Melinda French Gates: 'It’s time to change the face of power in venture capital'

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At some point in our lives, many of us will need professional help to take care of ourselves or someone we love. Helen Adeosun wants to make sure that when that day comes, there will be a competent, compassionate caregiver ready to knock on your door.

Helen is the founder of CareAcademy, a rapidly growing online training platform for caregivers. Before she graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in education policy, Helen occasionally worked as a nanny and in-home caregiver herself. So in many ways, she’s the perfect person to create a company that unites cutting-edge education strategies with the unique needs of caregivers. And as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she feels a special connection to the many immigrant women powering the caregiving workforce.

I’ve long believed there aren’t enough companies working on market-based solutions to the caregiving crisis–and a key reason why is that there isn’t nearly enough venture capital funding flowing to founders like Helen Adeosun.

Year after year, only about 2% of venture capital funds are going to companies led exclusively by women, and companies founded by Black women receive only a fraction of a percentage point of that funding. Making matters worse, the last few months have seen a troubling trend of lawsuits targeted at companies that are working to level the playing field for entrepreneurs of color, most notably the ongoing case against the Black woman-led venture capital firm Fearless Fund.

The U.S. venture capital industry should be an engine of wide-ranging innovation that unlocks broad progress and improves people’s lives. But for it to achieve its potential, it’s essential that a diverse group of people can control, access, and benefit from investment capital.

That’s why my company, Pivotal Ventures, is out to change the face of power in the venture capital industry. By investing in women-led funds and early-stage companies, Pivotal wants to help transform the way that the venture capital industry looks at women of all backgrounds and unleash more market-based solutions to overlooked problems. My investments include funds such as Impact America Fund and Rethink Impact, two women-led early-stage investment firms that back CareAcademy.

The investments Pivotal makes in these funds aren’t philanthropic. These are return-seeking investments, and we expect them to be profitable. I want to signal to other investors that by overlooking these opportunities, they’re leaving money on the table. And I want our investment team to model a new way for the industry to do business.

Take due diligence. Since traditional due-diligence processes tend to privilege asset managers with an established track record–most of whom are white and male–my team is experimenting with alternative models of evaluating investment opportunities. We aren’t lowering the bar in any way, just redefining what it means to meet it.

For example, many investors will only back funds that already have a certain level of assets under management (AUM). However, since women-led funds tend to be smaller, our team is open to looking for other indicators of potential instead. That more expansive approach has led us to funds such as Beta Boom, a fund that invests in software companies that are “building the future for women and multicultural communities.” Although Beta Boom had a relatively small pilot fund I, as we did references on them, we were impressed by the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the founders they’d worked with, so we felt really good about backing fund II.

At the same time, though, we need to break down the systemic barriers that are keeping women-led funds from expanding their AUM in the first place. As Kesha Cash, the founder of Impact America Fund recently put it, “It’s great for us to be in the game, but the power is in women increasing our AUM.” One way Pivotal helps unlock that power is by coming in early as a first-close investor, as we did for Impact America Fund III. Impact America Fund closed its third fund earlier this year, becoming only the second early-stage venture firm owned by a Black woman to cross the $100 million threshold—and no doubt carving out a path for many more to follow.

Already, we are seeing how things are different when women of diverse backgrounds hold decision-making roles in the venture ecosystem–and what that means for founders like Helen Adeosun. Kesha Cash calls her role on CareAcademy’s board of directors “a job and a passion.” Heidi Patel, a managing partner at Rethink Impact, describes Helen as the kind of founder who has “the unfair advantage of lived experience.”

As more investors like Kesha and Heidi start backing more founders like Helen, I think it’s going to change the entire investment industry’s understanding of what a smart bet looks like.

Melinda French Gates is the founder of Pivotal Ventures, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and author of The Moment of Lift.

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