Renee LaBran on the ‘pattern matching’ barrier affecting women in business and what to do about it

Nicola Hazell Renee Labran

Source: Women's Agenda

SheStarts director Nicola Hazell recently sat own with one of the US’ leading spokespeople on female entrepreneurship and investment, Renee LaBran. She shares what she learnt below. 

“You need to have courage. Come in, be bold, have confidence and overcome what’s being thrown at you.”

This was the take-home message from international guest speaker Renee LaBran — co-founder of the Women Founders Network in the US — during her whirlwind visit to Australia in October.

Speaking at a SheStarts event for aspiring female founders at LinkedIn HQ, the 20-year veteran of venture capital and angel investing shared with us her frustrations over the obstacles women still face in accessing funding, particularly due to the fact the majority (92%) of VC investors in the US are men, and most of the investments they make are in people just like them.

It’s a common problem here in Australia too, where women represent less than one in four startup founders, and when it comes to those who access investment, as few as 5% of funded startups are led by women.

These are the statistics that drove LaBran to co-founding the Women Founders Network in Los Angeles in 2013.

“At that point, there were so few women in the industry, we wanted to create something that would support women and get them to succeed both on the entrepreneurship side, as well as on the capital side,” LaBran said.

Joining forces with her local network of angel investors, LaBran and the Women Founders Network launched a pitch competition for female entrepreneurs, with a fund attached providing access to capital, networks and mentorship.

The goal? Creating an ecosystem that women could tap into to get started.

“You need role models to support more women to start business; you need a support network, because as a founder you turn to people you know for help,” she said.

“VCs tend to pattern match. They invest in businesses based on what has worked before. Almost all angel investors are men and angels invest in people they know. So, the current system is geared against women.”

LaBran points to this “pattern matching” as the major barrier for women, because they don’t look like, sound like or operate like the male-led startups that have dominated the landscape for so long.

“To change this, we need to have more women investors, investing in women across the entire startup journey.”

LaBran highlighted changes in the development of technology as key factors in making tech more accessible for women, with the barriers for entry to entrepreneurship increasingly reduced.

“With tech being more commoditised you can start businesses without being a technologist. This has opened the door for lots of women to start tech-enabled businesses.”

The key success factor for any founder, according to LaBran, is finding people who will believe in your vision.

“It’s the ability to sell a story. Women who succeed often have a strong emotional attachment and a passion to solve the problem they’re solving. Female investors — particularly those new to investing — are drawn into this passion.

“Again, this shows the importance of having more women in VCs, because there’s many ideas that women come up with that are not necessarily understood by men. It’s about recognising you need enough people around the table who think it’s a good idea, which is hard without enough women at the table.”

So is there genuine progress for improving gender equality in tech and entrepreneurship?

“Change is slow, and there is certainly a long way to go. But we are in a better position than we were ten years ago.”

“Were now starting to see more women leaving jobs in larger VC firms to start their own funds — so they can drive investments in the kind of businesses they’re interested in, rather than more of the same.

“And the revelations of the past few months have put the issue of gender equality front and centre for everyone. For once, there are consequences and there is now this collective conscience.

“So there certainly is momentum for change, but we need to seize the moment in a thoughtful way. We can’t just say ‘I told you so’, we need to have an honest conversation about ensuring we have a level playing field.”

We couldn’t agree more. And of course, this is what SheStarts is all about — providing a runway for women to get started, while building a community of support to take ambitious founders from idea to launch.

Together, our collective efforts are making an impact to change the face of startups.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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