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Venture Capital Reading time: 5 mins

International Women’s Day: What makes a great female founder?

8 Mar 2022

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, we sat down with some female leaders from across Octopus. One of those leaders is Emma Davies, Co-CEO of Octopus Ventures. Her team have invested in and heard the pitches of some of the most successful female entrepreneurs in business.

Emma Davies

Co-CEO of Octopus Ventures

Emma Davies Octopus Ventures

Shall we start with your early experiences in the industry and with gender?

I was incredibly lucky to work for some great people early in my career. The role models that come to mind are both men. I had managers who championed me, as they did everyone in their team. My first boss was phenomenal, and not once did I feel there was any difference in how he worked with me compared to the rest of the team (most of the team were male). Everyone should be aware of gender diversity, and I am very passionate about that. It’s not just for women. We need men to be feminists – it won’t be possible to drive change if they do not care.

Have these experiences shaped how you run Octopus Ventures?

We are acutely aware of every dimension of diversity and equity inclusion. It’s never gender alone that’s being considered. Obviously, gender is an issue in its own right. International Women’s Day helps put that front and centre. We are conscious that there is not a level playing field for women, particularly in the entrepreneurial landscape. We need to drive change in our behaviour and the behaviour of others to change the outcomes that we see today. There is a ton of research that shows diversity does drive better solutions, thinking, and business building. Doing the right thing and working to ensure our money enables more female founders will mean we back better businesses.

What progress is the industry making towards championing female entrepreneurs?

Since 2016, 23% of the founders we have backed in our investment portfolio have been or are female.

That’s clearly not representative of the wider population – but let me put it into perspective. We don’t see a quarter of applicants being women. We simply don’t see enough women in the first place. We want women to have that initial confidence just to put their hand up and seek support and investment and we are doing all we can to help change this backdrop.

Why is that? Are there just fewer female founders or are they not coming forward?

Well it’s hard to know. However, what we do know is there are fewer lived examples in the ventures ecosystem. This is true across the entire diversity agenda. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can get the word out there that Octopus Ventures is able to help with initial confidence building. We can help with the “Where on earth do I start?” phase.

I wonder if, because the industry was once more dominated by men, it is more likely that a man will have someone in their immediate circle to seek advice from. You might have an awesome idea, but if you can’t easily find someone to ask, and there’s no one in your immediate friends and family circle, who will help you?

We try to encourage people to network in the entrepreneurial space and not fear it because you’re not a cookie cutter white male. You are equally able.In fact, your unique perspective is what we’re after.

Octopus Ventures is a diverse team. Do you find that helps attract more diverse applicants for funding?

Absolutely. We have had women come and say this is the first time they’ve pitched in front of room that wasn’t all men. I do think that’s important. Pitching is an intimidating process. Across the diversity agenda, founders could immediately feel you won’t speak their language. Even the most empowered people can feel unnerved by that. What can be hard is to believe that your view is as valid is anyone else’s. It’s easy to feel scared about putting an opinion forward in a room, regardless of gender. Your view is valid, and you should never leave a room with your questions unanswered.

Since you mention the pitch process, is there anything you look for in a female founder?

There’s no difference in what we look for from a female entrepreneur versus any other entrepreneur. I can’t stress that enough. Lots of founders are rebutted. It is not an easy thing starting a business. So we look for resilience. If anything, I think an under-represented founder needs to have even more resilience because you’re often fighting against conscious and unconscious bias.

We look for those with leadership skills, those who have clear motivators and ambition. We want to see passion, and those who have a story. You need to be confident about your successes and experiences and explain how these have shaped your vision. Every founder, whatever their gender, needs to know their strengths and be honest about their weaknesses.

You mentioned earlier that there are fewer lived examples of women entrepreneurs, perhaps you could share some examples of resilient female founders from the portfolio?

Where to start. We often speak about Tessa Clarke at Olio and Tania Boler at Elvie. Both are incredible women. The portfolio has no shortage of examples though. Andrea and Rebecca at Vira Health come to mind. They are experts in their field with unparalleled drive and energy. They have a laser-like focus on improving outcomes for women. Another is Shardi Nahavandi of Tuune, a personalised women’s health platform. Shardi came across as an exceptional founder and entrepreneur when we met her. We built a relationship with her for over two years before we invested.

We had to dig deep to fault her presentation and approach to building the business. Her experience was more than relevant, and she had experienced the pain point she was addressing. She’d shown incredible progress since we first met her and built a world-class team around her. She seemed aware of most risks and had a strategy to address them. In short, she was the type of leader we wanted to back and partner with.

All founders face knock backs. We need to help female founders like Shardi to back themselves.

Pictured L – R: Jennifer Ockwell (Head of Institutional Investments, Octopus Investments), Jessica Franks (Head of Retail Investment Products, Octopus Investments), Emma Davies (Co-CEO, Octopus Ventures), Wei Fu (Head of Commercial Finance, Octopus Investments), Ruth Handcock (CEO, Octopus Investments), Kristy Barr (Distribution Director, Octopus Investments), Samantha Ling (Head of Operations and Fund Formation, Octopus Ventures)


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