The numbers tell the story.
Out of the 200 companies listed on the GeekWire 200, our ranking of the top Pacific Northwest tech startups, 16 of them are led by women, or 8 percent.
Other rankings show a similar or even wider gap. Women made up 5 percent (24 CEOs) of the annual Fortune 500 list in 2018, which is down from an all-time high of 32 women CEOs on the 2017 list. They make up 5 percent of the S&P 500, and few of the 24 women on that list lead tech companies (Safra A. Catz at Oracle; Ginni Rometty at IBM; and Lisa Su at AMD are a few).
“It’s a disappointment to all of us who know that about half the global population is women and women are amazing leaders, communicators, and builders of things,” Chris DeVore, managing director at Techstars Seattle and the Founders Co-op venture capital firm, said of the 8 percent statistic. “So why isn’t it closer to 50 percent, or what can we do to make it closer to 50 percent? That’s the question.”
The 8 percent mark is an improvement from past years. In December 2013, 5.5 percent of the companies on the GeekWire 200 were led by women.
GEEKWIRE 200, presented by EY: See the full list
The GeekWire 200 tracks emerging technology companies in the Pacific Northwest. The list is heavily weighted toward companies that are growing large workforces. Here are the 16 women-led companies on the list for our ranking this month, along with their rank:
- Moz, No. 7 (Sarah Bird)
- Act-On Software, No. 17 (Kate Johnson)
- Dreambox Learning, No. 31 (Jessie Woolley-Wilson)
- Nvoicepay, No. 57 (Karla Friede)
- Textio, No. 63 (Kieran Snyder)
- Zapproved, No. 83 (Monica Enand)
- DefinedCrowd, No. 109 (Daniela Braga)
- Skilljar, No. 110 (Sandi Lin)
- Killer Infographics, No. 129 (Amy Balliett)
- Hubb, No. 131 (Allison Magyar)
- Decisive Data, No. 138 (Alissa Seiple)
- Usermind, No. 147 (Michel Feaster)
- Indieflix, No. 149 (Scilla Andreen)
- Lumen Learning, No. 164 (Kim Thanos)
- Foodista, No. 167 (Sheri Wetherell)
- Metaoptima, No. 191 (Maryam Sadeghi)
While just eight percent of the companies on the GeekWire 200 have women CEOs, the numbers look a little more balanced for all Seattle-area businesses. Women own nearly 25 percent of companies across various sectors, according to the latest data from the city’s office of economic development.
But in the technology industry, where today’s most powerful and influential companies are being built, the gap is much wider. And despite more attention and discussion about the lack of female leaders in tech — and research showing that women-led startups produce more revenue — the numbers haven’t moved much in recent years.
The percentage of venture capital funding going to startups with at least one woman founder has stayed around 10 percent since 2016 based on a three-month rolling average, according to PitchBook data used in a recent Recode report. The much-cited number of 2.2 percent — the percentage of venture capital going to all-female founding teams, or startups with a solo female founder, in 2017 — was the same in 2018, TechCrunch reported.
So what’s going on?
GeekWire spoke with investors, founders, and other community leaders — both male and female — to get a better understanding of what’s causing the disparity, and what is being done to help fix it.
“This is a difficult and complex question to answer simply,” said Diane Fraiman, partner at Voyager Capital. “It includes, in my opinion, a combination of education/STEM programs for young women; the investment ecosystem continuing to have more women in its partner ranks; women having the passion and choosing technology over other market segments to build companies; and women being allowed to fail the way men are allowed in their professional journeys.”
Across the Pacific Northwest, VC firms invested $4.1 billion across 608 deals in 2018 — just 3.9 percent ($159 million) of those dollars went to companies led by all female founders, according to PitchBook. But it’s an improvement from last year, when those companies raised just 2.2 percent ($57 million) of total capital in the region.
Still, from 2012 to 2017, there wasn’t movement in investment going to female-founded companies.
Traditional venture funds typically have a 10-year life and big changes don’t happen overnight. But the latest data raises questions given the added attention on this topic in recent years.
“Sustainable startup growth takes time and money, and female founders have had neither,” said Leslie Feinzaig, CEO of Female Founders Alliance, a Seattle-based organization that last year ran a new accelerator program for early-stage startups led by women. “All of our efforts, all of the headlines, the early promises of growth, are still just a drop in the bucket compared to where the rest of the industry is.”
Part of the problem is follow-on funding, said Amy Nelson, CEO and co-founder of The Riveter, a Seattle-based female-focused co-working space startup that raised a $15 million Series A round last month. She said the numbers look even more bleak for women trying to raise beyond their first investment.
“After you get past that seed stage where you’re building a proof of concept and product market fit, you go into the Series A and really start to scale,” Nelson said. “That’s where we see this valley of death for funding for women really kick in.”
Big checks that can help a startup scale and move up a list such as the GeekWire 200 remain elusive for women, said Susan Namkung, a director at Portland, Ore.-based Women’s Venture Capital Fund, which invested in The Riveter. She cited reasons including women being more conservative with their pitches and investor bias toward founders that fit the stereotype of a successful entrepreneur — previous startup experience, young tech-oriented males, etc.
“When the vast majority of VC funds are run by white men, it’s not necessarily surprising that with implicit bias, there will be more funding given to other white male entrepreneurs,” Namkung said.
Added Nelson: “We invest in ideas that are exciting to us and that makes sense to us.”
Evidence suggests that the lack of female partners makes firms less likely to invest in female-led startups, according to the Harvard Business Review.
All Raise, a Silicon Valley nonprofit that aims to get more female founders funded, reported in March that 9 percent of U.S. venture capitalists are women, and 74 percent of U.S. firms do not have a single female partner.
Many VC firms are aiming to increase the number of female investors.
Seattle-based Maveron, which just brought on former Pinterest exec Cat Lee as partner, made a point to have more female investors source and lead deals over the past five years. In the last 12 months, 16 of the 23 companies Maveron backed had a female CEO, or about 70 percent.
“We are super proud of that and it is unheard of for a firm that doesn’t have a specific mandate to invest in diverse founders,” said Maveron co-founder Dan Levitan. “But, we know it is simply a reflection of the networks we have cultivated and a focus on meeting founders that are non-normal.”
DeVore, the Techstars Seattle leader and early-stage startup investor with Founders’ Co-op, has been public about his frustration and personal failure related to the lack of female founders in Techstars Seattle cohorts. DeVore said he built trust with underrepresented communities to let people know he was open to funding entrepreneurs that didn’t look like him or fit the mold of a traditional founder.
The most recent Techstars Seattle class had three women founders — an improvement from zero the year prior.
“If you want to be a part of a change, you have to make the change,” DeVore said.
Inside the startups
Female CEOs often get asked: how do you do it all?
Snyder, the Textio CEO and mother of three young children, has answered that question many times. Yet no one asks her husband and co-founder Jensen Harris.
“We have exactly reciprocal responsibilities at home and at work,” Snyder said. “We’re like a case study in gender bias around that question.”
Snyder, whose startup uses text analysis technology to reveal unconscious bias in job listings, said women founders can face bias particularly earlier on in the startup journey — sometimes the most crucial stage.
She also said the increased attention on gender and equity can actually put women founders at a disadvantage when raising money.
“It’s very common for people to reach out to women to talk about the issue of gender specifically and not necessarily about bigger issues in business or technology,” she said. When new investors are looking at women founders, “it creates a higher barrier for those women to demonstrate that they are focused on things other than gender or diversity,” Snyder said.
Lin, CEO at Skilljar, aims to create a culture of inclusion where different ideas are welcomed, both with employees and investors. Skilljar’s employee base is 40 percent female and its board is half women. That’s not normal — in a recent State of Startups study, 54 percent of founders reported that their boards are all men.
Remitly CEO Matt Oppenheimer, whose mobile remittance company is ranked No. 6 on the GeekWire 200, said the best ideas around diversity and inclusion come from underrepresented minorities because of their life experiences. “But it’s on the company to proactively listen and get this feedback,” he added.
Lin encouraged more women to join startups. She said the tech industry doesn’t just need more female founders or CEOs.
“We just need more representation in leadership roles at all types of companies,” she said. “…By looking at the broad sphere of what women can do and not necessarily just being the CEO of a high growth startup, I think that would really benefit the pipeline and benefit all of us.”
It would also benefit the bottom line. A recent study by Calvert Impact Capital found that diversity within senior leadership positions is more important than having female directors or founders as it relates to average annual return on equity, Bloomberg reported last month.
Can Seattle and Portland lead the way?
The Pacific Northwest investment ecosystem pales in comparison to the Bay Area or Boston. But that may be an opportunity when it comes to closing the gender gap for women CEOs and founders.
“It creates a chance to do this better than it has been done elsewhere,” Snyder said. “There’s so much opportunity to do this right from the beginning.”
Portland-based entrepreneur Mara Zepeda said the Pacific Northwest can lead a new movement away from existing venture capital culture and toward alternative funds. That’s the mission behind Zebras Unite, a new organization with Portland roots that was recently featured in The New York Times.
“The Pacific Northwest is uniquely positioned to lead a values-driven counter movement to Silicon Valley,” Zepeda said. “The ethos of care, creativity, collaboration, and interdependence is in our DNA.”
Yi-Jian Ngo, managing director at Alliance of Angels — which has 35 women investors, many of which are included in GeekWire’s list of female investors in the Pacific Northwest — said it’s important for local investor groups to provide mentorship and capital to female entrepreneurs. He also pointed to the importance of a supportive business environment for women — for example, Washington’s new paid family leave program that allows extra flexibility to care for new children.
Nelson, CEO of The Riveter, credited the Seattle tech community for helping her and her company reach new heights. But she said there’s more to be done in terms of getting people in front of each other who wouldn’t typically cross paths.
“I’m not on the golf course and I’m not playing poker,” said Nelson, who is pregnant with her fourth child. “Finding ways where we can create those connections is incredibly important.”
The GeekWire 200 — sponsored by EY — is derived from our broader list of more than 1,200 Pacific Northwest tech startups. The list is designed to provide a better understanding of the startup landscape in the Northwest. The rankings are generated from publicly available data, including social media followings, approximate employee counts (via LinkedIn) and inbound web links. As we mentioned, the most important factor is employee growth, since our goal is to track those companies who may be emerging as the next Microsoft, Amazon or Expedia.
To make sure your startup is eligible for inclusion in the GeekWire 200, first make sure it’s included in the broader Startup List. If so, there’s no need to submit it separately for the GeekWire 200. If your Pacific Northwest startup isn’t among the companies on that larger list, you can submit it for inclusion here, and our algorithm will crunch the numbers to see if your company makes next month’s GeekWire 200. (Please, no service providers, marketing agencies, etc.)
Thanks to everyone for checking out this month’s ranking. And, just a reminder, if you value resources like these, be sure to check out our list and map of out-of-town tech companies with Seattle engineering outposts as well as our list of startup incubators, co-working spaces and accelerators in the region, and our GeekWork job board.