Samuel Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” has inspired generations of entrepreneurs. But who gets to try, fail and fail again? Men. For a sector that thrives on disruptive ideas, the startup world is surprisingly regressive when it comes to funding female-led innovation. This is where universities can step in.
The British Business Bank recently found that for every £1 of venture capital investment in the UK, all-female founder teams get less than a penny, all-male teams get 89p, and mixed-gender teams receive 10p. The situation is mirrored across Europe, where 93 cents in every euro of venture capital goes to companies without a single woman on their founding team. This is a loss for the investors and for the world. Diversity fuels innovation, and the evidence shows that startups founded or cofounded by women make for significantly better financial investments.
Just 8% of partners of the top 100 venture firms globally are women. We are all most comfortable with people who are similar to us; in venture capital, this means that men often choose to invest in other men like them. Female entrepreneurs report that investors routinely assume they lack technical knowledge about their products, their pitches are subject to greater interrogation, and they have to fight harder to prove their worth.
This culture discourages women from even trying. There are many women with exceptional and innovative ideas, but they hesitate when they see the financial barriers.
Luckily, universities are waking up to their responsibility to cultivate and support women entrepreneurs. The University of Winchester’s Women in Digital Enterprise programme aims to support women-led businesses to achieve double-digit business growth in less than a year through targeted workshops. The University of Suffolk and UCL are recognising the importance of role models, hosting special events and conferences to highlight the achievements of women entrepreneurs.
At Imperial, we launched WE Innovate, a programme specifically for student women entrepreneurs which provides access to funding, mentoring, and exposure to investor networks to help women support their fledgling businesses. This opportunity has led to female student entrepreneurs developing “zero waste menstrual products”, intuitive drone control software, and an early detection tool for crop diseases.
Redressing the venture capital funding gap is not just the responsibility of universities: women need to have the same access as men do. A few female-led venture capital funds, like Merian Ventures, are also beginning to find different ways of doing things, but we need to see more opportunities for women created.
If female entrepreneurs are given the space and support to explore startup ideas in their student years, they thrive. This means targeted interventions, access to mentorship, and funding to start their businesses. Green shoots of progress are showing, but we need to see more of these activities. Equally, investors, entrepreneurs and universities need to get better at coordination and collaboration. Innovation will remain suboptimal when only one gender is funded. Society pays a steep price for this creative and financial exclusion.
When investors wonder where the next transformative founder will come from, we have a simple answer: she’s at university, and she needs your support.