I haven’t seen this many men in the same place since I accidentally went to a gay club for Halloween in Santiago in 2015. Honestly, for maybe the first time in my life, I felt out of place as I walked into a swanky Vitacura bar for the Endeavor Investor Welcome cocktail a few weeks ago. I scanned the room not once, but twice, finding just two or three dresses peeking out from between the suits. No one treated me inappropriately nor seemed to question my reason for attending. There just weren’t any other women.
By the end of the evening, I had my tally. I was one of approximately six women who had attended the event, out of 100 people. I want to clarify, this ratio is not Endeavor’s fault. Most of the female guests at the event came from Endeavor, and the event was organized by Grace Donovan, who did an incredible job as host. But there are just no (or at least not many) women to invite!
During the event, I flashed back to stories of female entrepreneurs from Nathan Lustig’s Crossing Borders podcast on Latin American startups – Emilia Diaz meeting entrepreneurs who assumed they were on a date, Maria Paz Gillet trying to build a company and a family simultaneously, Nora Leary receiving strange looks when attending a sales meeting without a male cofounder…the list goes on. I imagine they felt equally uncomfortable when facing a room of exclusively male investors.
Luckily, I haven’t run into many situations like this in my entrepreneurial career. I had a male cofounder when I was involved in a startup in Colombia. At Magma Partners, I work on a team that is 50% women, and the office as a whole might have even more women than men. I attended one meeting without my cofounder in Medellin, and my counterpart, a male entrepreneur, flirted with me so much I felt grimy when I left. But this situation was different.
By happy coincidence, one of my role models, Komal Dadlani, was in attendance that night. If you haven’t heard of Komal Dadlani, stop reading and go look her up now. Her startup, Lab4U, has been through Start-Up Chile and raised rounds in Chile and the US. She is a complete badass, and also one of the most humble and genuine people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Let’s just say I managed to hold in my inner fangirl just well enough to share a conversation with her about this exact topic.
Komal is used to this situation. She’s not the kind of entrepreneur old Latin American men expect to see succeed, because she looks nothing like them. She makes a point of lifting up the other women that surround her in the ecosystem. After all, there are clearly very few of us. I don’t think that point hit home for me until that night.
The worst part is: I read these statistics every single day. I am well-aware that just 17% of startups in the US have a female founder and that women receive only 2% of VC funding. Those statistics probably look even worse in Latin America. In Chile, women have been systematically excluded from investment for centuries. Married women could not purchase real estate in Chile until 1977! Divorce was officially legalized in Chile in 2004! It is only logical that few women would be able to build up the capital necessary to become investors within a few generations.
I am also aware that the privilege I was born into has strongly influenced my ability to make it into this space. A female entrepreneur, or aspiring investor, from Chile would face a much steeper battle.
However, I really question the efficacy of a system that relies on the opinions and perspectives of just one group of people to define the development of a whole society. Can a group of men adequately assess the urgency, market opportunity, and strategy of a startup that creates a solution for a “women’s issue”? A Freakonomics interview with Thinx founder, Miki Agarwal, says…nope. While she eventually raised three rounds for the company, many male investors failed to see the (US$15B!) market opportunity in feminine hygiene products. I’m going to guess the same issues are happening in Chile, where investment is even more male-dominated.
At the end of the night, when I brought up this issue with some male coworkers, they asked me what the solution should be. Having worked with smart, capable women in our office, they were surprised to hear me point out the lack of female VCs in the room. I wasn’t surprised, but I sure didn’t have the solution either. However, after giving it some thought, here’s an idea:
Male investors in Chile should consciously lift up and train ambitious, bright young women that want to learn about innovation and make an impact on the ecosystem. Women like Komal Dadlani have a ripple effect on the industry by encouraging and inspiring the next generation of female entrepreneurs. And female entrepreneurs eventually turn into female investors.
I’m lucky and proud to work for a firm that follows that logic. Our team at Magma Partners is split 50/50 between men and women. We represent four different countries. Our portfolio companies are 17% female-led, beating US VCs by almost a factor of 10. We still have a ways to go, but we are headed in the right direction. If you are a female entrepreneur reading this, please don’t shy away from applying for investment, competitions, or other opportunities for recognition. We would also be happy to review any startup or idea you might have for the Latin American ecosystem.
It’s time for investor meetings in Chile to stop looking like a gay club. Although at least in the club, there were a few more dresses present, and not quite as many suits.
Insightful message, Sophia. This is a long, tough road to travel but Chile can get there, if they can get into schools to encourage strength in young girls. If a message of capability and encouragement doesn’t take place in the early years, it is very difficult to gain in adulthood.
I graduated from high school with your father and, at that time, it was difficult in the U.S. to be taken seriously in the business world, as a woman. It was many, many years of working outside The Boys Club before I earned a position managing a factory. Once in that position, I was able to mentor other women from a powerful position of success. Seeing women succeed in their fields and care about helping other women, is so very important.
I wish you the best of luck in bringing other women and girls into a new generation of self-confidence.
Tammy, I’m so sorry I didn’t respond to this earlier. I was honored to receive your message and hear from other women making a space for themselves in the business world. I am lucky that my parents always made me feel that I would never be limited just because I was a woman. I hope I can do the same from where I am today! Thank you for reaching out!