Could 2018 be a watershed for women entrepreneurs? In July, Tina Sharkey, cofounder and CEO of direct-to-consumer company Brandless, announced a $240 million Series C funding round—an apparently unprecedented sum for a woman-led private company. A few days later, Aileen Lee’s Cowboy Ventures said it raised $95 million to invest in tech startups. In this month’s cover story, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton reveals that by year’s end her fund will write $1 million checks to two companies founded by black women.
There’s still much work to do, of course. As Melinda Gates notes in an essay, women founders receive just 2% of venture capital dollars. And according to a new survey conducted by Fast Company and our colleagues at Inc., running one’s own company doesn’t insulate women from gender bias: 53% of the 279 female founders we polled said they had experienced discrimination or bias from clients, employees, bankers, and financiers.
Which brings us back to Hamilton, a gay African-American woman who pushed her way into the investing ranks just a few years ago. Her bets may not pay off, but she’s already won in one important sense: Because she doesn’t fit the typical VC mold, she is able to connect with frustrated female entrepreneurs and help fund their achievements. “Though she may not have the biggest of funds, part of what makes her such a force is that she knows, firsthand, what it’s like to be underestimated—and recognizes the value of otherwise overlooked founders,” notes Fast Company’s Amy Farley, who edited Ainsley Harris’s sharp profile of Hamilton. Fully eliminating the funding gap will require the biggest financiers to broaden their portfolios, but vocal investors such as Hamilton and Gates (she is a backer and limited partner in female-led firms) are sparking important conversations—and opening doors.
Women are also making their mark on Fast Company’s seventh annual Innovation by Design Awards, which honor individuals and businesses solving the problems of today and tomorrow. British architect Amanda Levete’s firm is a winner in the Spaces, Places, and Cities category for its expansion of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Heather Dubbeldam’s design work on Slack’s Toronto office gets a nod. Jeanne Gang’s studio is recognized for revitalizing the Memphis riverfront and a public-space project in Chicago that aims to bring police and community closer together. Senior editor Suzanne LaBarre, who heads up Fast Company’s design coverage and administers the Innovation by Design Awards, says all three bring diverse perspectives in a field that’s been dominated by men. “In a year of reckoning for architecture, as the profession confronted its own #MeToo moment, Gang, Levete, and Dubbeldam highlight the crucial ways women are shaping the future of the built environment,” LaBarre says. It is worth noting that all three aren’t just architects, they are founders of their own studios. Like Sharkey, Lee, Hamilton, and Gates, they’re running the show.