which ultimately results in higher returns.
If you fish in the same pond, you will catch the same fish. Looking beyond the familiar comfort zone and making determined efforts for gender diversity and inclusion will result in growing opportunities across asset classes, investment strategies and geographies. Gender-balanced investors are empowered to deploy their resources within diverse teams and through innovative solutions, creating inclusive markets and bridging the wealth gap. The research on returns on investment is clear—it is worth the effort.
1 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: Diversity and Inclusion Report.
2 Fast Company: “Why it’s incredibly rare for companies led and founded by women to IPO,” Leslie Feinzaig, July 16, 2021.
3 Magnitt: “MENA HI 2021 Venture Investment Report.”
4 International Finance Corporation: “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital,” 2019.
7 Harvard Business Review: Study by Paul Gompers and Silpa Kovvali.
8 International Finance Corporation: “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital,” 2019.
9 Women in Venture Capital 2020 Report
10 International Finance Corporation: “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital,” 2019.