Experiential ‘venture community’ the Helm is supported by AirBnB’s Joe Gebbia; aims to fight sexism in the age of Harvey Weinstein while delivering returns
These women have taken the Helm.
Lindsey Taylor Wood has spent around a decade working with nonprofits, particularly in the women’s rights space, but wasn’t satisfied with the returns she was seeing. “I wanted to understand why philanthropy is, by and large, the only way we invest in gender equality,” says Wood. “It’s crucial but can’t be the only way.”
Now, Wood thinks she has a solution. She recently launched the Helm, a female-led “venture community” that she, uh, helms as chief executive. The Helm functions partly as a traditional venture capital fund: for a minimum of $50,000, investors get to buy into startups exclusively founded and led by women. It will also create programming that may include events about female entrepreneurship and meetings with thought leaders in the gender equality movement. Among the fund’s early backers is Joe Gebbia, the billionaire co-founder of AirBnB.
The Helm is entering a space that has traditionally been testosterone fueled. According to a 2014 Babson College report, only 6% of partners at VC firms are women. That inequality breeds other problems. First, it means the startups which are funded tend to be designed by men for a predominantly male audience. Second, it limits the opportunities women have to grow their wealth. “When men have money, they get asked to invest,” says Wood. “Women get asked to join the board of a non-profit or to write a check” for charity.
That discrepancy also makes an uneasy situation even more uncomfortable for the few women working in tech. According to Crunchbase, only 15.8% of startups globally have at least one woman founder; a number that can only look worse when you realize that women of color are backed at even lower rates. Industry observers note the presence of highly unequal power dynamics that occur when a rare female startup founder goes hat-in-hand to a VC who’s often a white or Asian male.
These echo the circumstances young actresses found themselves in when they were allegedly prepositioned by disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Sexual harassment scandals have claimed the scalps of prominent VCs like 500 Startups chief exec Dave McClure, who famously apologized for being a “creep.”
“It’s really important to keep the focus on tangible solutions to the imbalances that allow these behaviors to continue,” says Erin Shipley, a co-founder and managing partner at the Helm who previously worked at the Weinstein Company. While she’s witnessed what she calls “toxic culture,” Shipley says that she’s never been sexually harassed. “It’s impossible not to be aware of the reality that underpins the statistics and we hope the Helm contributes” to improvement.
To that end, the Helm hopes to make around a dozen investments in the coming year, largely in startups in fields where females are especially underrepresented. “A lot of capital goes to female founders in retail, fashion, beauty and lifestyle and while they’ll certainly be represented, we’re cognizant of having a diverse set of industries,” says Shipley, who also previously worked at VC firm Karlin Ventures. The Helm will begin making investments once it hits 40 paid-up members or raises $2 million in investible capital; about 20 people have signed up so far. The co-founders are focusing on firms located in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle which are still in seed capital stage and have sub-$10 million valuations.
Childhood friends Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardiner opened their small batch, women-owned distillery and craft cocktail bar @republicrestoratives in the heart of Washington DC just over a year ago — and people have taken note. But while Pia, who served as Chief of Staff to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, may have moved into the craft liquor corridor she hasn’t left politics entirely behind. Their most notable product so far (and our favorite too) is a whisky called Rodham Rye in honor of @hillaryclinton herself. A blend of two whiskeys, the duo says it’s a combination “stronger together than apart.”
The firm is not the first VC fund led by women, for women. XFactor Ventures, a $3 million fund with a mandate to invest in companies with at least one female co-founder, launched this past summer. However, the Helm is debuting as experts are increasingly concerned about a bubble in tech companies. Shipley says that the Helm will focus outside the Bay Area, where prices tend to be more reasonable.
She also argues that startups led by women tend to be “significantly undervalued.” “In my experience, female founders are more pragmatic in terms of their actual capital needs…they take much longer to raise to raise seed capital,” Shipley says. “Every month raising money is a month away from building business. So if forced to spend three months on a deal or accepting a reasonable valuation [and getting back to work], nine out of 10 women would pick the latter.”
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