Astia, Google Expand Effort to Match Women-Led Startups with VCs

In social media circles, the story of the month isn’t Twitter’s impending IPO, but rather its feud with outside critics over the tiny number of women executives and board members at the San Francisco company. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo says he’s had difficulty finding a qualified woman to serve on Twitter’s board. Outsider Vivek Wadhwa, the scholar/essayist/entrepreneur, replies that while there may be a shortage of women engineers, that doesn’t mean there aren’t capable women in other industries, and calls Costolo’s stance an example of “male chauvinistic thinking” and “the elite arrogance of the Silicon Valley mafia.”

But to Astia CEO Sharon Vosmek, both sides are missing something. “This whole conversation about the dearth of women technology entrepreneurs is a myth,” she says.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women technologists or startup founders, Vosmek says; it’s that the companies they start don’t have equal access to investment networks. San Francisco-based Astia promotes women-led enterprises in infotech, cleantech, the life sciences, and consumer products. And one piece of evidence behind Vosmek’s assertion is the huge waiting list for slots at the nonprofit’s venture lunch, where startup founders belonging to the Astia network describe their companies to venture investors.

“We have easily triple the number of deals to showcase as we have the capacity to showcase,” Vosmek says.

Ten months ago, the Astia venture lunches became a monthly event, featuring three women founder/CEOs per lunch. Now, with help from Google and other Silicon Valley players, the program is being scaled up again. Astia announced last week that the 2013-2014 season will include 36 lunches across Astia’s network in San Francisco, New York City, and London, with 102 companies taking the stage overall.

And the event could grow even more. “This is a pilot,” Vosmek says. “We know we have even more [companies] than that, we just need to nail the model.” She says Google has already agreed, in principle, to supporting additional “pop-up” lunches in places like Berlin, Dublin, and Tel Aviv.

The founding motivation for the venture lunch series, according to Vosmek, was survey data showing Astia companies weren’t having much luck landing their first key meetings with venture capital firms. It’s not hard to imagine why this might be a challenge, given that most venture capital partners are male, and have male-dominated professional networks. The striking thing, Vosmek says, was how universal the problem was.

“When we asked them ‘Have you presented to any venture fund?’ what we found in the answers was, ‘No, we don’t know any,’” Vosmek says. “They have angel money, friends and family money, and maybe have even had a casual conversation with a venture fund at a low level. But I’m talking about the investor meeting where you bring in your slide deck and your key executives and you talk through the idea. The majority of the companies in our pipeline have not had that experience.”

Providing this experience is the point of the venture lunches. Each lunch is built around three 20-minute presentations from pre-screened Astia member companies. (Entrepreneurs aren’t allowed to present until Astia has polled at least 25 members of its advisory network and “85 percent or more have said ‘This deal is investable today,’” according to Vosmek.) At this year’s lunches, two-thirds of the presenting companies have been offered term sheets or follow-up meetings on the day of the event.

Natalie Wisniewski, whose mobile health startup Profusa went through the Astia program in 2010, says her own fundraising experience was typical of the pattern Vosmek describes. The company managed to raise $7 million in non-dilutive grant support to gather scientific data on the efficacy of its biochemical sensors, which send data to smartphones to help with chronic disease management. But for years, Wisniewski failed to make much headway with equity investors.

“It seems that my male counterparts, through their social circles, have more direct connections” to the venture-capital world, says Wisniewski, the startup’s chief technology officer. But after she presented at one of this year’s Astia lunches, she was able to restart a number of conversations with potential investors.

“I have been at this for a while, and at the lunch I re-engaged with some investors I hadn’t seen for a while, and they remembered me and my story, and I got to tell it again and get them excited about the direction we are going,” Wisniewski says. “And some people I didn’t know followed up afterward. A single lunch is not a solution, but it’s how it fits into the overall network.”

None of the investor conversations sparked by Wisniewski’s lunch presentation have led to a term sheet, partly because ProfUSA hasn’t finished gathering human-trials data for its prototypes. But Wisniewski says she’s optimistic. “You lay the groundwork for what’s to come,” she says.

Richard Simoni, managing partner at Asset Management Ventures, a venture and private equity firm in San Francisco, has attended three Astia lunches so far. (Coincidentally, Asset Management is one of ProfUSA’s investors, though that particular deal didn’t come about through Astia.) Simoni says the lunches are useful to his firm for several reasons. First, there are only three presenters per event, in contrast to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Astia, Google Expand Effort to Match Women-Led Startups with VCs”

  1. Thanks for covering this Wade. When I tell most sophisticated businesspeople that women only get 4-9% of VC funds, and that VC’s get a universal personal income tax break ( that we all fund with our hard earned tax dollars and higher personal tax rates), they are outraged. Tax policy is supposed to drive desired economic outcomes. So, when did we all decide that only men should be funded?

    When we write our tax checks to the IRS we are supporting this powerful discrimination very unknowingly. It is the first time in my life I feel like becoming a tax dodger! Bottom line: The VC world is stuck in 1964 and Astia and others can do all their worthwhile efforts but the tax code itself needs to be changed. We would see a VERY fast correction of this discrimination if VC and PE investors had to fund the real-life population of high-impact company founders more equitably.