Deborah Jackson knows what it means to be the only woman at the table. For more than two decades, she worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, where she grew accustomed to being outnumbered by men.
"I lived that and have some pretty strong feelings about what it is to be a woman in a male-dominated environment," she says.
But after 21 years on Wall Street, Jackson decided to retire from investment banking and get more involved in helping women-run businesses. She joined the investment club Golden Seeds, which focuses on women leaders.
Jackson began sitting in on about 30 venture capital pitches each month, and what she discovered was part encouraging, part disheartening. "There is no lack of female-founded companies," Jackson says. What's lacking, however, is an audience of VCs who understand and want to fund such female-run companies.
Half of the top 25 VC firms—the ones that have given out the majority of funding in the past two years—do not have a woman in a decision-making capacity, according to Jackson. "That's pretty stark to me," she says. "When the flow of money is controlled by a fairly small group made up of men, that produces a certain outcome."
That outcome is only about 5% of all VC funding goes to women-run startups, according to research out of Stanford University. To give women greater opportunities to find funding and get their startups off the ground, Jackson created Plum Alley, an e-commerce and crowdfunding site that helps get women-run businesses the money they need. By the end of 2014, Jackson anticipates the site will have helped 300 women entrepreneurs with successful campaigns.
Over the course of her career—from Wall Street to angel investing—Jackson has gleaned quite a few hard-learned lessons when it comes to funding for women-run businesses.
Before launching Plum Alley, Jackson experimented with different ways to bring women in tech together. In 2011, she organized a weekend-long hackathon for women in which participants built an interactive game to teach the world about sex trafficking.
"I always thought if you put a group of women together, it would be amazing what they could build," she says. "Seeing what was built was really transformative to me." That experience inspired Jackson to think about other ways to bring women together in the startup space, creating the impetus for Plum Alley.
On more than one occasion, Jackson would find herself on a panel of all-male VCs who'd just seen a pitch for a product targeted toward women. The others on the panel would turn to her, and ask: "Deborah, do you think women will use that?" "As if I could speak for all womankind," says Jackson.
It used to bother her, but Jackson admits a pitch for a cutting-edge football mobile app would probably fall on deaf ears with her because it's simply not a product she relates to, or cares about. "If you're not interested in it, you're not going to fund it," she says. "It's a problem, but it's not going to change by people saying you need to fund more female-founded companies."
Her approach is to instead create a space where those female-founded companies can find an audience of like-minded supporters. "Find your audience and sector and do it well," she says. "We are building a community around projects women care about."
Jackson has heard it all when it comes to criticisms for why women entrepreneurs aren't getting as much funding as their male counterparts.
- Women need to be more assertive.
- Women need to take more risks.
- Women need to be better negotiators.
And she's tired of hearing it. "Early-stage male-founded companies have a lot of things that still need some work. There's never much attention on that," she says. "But somehow, women have to get better to be equal, and I just don’t see it like that."
That doesn't mean women can't do better in the startup space. "But there are some things anyone could do to improve their own competence," says Jackson. "The real point is that if the entire industry and culture is dominated by one point of view, it's going to be very difficult for women to change that."
Women take plenty of risks, Jackson argues, but they assess those risks differently than men. "We take risks all the time in our personal lives, but we don't take crazy risks," she says. "We would not bring the world to the edge of a financial collapse."
"All you have to do is take a look at 2008. . . . If women were at the table in equal numbers, they would have said: 'We don’t want to take that risk given the possible return.'"
Jackson knows a crowdfunding site for women isn't going to level the playing field when it comes to VC funding, but creating a community is a step in the right direction.
"We need to do something different," she says. "In my own way, I've said: 'What can I do as one person to make a difference to as many women as I can?'"
Like it or not, money makes the world go round. Often it's what makes the difference between a thriving startup and one that's destined to fail. But that initial funding push not only makes a business financially feasible, it also gives founders the confidence to keep going.
"At the end of the day, funding is the most powerful thing to do for women to get their ideas off the ground," Jackson says.
[Image: Flickr user Hubert Figuière]