The innovation economy is driven by passion, creativity, impact & economic growth, from the founders who invent a cure, democratize a system, fill an unmet need, solve a global _____ (fill in the blank, environmental, economic) crisis to the investors who fund the best innovations with the most aligned product-market fit for significant financial gain and impact to the change they want to see in the world. Innovation can lead to higher productivity, an essential driver of economic progress benefiting consumers, businesses, communities and the economy as a whole. However as many know, there is a gender and racial gap in all areas of our innovation ecosystem. As a gender-lens collection, we have leveraged unprecedented capital, catalyzed the power of womxn investors, and womxn founders have continued to close the gender gap while shifting patterns of innovation recognition for sustained impact.

A snapshot of the womxn innovation economy of 2021

Womxn innovation economy graphic

Even though 2021 has been an incredibly difficult year for many, our notions of self-care, corporate culture, education, and sustainability are still in complete flux. As a proponent of an abundance mindset and as an avid innovation analyst, I couldn’t help myself, I had to create an impact snapshot for the gender lens advocates who strive for equity. Data informs decisions, helps anchor missions, and fuels visions. Let’s dive into gender lens data and anecdotes from Seed stage to IPOs, understanding the trends and the breakthroughs (yes, I am talking about the innovation ecosystem and NOT the COVID-19 surges and resurges).

Womxn Invest in Womxn

I’m going to start with the solution upfront. It seems simple, more decision-makers in this innovation economy, VCs, investors, need to be women. I’ve read that over and over again. I believe that when you have more women investors, they will undoubtedly invest in more women. We know that a recent ACA (Angel Capital Association) American Angels Report says that women investors are twice as likely to invest in women-led startups. The gender gap is not due to the low performance by the female founders, because they outperform their male counterparts by 63% (First Round Capital), it’s not that women don’t start enough companies (42% of small businesses are womxn-owned), and it’s sure not the performance of women fund managers because they made huge strides in performance and number in 2021. “Even after adjusting for risk, female-managed funds have outperformed their counterparts amid the pandemic-related market swings,” Goldman strategists led by David Kostin wrote in a note to clients. The tech sector “is the largest source of disagreement between female-managed and all other large-cap mutual funds.”

It’s about breaking bias patterns in traditional settings where women are not seen as leaders while balancing being not too warm and nice nor showcasing delicately competence and toughness and not selected for investment due to ingrained patterns of successful male founders who have exited (IPO or acquisition). It’s about more women at the table making decisions about funding and impacting this world through innovation. I well know there are more ways than these that we can solve this gender gap, but if we just focus on neutralizing bias, having more success stories, and exercising the power of the purse from seed to exit, we will continue to make significant strides.

The womxn economy is thriving in 2021.

Activated capital at the hands of womxn investors means a huge potential increase in funding to women-led startups. As many women investors, over 10 years ago were swimming uphill in having a gender lens in their portfolios, like myself and others like my mentors, Angela Lee of 37 Angels, Trish Costello of Portfolia, and Alicia Robb of Next Wave Impact Fund, we have been steadfast in our individual convictions that investing in women-led companies who are making an impact on this world with translational innovations or products, I absolutely love this quote from another trailblazer, Jesse Draper of Halogen Ventures, “This isn’t charity”. We all want higher financial return that the typical, we have higher expectations of capital-efficient models by the founders we support, we want to impact more, and support the womxn economy.

“This isn’t charity”

– Jesse Draper of Halogen Ventures

In the seed stage, angel investors are more diverse than VCs, with 22.1% of US angel investors being womxn (pre-covid). From the ACA report, 29% of female CEOs were female in 2020. Therefore angels are narrowing the gender gap by investing in more diverse founders than ever before. With movements like Founders of Color Showcase by Next Wave Impact & others, to the ACA’s new initiative to bring more diverse angel investors to the table and many more, diversity funds diversity, and traditional investment patterns are also aware of the increasing financial and ESG returns. 

Womxn investors have also been super activated in the last 5 years, with 30% of new angels being women and 76% of women-led VC firms being started in the last 5 years with many more emerging in 2021 alone and more to come in 2022. Our team at Stella is continuing our mission-driven work with all of our offerings to entrepreneurs and investors under one umbrella,, with a dream team of gender lens leader investors & advocates, Raven O’Neal, Lauren Rowley, Flossie Hall, April Enriquez, Stephany Russell, Christine Lustig, Anna Raptis, Debbie Chen, Andrea Giralt, and Kirby Brady.

San Diego Innovation Ignites Impact

As an avid supporter of my own ecosystem in San Diego, I wanted to pause and acknowledge all the hard work so many people have made in our ecosystem for it to thrive and grow, but 2021 was a HUGE year for San Diego with women founders inching their way more into the mainstream innovation success stories.

  • 82 local startups pulled in $2 billion in venture funding during Q2 2021 and 66 startups raised $3.5B in Q1 2021
  • The San Diego innovation economy is healthy, thriving & growing
  • The San Diego-Tijuana region won historic designation to become 1st binational design capital for 2024
  • Womxn founders & CEOs rock SD innovation economy from seed to exit

From Seed to Exit here are some notable women-led companies in San Diego who are rockin’ (in order of funding stage):

  • Nostalgia, founded by Taylor Fields – Seed round closed 12/2021, successfully running a Wefunder campaign
  • Cooler Heads, founded by Kate Dilligan – FDA clearance in 12/2021, raising Series A in early 2022.
  • Hydrostasis, founded by Debbie Chen – Conducted consumer pilot testing & closed Seed+ round in 2021
  • Luna DNA, founded by Dawn Berry – Raised a total of $8.6M in funding over 3 rounds. 
  • Aquacycl, founded by Orianna Bretschger – Secured Fortune 50 company contracts and closed $5M+ funding in 2021
  • Dermala, founded by Lada Rasachova – won  Cosmopolitan‘s 2021 Holy Grail Acne Award with their patented, microbiome-powered OAT So Sweet™ Daily Moisturizer was selected by Cosmo as the BEST MOISTURIZER!
  • Truvian, founded by Dena Marrinucci – Closed a $105M Series C round in 3/2021
  • Uqora, co-founded by Jenna Ryan – Acquired by Pharmavite, the makers of Nature Made® vitamins and supplements, in 7/2021 and honored as a best place to work in San Diego in September 2021

Womxn Founders are breaking records in 2021, but disparities still exist

The pandemic hit womxn founders harder than all-male teams, women began outpacing national and historical trends so by the end of 2021, womxn-led companies broke records & challenged trends. Even though the womxn became the number one caretakers in their children & family care, and the strengths of womxn founders shined, like being more capital conscious, exiting faster, and getting higher returns. The tides are shifting.

Womxn innovation economy testimonials graphic

Public markets gained unprecedented gender gains

Since 2013, over 2,000 companies have gone public in the USA, only 18 of them had a female founder/CEO.

That is less than 1%

Making history this year, Bumble’s founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd became the youngest female CEO to take a company public in America.

5 women-led companies went public in 2022, the most since 2013.

  • Bumble
  • Vimeo
  • Rent The Runway
  • FIGS
  • 23 & Me

However, only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. These wins at the public markets are huge for progress, but as we have companies grow, representation matters as well. These women are trailblazers, so as we champion more leaders as women, provide opportunities for diverse ways of thinking and servant leadership rises, more cognitive diversity will be seen in leadership positions for more innovative growth in the increasingly competitive global markets.

Let's talk unicorns: 2021 Set a Record for New Female-Led Unicorns

Why is this important? Again, patterns are changing. Having more female-led unicorns signals to the VC market that there are more bets to be made on female-founded companies who have, now, a higher degree of success to make it to the coveted unicorn list. In addition, diversity of sector is being seen in the growing herd of unique unicorns, consumer retail luggage manufacturer Away in 2020, mattress retailer Casper, beauty brand Glossier, and sneaker marketplace Goat.

  • 39 US women-led unicorns emerged in 2021
  • “Unicorns” are venture-baked companies worth $1 billion+, a term coined by VC Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, in 2013.
  • Number of women-led unicorns has increased 425% in seven years
  • YET STILL only 11.4% of total unicorns

VC markets are surging around the world, with more money being deployed to a homogeneous set of startup founders who fit the “right” success factors of a unicorn or a desired exit multiple. However, 2021 has shattered these patterns.

COVID-19's impact on Womxn CEOs widened deal activity & valuation gap

The toll of the 2-year pandemic on womxn extends beyond layoffs across the board, womxn turning to entrepreneurship to lessen the load, and women leaving the workforce, to the venture capital funding of female entrepreneurs. Let’s just take the salaries of these success stories emerging in 2021. This title of a recent Inc magazine says it all: “Female Startup CEOs Cut Their Salaries 30 Percent During the Pandemic. Men Gave Themselves a Raise”:

  • Female CEOs earned 93 cents to every dollar earned by a male CEO in 2019, but post-pandemic they are making only 89 cents.
  • Of the 2.7% of VC funding to women founders, only 2% of the female founders who raised equity financing were Latinx (0.32% of total) and 4% Black (0.0006% of total)

I find in investor meetings with founders, the use of funds is brought up many times, dissecting every decision that is being made by the founder from R&D to salaries. In this competitive market, to keep the best of the best actually in their startups, founders should not be diluted to a place they are not incentivized and founders should be paid what they are worth (of course as soon as enough funding is raised to support salaries). This is not just a numbers game, but a mindset shift of leadership and the VC decision-makers to be aware of bias, the data trends, and act on having better discussions with founders.

Let’s get back to some positive impact stats – to better align individual behaviors to the collective good.

  • Women lost more jobs than men and took on a greater share of the additional child care burden.
  • Reports say that Covid set back efforts to close the gender gap by 36 years.
  • An average size of a VC deal for all-female teams was $6.8 million in 2020, compared to $18.7 million for all-male teams.

From new products and services, to adapting to an increasingly digital status quo, we’ve witnessed female-led businesses show even more resilience in the face of the global economic downturn.

– Ann Cairns, Global Vice Chair, Mastercard

A banner year of womxn-founded co. exits

Indeed, investors can achieve higher returns for quicker turnarounds by investing in womxn founders.

  • Women-founded companies outperformed overall market trends for exits in 2021: Almost $59 billion was sold off through Q3, of 2021, 143.6% higher than 2020's level, while the overall market is up 101.5%
  • This is an amazing trend of how quickly womxn-founded companies exit has strengthened, from 2018, when the median “time to exit” was about 7 years for either gender, in 2021, time to exit for womxn-founded companies decreased to 6.6 yrs and increased to 7.7 yrs for all USA companies.

So much more work to be done

It’s evident that across all tech sectors, there is more representation of women, more unicorns being birthed every year led by womxn, an increased number of womxn being invested in at all stages and with higher amounts of funding, the gender gap in venture capital, angel investing and the startup ecosystem is still gaping wide.

Women are championing other women.

“Still too small, but woohoo to these awesome firms! (speaking about Acrew Capital, Inspired Capital Partners, & Fika Ventures) Female-founded U.S. venture firms on track to raise over $7B In 2021”

– Eileen Lee, Founder Cowboy Ventures

Dollars going to women at the seed round are in the 20s (the highest of all the gender gaps in the innovation economy), in the single digits for VC investment dollars going to women, and in the teens for the number of decision-makers at US venture capital firms being womxn.

  • 9% of VC investment dollars went to companies with at least one female founder.
  • 10% of decision-makers at US venture capital firms are women
  • Female partners represent 13 percent of partners at U.S. venture firms with funds above $25 million, and 64 percent of the firms have no female partners. (All Raise)

Why does this gender gap exist? When we know that womxn investors invest in womxn founders twice as much, getting more women decision-makers at all levels of the VC ecosystem, from Seed to Series D. More women-led companies need to join the unicorn list to re-print the pattern of most investors that successful startup founders ARE indeed women. More IPOs of companies lead by women will led the way to similar pattern breaking and re-aligning the bias.

There is hope if awareness is heightened & bias is neutralized

There is value in funding womxn founders if investors track the trends, their awareness is heightened to these issues and bias is neutralizing.

  • Teams comprised entirely of female founders exist (sell or go public) faster, in less than 7 years on average, compared to the nearly 8 years on average it takes all-male-founded teams to exit.
  • Female founders sell or go public at higher valuations, on average
  • The new, female-founded VC funds, equipping not only new emerging managers but engaging diverse LPs have a specific focus on tapping into the often-overlooked opportunity in backing diverse founders.

Let this quote sit with you a bit…

“So if women-led companies were a country & if you looked at that revenue being the gross domestic product, they would be the 5th largest country in the world. They’d be just behind Germany, but ahead of France, UK & Italy”

– Lorine Pendleton, Portfolia, Rising America Fund

Our early-stage portfolio companies are receiving funding, but since upstream from angel investors and Series A micro-funds, is still predominantly homogeneous, investors and the female founders we fund should work on strengthening those next level bonds to ensure a more heterogeneous fundig lanscape for the next stage of funding.

There is progress, the numbers are climbing, but we have so much more to do. What are YOU willing to do to change these numbers? It takes a collective, let's kep on swimming upstream to make the change we want to see in the world, one founder & investor at a time.


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