For female VCs, bias is a brand issue

Leslie Feinzaig, a venture capitalist, likes that her enterprise, Graham & Walker, sounds like an old, stodgy law firm. But name aside, there’s nothing stodgy about it: her fund invests exclusively in female-led and non-binary startups.

It’s a relatively new name for her firm, which was originally called Female Founders Alliance. Feinzaig rebranded in 2021 in an effort to attract a more diverse group of founders and check writers to its portfolio.

“The biggest risk we run is that we inadvertently give our own portfolio a diversity signal,” she said. “And I mean that in the negative context of the word: We want our founders to stand on their own because they are great founders. So what should we do? We need to become a super, high-signal VC. In her view, that meant starting from a name that made her company sound like it was making “diversity investments,” and finding one that didn’t include gender as a brand.

Now, as she entered a room, she said, “It’s very different to be Leslie, the CEO of Female Founder Alliance, than Leslie, CEO of Graham & Walker. No one questions it; it sounds like it belongs.”

That said, the investor still found a way to include the mission statement in the name: Catherine Graham was the first female Fortune 500 CEO, and Mrs. C. J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire.

The goal of being a VC is to generate returns for limited partners, and it is understood that a diverse startup ecosystem will lead to better outcomes for all. Balancing the two, for female VCs, has often manifested itself in different, often frustrating ways.

A new generation of female venture capitalists are leaving institutional firms to start their own businesses or are steadily rising to the top. According to a study analyzed by TC+, the proportion of women in director and principal positions has increased significantly over the past two years, while the percentage of women in senior positions such as general manager or senior director is below 25% and has increased over the past two years. The ranks diversify. Slowly.

To put it simply, more enterprising women means that bias and strategic branding are becoming increasingly relevant to a higher proportion of check writers.

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