When Suzanne Biegel was 10 years old, her activist mother took her to work with her at the League of Women Voters. She remembers marching for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Her first T-shirt was “A woman’s place is in the house … and in the Senate.”
Then she had a successful career in technology and marketing that had nothing to do with women’s empowerment. But now Biegel’s thinking has come full circle. She’s the CEO of an early-stage impact investor network called Investors’ Circle, where she funds entrepreneurs–many of them women–who are making the world better.
“I’m on a mission to make sure that women entrepreneurs are getting as
much exposure as men,” she says. “There’s evidence that women
entrepreneurs have higher success rates and are the key engine of the
economy, yet there’s a dearth of capital available to them.”
Biegel started working at IBM during college, when she was 17. She was part of a marketing team that was prototyping online services in the early ’80s. “We were testing apps with clients saying, if this technology existed, what would people do with it?” she says. She left IBM in 1984 to help launch a company called Trintex, and wrote a business plan for what would later become Prodigy, the first full-access dial-up Internet service. She was still in her early 20s.
In the 90s, Biegel and her partner Sandy Rand ran a successful e-learning company called IEC, which had 200 employees and clients including Lexus, Citigroup, American Express, and United Airlines. That’s when she started to think about the impact big businesses could have if they started incorporating social and environmental issues into their efforts. “We were a training and communications firm, but I found myself talking to Fortune 100 clients about their supply chain policies or greening their business. They usually said ‘thanks, but that’s not why we hired you.'”
Biegel began to realize that her next move was going to have to be much closer to where he her heart was–sustainability and social justice. “I asked myself, is this where I can use my best and highest capability? Is this what I want to be doing?”
The turning point, coincidentally, came at Fast Company‘s Real Time conference in Monterey, CA in 1998. “It flipped a switch,” she says. “I met 400 other people who saw much more like I did around innovation, leadership, and creativity.” She sold IEC later that year and left the company two years later.
For the past decade, Biegel has been an active investor in early-stage companies with a philanthropic slant and runs her own consultancy in addition to heading Investors’ Circle. Last week she was in Washington, DC hosting a conference for accredited investors and innovative startups–including a wheelchair company owned by real wheelchair users, a website that helps designers find sustainable fabrics, and a mobile company in India that facilitates supply chain logistics for rural kiosks.
“I’m inherently a connector,” she says. “I like introducing people and projects to each other and figuring out who can help who.” She uses her marketing expertise to help people tell better stories and “sell” their causes in a way that appeals to a larger audience.
Biegel now lives in London, where entrepreneurs and investors generally take less risk than in the U.S., but are more actively involved in social ventures in India and Africa. “There’s a recognition that Britain developed early wealth by going there and taking advantage of their resources,” she says. “Now, in 2010, people are talking about how we give back, create wealth locally, and lift up those communities.”
As her career developed, Biegel never really thought of herself as a feminist like her mother. Looking back, however, she thinks that her gender may have had some influence on the success of IEC and the way it was run. “I do think we paid more attention to communication, how the work was done–not just that it was done–and how relationships formed with our clients,” she says.
Now, with Investors Circle, Biegel invests in plenty of companies run by women.