Fixing the funding gap for female founders – Janneke Niessen
You know the saying, ’empowered women empower women’? Well, investor, serial entrepreneur, technologist and innovator Janneke Niessen is the personification of that motto. I sat down with the Dutch feminist powerhouse to discuss the gender funding gap and how to fix it.
Marlies: In 2019, you and your partner, scientist and investor Eva de Mol, published the shocking results of the research you did on the investment in female entrepreneurs and diversity by venture capitalists: only 1,6% of the money went to female founders! How is this still possible?
Janneke: Gender bias plays a very big role. Women are still judged differently; a young woman is seen as inexperienced, a young man as showing potential. A man with a flashy car is considered successful, a woman conspicuous: ‘What is she going to do with our money?’. Often, it simply has to do with a tendency to go for the familiar: people invest in people like themselves. Gender bias is rarely a conscious decision. I haven’t met a lot of men who flat out say: ‘I refuse to invest in a woman!’. It is a deeply embedded mindset, in both men and women.
Marlies: It really is! I’ve had my own company for 27 years now, and for a long time about 90% of my personnel was female. Again and again, my head of HR would tell me: ‘I’m sorry, I simply cannot find a man for this position.’ And I could tell she was genuinely trying! In the same way that men may really be trying to hire or invest in women, but failing. How can we break through that?
Janneke: We have to create a level playing field, especially in the area of investing. Just think about it: of the 10 most valuable companies in the world, 7 once started out with funding from venture capitalists! So, as a female founder, you have to go out and network. Literally get out of the office and make yourself seen. Go to events, make connections. It may feel awkward at first; I remember being terrified to go out there at 23 with my new company, not knowing anybody. But believe me, it gets easier.
Marlies: For me, networking didn’t come naturally. I had to force myself to do it. Eventually, it became second nature. I still make a shortlist of 5 people I want to meet every year. And it can be a lot of fun! I really looked forward to meeting you, for example. What achievement are you particularly proud of?
Janneke: As a result of our research you mentioned earlier, 25 key players in the Dutch world of venture capitalism agreed to only invest in companies that have at least 35% women among their executives; a quota they also set as a target for their own companies. On top of it being a great step forward, I see it as a sign that more men are starting to speak up for gender equality as well. And that gives me hope.
Marlies: Me too. Every man who comes forward to say: ‘I am a feminist’, is a milestone. Because in the end, we have to do this together. Thank you, Janneke!
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