This interview series in partnership with @barbiestyle is dedicated to celebrating women who believe that anything is possible. These are women who have created independent and uniquely modern careers and have blazed their own paths toward success. They did not follow a road map or climb a corporate ladder. Instead, they believed that their unique vision could a fill a void to empower themselves and those around them.
When Anu Duggal launched Female Founders Fund in 2014, her mission to invest solely in female owned startups was not commonplace. When Sutian Dong joined as partner in early 2016, it still was not an obvious route. But instead of seeing this is a challenge, Anu and Sutian saw this as an opportunity—predicting that women founders were on the rise. Female Founders Fund is an early-stage venture capital firm focused on investing in technology businesses founded by women. To date they have 29 announced investments, raising over $400M in venture capital funding and building over $1B in enterprise value. The businesses they support include Maven: a company which offers real-time video appointments with nurses and psychologists; Eloquii: a fast-fashion line for sizes 14+; and Tala: a finance company who has issued over one million loans to first time borrowers. Sutian and Anu shared how the entrepreneur landscape has changed (for the better) since they were young, what they look for when investing in founders, and why mentorship is key when supporting the next generation of women.
Anu: “Prior to starting Female Founders Fund, I was an entrepreneur. I cofounded Exclusively.In, an e-commerce startup that focused on bringing the best in Indian fashion and home decor to the world. I didn’t come from a finance background or have venture investing experience before I started Female Founders Fund. However, I really believed in the vision, took the leap, and have had great mentors and supporters for the fund along the way.”
Sutian: “I joined Female Founder’s Fund as the second partner, two years ago. I previously worked with First Mark Capital, who were early investors in companies like Shopify and Pinterest. When I was at First Mark, I saw more and more women coming through the door and pitching. These women were solving interesting problems in really big markets, had visions that were venture-scale, and demonstrated early traction. I shared Anu’s vision of being an early supporter of female-founded companies. The way a venture fund works is that we have limited partners (LPs) that invest into a fund, and those partners trust us to invest that money into promising startups. A lot of our LPs are female founders of companies themselves—they include the founders of Rent The Runway, the founders of BirchBox, and the founders of Stitch Fix.”
Sutian: “Female Founders Fund was not an obvious move for us. There were not that many female founders getting funded, and we saw that as an opportunity. We thought, ‘There should be more and we’re going to do it.’ We would often get the question: ‘Why would you only fund female founders?’
I think we were able to see around corners.
We knew that there was going to be a new generation of female founders who were going to create industry-changing businesses, and we wanted to invest in that outcome. I think that’s the creative part for us, not just in terms of how we started the fund, but also the opportunities we’re looking at. How do you create really big outcomes 10 years from now? Having the vision for something that doesn’t yet exist is so important and it’s part of my job now. When somebody pitches to us, we have to be fully on board with the vision that the founder has.”
Anu: “I agree—I think creativity played an important role in how we built the fund, and continues to play a role in how we invest in founders now. I look for founders who think differently, and who can convince me that their contrarian point of view will be, in fact, what the future will evolve to. As a founder, you are creating something that has, to date, only existed in your imagination, and you need to be able to communicate that.”
Sutian: “I think that’s an important trait for any entrepreneur: to have a unique point of view, and to have the ability to confidently defend that point of view in the world. Think about trying to explain how some of the most popular tech companies in the world worked before they were commonplace: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat. Before everyone knew what they were, they would have sounded ridiculous. That’s why individuality is so important.
You need to have an idea that is really unique, but you also need to be able to articulate why it’s important.
Just having individuality isn’t enough. It’s how you showcase it, and how you convince people to believe in you and support you. Those are crucial skills.”
Sutian: “As a kid, I decided I was going to be one of three things: a doctor, a lawyer, or a business person. I decided on business person, but didn’t know that would translate to what I do now. I remember playing with Barbies, building blocks, and those ‘connects’ toys. That varied play is really important in helping you prepare for adulthood. For Barbie specifically, it provided the social lubricant to create a lot of friendships as a kid. As a young person, I think the idea of role-playing is super important in development, as it helps you figure things out. Using your imagination and working through situations can help you make sense of the world.”
Anu: “Growing up, I felt like Barbie was a very strong role model. She demonstrated the number of roles one could aspire to be. I still believe in the value of play: it’s important to work hard and play hard at the same time.”
Sutian: “As I got older and the idea of ‘business person’ stuck, the only person who was prominently recognized as a tech entrepreneur was Bill Gates. Now, the archetype of an entrepreneur is far more varied, compelling and accessible. I think the role models young people have now are awesome. Who runs Microsoft? Satya Nadella. Who runs Google? Sundar Pichai. Who’s really senior at Facebook? Sheryl Sandberg.”
Anu: “Technology has also really changed the landscape of what we do. Not only is everyone so much more connected, but we invest in founders who use technology to create innovative companies that massively change how industries are shaped.”
Sutian: “I think technology has made entrepreneurship more accessible—it’s easier to start a business now than ever before. For example, to create a software company in the 90s, it meant having a room full of servers, which cost a lot of money. There was a lot more time and risk involved to get something off the ground, which has lessened drastically now, with the need for less resources. If you’re less interested in starting a business and more intrigued about the VC side, I’d suggest getting experience in the operating side of startups, and maybe some professional services experience. To get into VC it’s not necessarily about your specific background—it’s more about how you’ve demonstrated a passion and curiosity for technology that sets you a standard above everyone else.”
Sutian: “I think there are a few elements that come into play when supporting the next generation of women. Programs like Girls Who Code and Girls Who Invest are great because they help create career paths for young women, and provide them with role models. You need to be able to look at people and say, ‘They did this, so I can do this too.‘ I think the second piece is creating safe opportunities for people to try things—whether that’s coding, becoming a designer or a fashion entrepreneur. I think the third component is mentorship and networking, because a lot of these opportunities don’t come organically. A lot of people who have successful careers will say ‘I knew these people who helped me, and I’m really lucky because of that.’ Everyone works hard, but they also really appreciate the nudges that they got along the way.
We all need to recognize that there’s not just one woman’s seat at the table.
I run a Women in VC group in New York which has grown from 15 women to 160, and when I think about who I’m inspired by, I think of the women in this group. It’s a lot easier to take a leap when you have a safety net of supportive people behind you.”
Anu: “In terms of the women who I look up to, I’m so inspired by the CEOs that we back—they work every single day to make the vision for their companies a reality. That’s the most rewarding for me: the opportunity to find, invest in, and continue supporting amazing entrepreneurs. I think when it comes to supporting the next generation of women, we can do this by creating a strong community of mentors and enable these young women to leverage what has been created before them.”
As told to Amy Woodside, May 2017
Photographed by Amy Woodside & Zlata Kusnoor