Why investing in women from day zero will change entire startup ecosystem

Partner Cath Rogers on Antler’s mission to enable more women to become founders, and why the VC in the unique position to do so

Antler in Australia

July 10, 2023
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As a woman founder and investor, I’ve thought a lot about how best to increase the number of women founders who raise capital and scale businesses.

Antler is uniquely positioned to impact the gender mix of founders by virtue of our investment volume and stage at the very top of the funnel as a day zero investor.

While VCs aspire to invest in more women founders, they tend to be constrained by their top-of-funnel (the proportion of founding teams they see with a woman founder). Positioned at the very top of the founder funnel, Antler can influence the gender mix of founders who commence an entrepreneurial journey. We do this by headhunting and screening existing and prospective entrepreneurs into an Antler cohort, where they can build a co-founding team and validate their business model on the path to securing investment.

By scouting, investing in and supporting more women founders, we can help shape a more gender-diverse top-of-funnel for later-stage VCs and, together, shift the gender mix across the Australian startup ecosystem.

Antler by the numbers

Each year, Antler Australia selects more than 200 founders to work with us, from ~ 2,000 applicants. We invest in around 30 teams and 80% of these founding teams go on to raise external capital, generally within 12 months of our initial investment. 

Over time our cohorts have been 25% women founders and 37% of investees in Antler Fund I have at least one woman founder. These businesses have accounted for 39% of Antler’s follow-on rounds but account for just $24m of the $100m in external capital raised across the Fund I portfolio.

Why gender?

It’s now widely accepted that diversity among founders and decision-makers is not only fairer and more equitable but also leads to better economic and investment outcomes.

The 2022 State of Australian Startup Funding shows women founders accounted for 23% of deal volume but only 10% of invested capital. The figure that sticks most in my mind is from the Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum; at the current pace of change, it will take 132 years to reach gender parity. This is simply too slow and clear evidence that much more needs to be done.

Diversity, of course, goes far beyond gender and Antler’s Diversity & Inclusion Policy talks about some of our principles and approach to broader diversity themes such as ethnicity, nationality and LGBTQI+. The data shows that while much remains to be done, we tend to perform better on other measures of diversity such as nationality and ethnicity, while gender metrics lag. We expect that improved gender balance among leaders and decision-makers will positively impact diversity, equity and inclusion across a broad range of measures.

The Antler Australia Approach

We recognise that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not. And so, like our founders, we constantly test, learn and rapidly iterate on our approach to support women founders to launch game-changing companies.

Here are 10 principles that have helped inform our approach.

1. Best Idea Wins

As a global investor, Antler benefits from collective thought and experimentation across our 25 locations. I recently spoke with some Nordic colleagues who, as in many areas of DE&I, are market-leading. In Australia, we leverage those insights and learnings in our Women of Antler initiative.

We also hope that by sharing our approach and inviting input, the exchange of ideas and best practice across the ecosystem will help us all move faster towards gender equity.

2. Objective-Driven

Specific, measurable objectives provide a signpost for evaluating competing priorities based on impact.

For example, we’ve considered whether the Women of Antler community should be for women only or open to all. Women founders are of course heterogeneous and Antler has observed ranging views between those who value a safe space for those who identify as women and others who believe that if you don’t actively include men as part of the process it defeats the purpose of agitating for change.

In evaluating these paths, we’ve prioritised the objective of achieving more and faster change and chosen to keep sessions open for all.

3. Role Models 

The desire to see what we could be is powerful. While we have a long way to go, there has been a considerable positive change over the past decade in the representation of women investors, including at the Partner level (Elicia McDonald, Jackie Vullinghs, Sam Wong, Rachel Yang, Andrea Gardiner), prominent angel investors (Cheryl Mack) and successful women founders from Canva (Melanie Perkins) to Mr Yum (Kim Teo), Airwallex (Lucy Liu), Modibodi (Kristy Chong), Red Balloon (Naomi Simson), Adore Beauty (Kate Morris) and many others.

Antler Australia is proud to have invested in formidable women founders such as Skye Theodorou (Upcover), Helena (Flow of Work), Joyce Ong (Tax Nuggets Academy) and Cat Long and Joanna Auburn (Trace).

Of course, it’s not enough though to showcase women founders in women-focused sessions, we need to be mindful of an appropriately diverse representation across our organisations in general. For Antler, this means considering appropriate representation across all touchpoints such as founder interviews, masterclasses, coaching, ideas validation sessions, investment committees, fireside chats (Felicity McVay, former Global Head of Entertainment at Tik Tok) and in our public and social media presence.

4. Tools & Actionable Insights

Practical suggestions and examples help provide founders and team members with a “how-to” guide for navigating and overcoming obstacles. These include:

  • Recognising and responding to prevention questions: women founders are typically asked prevention questions by a ratio of two to one, compared to their male counterparts. Antler runs sessions on strategies to recognise, reframe, reposition and overcome these questions.  
  • Overcoming bias in fundraising - a workshop for underrepresented founders to overcome bias facilitated by AWS startups
  • Pitching to clients and investors. In some cases, women tend to be less forthright in pitching themselves and their products and businesses which can be perceived as a lack of confidence or ambition. Pitching and coaching sessions encourage women founders to strike appropriate notes of ambition and potential when pitching and awareness of tone, word choice and body language.

5. Recognising the Role of Men

Women can’t and shouldn’t have to be solely responsible for making necessary changes to achieve gender equity.

As a Board Member at not-for-profit Heads Over Heels (now Apropela), which empowers women founders through game-changing connections, we always strived for at least 40% male event attendance. This united attendees in a common, practical cause, broadened the possibilities for high-impact introductions and gave weight to the importance of the initiative for everyone.

6. Language and Unintended Consequences

Ironically, sometimes the push for inclusiveness can inadvertently exclude. The absence of mal intent is insufficient because even when unintended, language has the power to harm. Some basics include mindfulness when using terms such as gender vs sex, female vs women and male vs men and use of preferred pronouns. We can all critically evaluate our own lexicon and whether it could do with a refresh and respectfully nudge those around us to do the same when necessary.

One example is referring to female founders (rather than the preferred women founders), which may infer a biological view of gender rather than one linked to identity. In a similar vein, we’ve questioned whether Women of Antler should be Womxn of Antler or indeed Humans of Antler.

The tone is also important. I recently attended an event with a group of highly credentialed investors and wealth managers. I found myself bristling when incisive, authoritative panellist comments were described as “beautiful” or “lovely” by the moderator (a woman) and when a senior member of a major family office was called “sweetie” when asking a probing, forthright question of the panel. It felt minimising. Although the intent was beyond reproach, the impact was still felt.

7. The Everyday matters

High-minded policy and intent don’t mean much if, in everyday interactions, people are made to feel isolated and “othered”.

At a recent event, after several break times spent as the only woman in a group, I happened to sit with a table of women over lunch. We observed one by one men consciously avoiding our table as they veered off carrying their plates to other, sometimes empty, tables, either with an averted gaze or a “no way am I sitting there!” gag. Eventually, a couple of men did join us but the hit rate was woefully low and we were all rather appalled. As one woman noted, “I’m constantly the only woman at a table of men, I could never behave that way!”

In an Antler cohort context, we seek to educate, inform and equip and team and our founders to consider and navigate everyday interactions. For example, through compulsory unconscious bias training within the Antler team and thoughtful setup and rules of engagement for cohort design sprints which can sometimes be dominated by more vocal and assertive participants at the expense of others.

8. Collect and Share Data

Antler Australia will develop and measure our progress against key metrics such as the percentage of women founders at all stages in our application and investment funnel and the performance of women founders post-investment. By capturing self-assigned founder data on gender and other diversity measures at the very beginning of our interaction (application stage) we can be increasingly granular and accurate in our methodology and reporting.

9. Equip founding teams

At Antler, a focus on ESG, diversity, equity and inclusion is a fundamental part of our DNA and we strive to authentically embed these principles in all that we do, passing on this foundation to the teams we invest in. Even before investment, we encourage teams to consider ESG risks, opportunities and approaches for their businesses including equitable hiring and inclusive culture.

10. Senior Buy In

Diversity and equity initiatives won’t be effective if they’re not owned and championed by the most senior members of an organisation. At Antler, our Diversity & Inclusion Council includes the CEO and a gender diverse group of leaders across function and geography. Women of Antler sessions are prioritised and attended by both senior men and women across the team including the Partners.

Antler in Australia

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