For female VCs, bias is a branding issue

The 'diversity signal' is limiting some check-writers

Leslie Feinzaig, a venture capitalist, likes that her venture firm, Graham & Walker, sounds like an old, stodgy law firm. But apart from the name, there’s nothing really stodgy about it: Her fund exclusively invests in female- and nonbinary-founded startups.

It’s a relatively new name for her firm, which was originally called Female Founders Alliance. Feinzaig rebranded in 2021 in an effort to attract a more diverse set of founders and check-writers into her portfolio.

“The number one risk that we fall into is inadvertently stamping our own portfolio with a diversity signal,” she said. “And I mean that in the negative context of the word: We want our founders to stand on their own for being amazing founders. So what do we need to do? We need to become a super, high-signal VC.” In her view, that meant departing from a name that made her firm sound like it was making “diversity investments” and finding a name that didn’t include gender as a brand.

Now, she said, when she enters a room, “It’s very different to be Leslie, the CEO of Female Founder Alliance, than Leslie, managing director of Graham & Walker. Nobody questions it; it sounds like it belongs.”

That said, the investor still found a way to insert the mission into the name: Katharine Graham was the first female Fortune 500 CEO, and Madam C. J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire.

The goal of being a VC is to generate returns for limited partners, and there’s an understanding that a diverse startup ecosystem will lead to better outcomes for all. Balancing those two, for female VCs, has often manifested in different, often frustrating ways.

A new generation of female venture capitalists is ditching institutional firms to start their own or steadily rising through leadership ranks. According to a survey analyzed by TC+, the share of women represented in director and principal positions has significantly increased over the past two years, while the percentage of women in higher-level positions, such as managing general partner or senior managing director, stands below 25% and has for the past two years. The ranks are diversifying. Slowly.

To put it simply: More women in venture means that bias and strategic branding are increasingly relevant for a larger fraction of check-writers.