Elaine Stead on Women in VC

James Riley
Editorial Director

If you’re a female entrepreneur right now in Australia, there are plenty of reasons optimistic about the future, according to Blue Sky Alternate Investments’ VC chief Elaine Stead. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges, but there are also positives for women in the current crop of founders.

“There are good levels of capital around for the first time in a couple of decades,” Ms Stead says of the $2 billion raised in the past couple of years.

“The quality of the innovation coming out of Australia [is very good], which I think is the result of good programs and infrastructure that the government had seeded about a decade ago and which is really starting to bear some fruit,” she said.

“And as a country we have more sophisticated networks and global interactions, which I think we can take advantage of moreso than ever before. I feel like it’s a bit of a perfect storm – even though that sounds like a bad thing – that Australia has really started to come into its own in the innovation space.”

Ms Stead came to venture capital via science and research, with formal studies and a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Adelaide.

In addition to her role at Blue Skye, she is on the board of some of Australia’s best known startups successes boards, including Shoes of Prey and Vinimofo. Ms Stead is speaking at the InnovationAus.com Women in VC in Sydney on Thursday.

Through her role at Blue Sky she see about 1,200 opportunities a year. For female founders, Ms Stead says there are certainly additional challenges.

But she’s equally adamant that being a minority can be turned to an advantage, and that there are key strategies women can deploy improve lift their prospects.

The most important of these is around the notion of ‘manufactured networks’ – that is the importance for women of systematically and relentlessly building your own networks.

“Networks are critical. People under-estimate how much they rely on those networks and on personal relationships to help them grow and to develop.

For blokes those networks are built through the school you went to, or the university, or which rugby club you play for, or the multinational firm you started your career with.

These are networks women struggle with, because they didn’t go to a private boarding school and they didn’t play rugby with these guys.

“The existing networks are incredibly important to anyone who is in business of any kind,” Ms Stead said. “People underestimate just how important those networks are.”

“And so if you’re not part of those networks growing up, then you really need to rely on manufactured networks. You absolutely have to make them a focus.”

That doesn’t mean networks of women – although there’s nothing wrong with that. It means creating, nurturing and maintaining networks of personal and business relationships that will help you grow.

Women tend to be disadvantaged compared to men when it comes to these networks and need to work harder to build them. That’s where energy needs to be applied.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that men have these networks. What I’m saying is that people underestimate how important they are. You have to find a way to make these connections and to develop these personal networks.”

And then, for female founder’s there is the potential upside of ‘owning’ the fact that you’re already differentiated.

This is a somewhat unusual construct. It is also one that would come across as politically incorrect if it were being advanced by a middle-aged man – the idea of advising a woman to ‘own’ the fact that she is female.

But Ms Stead says its matter of fact. When looking at opportunities, she says VCs are looking at the quality of the idea that they’re trying to commercialise, the product they’re trying to build, the market they’re addressing and the problem that they’re solving.

Those things are judged blindly, or dispassionately.

But the other thing that gets looked at are the founders – do they have the skills, the EQ, the resilience to stay on the path.

“Anyone who is differentiated, or who has come through as a minority has already has a demonstrated resilience, which is very attractive in an entrepreneur,” Ms Stead said.

“That’s what gets picked up when you’re a minority, whether as a woman or some other minority. So that makes us take notice, is the best way to say it.

“It’s not that we apply anything differently, but it just makes it easier to see [attractive traits] more easily,” she said.

InnovationAus.com will host the inaugural Women in VC Forum on February 23. The event will be opened by Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos and feature a keynote address from US entrepreneur and businesswoman Key Koplovitz.

Ms Koplovitz is the legendary female founder of USA Network, and the cofounder and chairman of Springboard Enterprises. She is also managing partner at Springboard Growth Capital.

Other speakers include:

  • Arthur Sinodinos, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Australian Government
  • Kay Koplovitz, Managing Director, Springboard Growth Capital (USA)
  • Dr Charles Day, Chief Executive Officer, Innovation and Science Australia
  • Laura McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer, Scale Investors
  • Marty Gauvin, Chair, Innovation Investment Committee, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science
  • Anne-Marie Birkill, General Partner and Executive Director, OneVentures
  • Cath Rogers, Executive Director, Airtree Ventures
  • Elaine Stead, Founder, Blue Sky Venture Capital
  • Rick Baker, Co-Founder, Blackbird Ventures
  • Topaz Conway, Chair, Springboard Enterprises Australia
  • Jo Burston, Chief Executive Officer, Rare Birds
  • Sandy Plunkett, Founder, Innovation Clearinghouse

To find out more information about the Women in VC Forum click here.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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