The next new thing: Women VCs

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Drastic disruptions are underway in the energy market

The venture landscape changes fast. Ten years ago, few would have predicted the ubiquity of micro funds or the rise of Andreessen Horowitz or the very existence of a platform like AngelList that enables people with enough connections to become pop-up VCs.

Few — though not most — see what’s coming next, too, and that’s women VCs, taking their place alongside men, in equal, or nearly equal, numbers. In fact, we’d argue that the shift will represent the biggest opportunity over the next decade.

It may be hard to believe, given the wealth of attention paid to the low numbers of women in the industry and the obstacles they’re having to overcome. But the signs of change are everywhere if you’re paying close enough attention.

Women now make up 60 percent of college graduates, and many more of them are graduating with tech-friendly degrees. (Women are exceeding at elite institutions particularly, and now account for one-third of Stanford’s undergraduate engineering students, as well as one-third of Stanford’s graduate engineering students.)

Though women are making slow inroads at venture firms — according to CrunchBase data published earlier this week,  just 7 percent of the partners are women at the top 100 venture firms —  women are increasingly finding paths around today’s guard.

They represent 12 percent of investing partners at corporate venture firms — a percentage likely to grow because of heightened interest in how tech companies fare when it comes to diversity. “We believe it’s a missed opportunity if we aren’t an active participant” in funding women- and minority-led companies and funds, says Janey Hoe, VP of Cisco’s 40-person investments unit.

More, over the last three years, 16 percent of newly launched venture and micro-venture firms had at least one female founder, shows CrunchBase data.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

So what’s happening? As VC Jon Callaghan of True Ventures noted during a panel discussion in San Francisco earlier this week, Moore’s law has played a starring role. As costs have fallen and made entrepreneurship accessible globally, more people are coming into venture capital.

Monique Woodard, a longtime entrepreneur and more newly a venture partner at 500 Startups, credits her own path to the democratization of information brought about by social media platforms, as well as the many public insights into the industry that VCs like Fred Wilson and Brad Feld have contributed over time. “You suddenly have this library around venture capital and thought leadership that didn’t exist before,” said Woodard, speaking on the same panel.

It’s also the case that women — an expanding number of whom are founding startups, as well as rising through the ranks of other companies — have more role models in VC than they did a decade ago.

Of course, none of these trends is brand-spanking new. So why, you may be wondering, is now suddenly the tipping point? Because the ethical, business and financial reasons for change are finally poised to overtake the industry’s inertia.

For starters, as the venture industry evolves from a boutique business to one that’s more mainstream, people are taking an interest in how it operates. Expect this attention to impact universities, in particular, which are among the world’s most powerful institutional investors. Big schools like Harvard, Yale and the University of California typically invest a percentage of their endowments in venture capital. And they’re feeling more outside pressure than ever before in terms of what they are funding. Last fall, for example, after being pressed by environmentalists, the UC system pulled $200 million out of coal and oil sands investments. (Many institutions have divested from tobacco interests, too.)

Neither endowments nor pension funds seem overly focused on gender and ethnic diversity just yet, but with a fast-changing U.S. population, they will. In fact, some of these so-called limited partners receive active counsel, including by Callaghan, who says he’s advising them to “be aggressive” and “act now,” while there are still irrational biases against women and ethnicities to exploit.

Turn and face the strange

Venture firms are facing a more immediate business risk: the very real possibility that without women investors on staff, they will losing out on promising investment opportunities.

According to a new survey of 265 male and female founders who have taken money from True Ventures, a high percentage said they would not seek funding from a firm without any females in investing roles. An even higher percentage responded that they’d be even more inclined to seek funding from firms that employ more than one female investing partner, says Callaghan.

That message is reaching venture teams. Last month, Founders Fund brought aboard renowned angel investor Cyan Banister as its first woman partner; First Round Capital in February brought aboard Birchbox co-founder Hayley Barna as venture partner. True Ventures has, meanwhile, authorized Amy Errett, the CEO of True-backed hair care company Madison Reed, to write checks on its behalf. True is also bringing on another woman who will be writing checks on behalf of the firm, says Callaghan. (More on this appointment soon.)

Which brings us to our third point: If LPs and VCs want to see robust financial returns over the next decade, more capital will need to be entrusted to women and other currently underrepresented groups who have different networks and a bring a different point of view into the mix. Woodard noted on the panel that black and Latino consumer alone account for $2.5 trillion in annual spending. And study after study (after study) has shown that diverse groups financially outperform more homogeneous ones.

This is why you saw Intel Capital last June create a $125 million fund to back women and other underrepresented entrepreneurs. It’s why Kapor Capital has a mandate to invest in women and minorities. It’s why Andreessen Horowitz, which has exclusively male investment partners, is trying to get the word out to entrepreneurs that it’s interested in underrepresented groups, including by organizing networking events for tech’s black community. (The Information wrote about those efforts earlier this week.)

Said Callaghan on Tuesday night, “This little press leak of [Andreessen Horowitz] whispering [to the media about its efforts to court diverse talent], we’re all thinking like that. The leaders in our industry see this as a huge opportunity, and we’re all moving quickly to address it.

“This” — bias– “will turn,” he told the crowd of largely founders and VCs, explaining to those gathered the ways he has seen and capitalized on similar biases in the past.

The biggest beneficiaries will be those who exploit it and soon. Said Callaghan, seemingly to those who might be thinking of raising a fund: “Don’t wait. Do it now. Move fast.”