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Liz Giorgi and Hayley Anderson make it look so easy. The duo started Soona in 2018 to provide same-day photo and video services to light up the Instagram, TikTok and other online accounts of e-commerce firms and creatives.

Soona’s potential began attracting venture investors interested in faster growth for the Denver company — and getting themselves a sizable return later on. First a million, then $10.2 million. Last year, Soona raised another $35 million, bringing its total to $53 million since 2019. Giorgi won’t confirm but appears on track to becoming a unicorn, the one-of-a-kind startup valued at $1 billion or more. 

Soona has made it. And yet, it remains an outlier. Why? Its founders are women.

Companies founded by an all-female team received just 1.9% of U.S. venture capital last year, a share that has been stuck around 2% since 2008. The number of such deals declined 10% to about 1,000 last year. They are rarer than active unicorns, which numbered 1,279 on Tuesday, according to PitchBook, a research firm that tracks venture capital. 

Liz Giorgi, cofounder of Soona in Denver, has raised $53 million in venture capital since 2019. Her Denver company is a rare startup in that its female founded and has attracted venture funding. Nationwide in 2022, only 1.9% of venture funding went to women-founded startups. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Even when a founder stands out and has a few rounds of experience, it can be disheartening to see how little traction women have had.

“One of the greatest disadvantages is the mental tax you pay as a female founder,” Giorgi said in an email. “When you don’t see the numbers improving and when you know that women around you are struggling to raise, there is a feeling of hopelessness that permeates so much of the environment. It’s a radical act to be constantly fighting against that and maintaining optimism when you know the statistical reality.”

Colorado’s female founders fared a little better than the national stat with 3% of the $5.7 billion raised by startups last year going to startups with only female founders. The state also has some female-founded unicorns. Well, at least one. Guild Education, which was founded in 2015 by college classmates Rachel Romer Carlson and Brittany Stich, has raised more than $500 million and in June was valued at $4.4 billion. Guild now ranks as the nation’s 10th highest valued female-founded company by PitchBook. 

Because of Guild, female-founded companies appeared to fare better in 2022 than the nation and the blockbuster year of 2021. According to PitchBook data, 30 companies with at least one female founder raised capital in 2022, compared with 26 in the prior year. The amount was also higher: $171.1 million last year compared with $119.2 million in 2021.

Nationwide, women with a male co-founder made more. That group of 3,822 companies raised $41 billion, or 17.2% of all venture capital last year. But for an all-female founding team, the amount raised last year was $4.6 billion, or just 13 times more than what disgraced founder Adam Neumann raised in August three years after the spectacular collapse of his startup, WeWork.

In the U.S., approximately 1,001 venture-backed startups founded by women raised $4.6 billion last year, or 1.9% of all venture capital in 2022. (PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor)

“Despite the progress that we’ve made in recent years, that (low share) can definitely discourage women from taking the risk to start their own companies and progress in the ranks of the VC funding cycle,” said Annemarie Donegan, an analyst with PitchBook who tracks female-founded startups. “We have definitely seen some progress in the last few years, which is encouraging. … Having those successful, big-name founders that are women hopefully will spur more entrepreneurship (and) later-stage funding rounds.”

A better investment? Some data 

While venture-backed companies with an all-female founding team are a tiny minority, there’s data pointing to the benefits of such investments. 

Donegan, with PitchBook, studied exits, or the point when investors get their money back. An exit can include when a startup is acquired or merges with another firm, goes public through an initial public offering or calls it quits and liquidates. 

In the past decade, the median number of years for female-founded companies to exit was less than all venture-backed companies. In 2022, the difference was about 11 months faster than all companies, 2022 “PitchBook All In: Female Founders in the U.S. VC Ecosystem” report. (Screenshot)

In the past decade, the median number of years it took female-founded companies to exit was less than all venture-backed companies. In 2022, the difference was about 11 months faster than all companies.

“That means that investors are able to realize returns a bit earlier,” Donegan said. “That’s definitely an encouraging sign and one thing we want to watch. When we see the tide of VC funding slow a bit, are those female-founded companies still going to exit faster? Or are they going to pause?”

The other notable data point is burn rate, or how fast companies are spending the money they have — or don’t have. Female-founded companies burned about $100,000 less per month, according to the median burn rate.

Female-founded companies burned about $100,000 less per month, according to the median burn rate, according to the 2022 “PitchBook All In: Female Founders in the U.S. VC Ecosystem” report. (Screenshot)

“We see that female-founded companies are consistently spending a little bit less so they’re a little bit more prudent,” Donegan said. “When it comes to times like this, where the market is changing, and suddenly you need to be more defensive versus offensive, I think that companies that are more prudent and risk averse are going to be better situated.”

Donegan cautioned that some data is “murky” because the task requires digging into funding data that’s not always clear on which startups have female founders or a mixed team. 

But other companies have looked into gender differences, too. In 2018, the Boston Consulting Group released its findings after studying the MassChallenge accelerators, which had backed more than 1,500 businesses. BCG looked at five years of data and sussed out differences between male and female founded companies: Companies with female founders received half the investment of their male counterparts yet generated about 10.3% more in cumulative revenues.

Researchers asked the companies why and found three common issues: women founders faced more “challenges and pushback” by investors who presumed the women didn’t have such business knowledge; male founders were more likely to “overpitch and oversell” while women were more conservative or asked for less; and male investors just weren’t familiar enough with women-founded businesses that served women. 

A conclusion? “The people who write the checks have the greatest power to make change,” the report said.

Change is upon us (again)

Fair or not, female entrepreneurs in Colorado aren’t willing to live with the depressing data.

On a recent evening at a clubhouse overlooking a field normally filled with testosterone during football season, a powerhouse of women took the stage. They were there to play a different game: Get promising businesses started by women properly capitalized. 

Attendees listen to Sarah Friar of Nextdoor, and Lee Mayer of Havenly speak during a Pathways to Capital event on March 29 at Empower Field in Denver. Women and non-binary entrepreneurs discussed how to sustain and grow businesses through finance and investment practices. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“Know the data around this. It’s abysmal and that should just light you on fire,” said Danielle Shoots, managing director of the New Community Transformation Fund, during the Ladies Who Launch event at Empower Field at Mile High. “This is about economics for me. We will not be the greatest wealth power in the world if we do not start figuring this out with women and people of color.”

Her point is that women and Black, Indigenous and people of color make up 70% of the U.S. population, she said. If the vast majority of businesses getting venture funded exclude the 70%, the majority’s “lived experiences” are missing from the companies being built today for tomorrow. The couple hundred female and BIPOC founders just in the room that evening would make a dent in that national venture-capital stat.

As a Black woman who is managing a venture fund, Shoots knows she’s in the super-minority (“The number of assets that are managed by Black women in this country rounds up to zero percent,” she said). But in this role, the former chief financial officer of The Colorado Trust, is using her own economic sensibilities and lived experiences to write the checks.

“Women and people of color have never had the benefit of getting to be like, ‘Let me sprinkle some fairy dust on your company and now you’re worth $20 million more than you were six weeks ago,’” Shoots said. “We’re well positioned because we have to do the fundamentals of business for people to give us money in the first place.”

Danielle Shoots, founder of the New Community Transformation Fund, poses for a portrait during a Pathways to Capital event on March 29 at Empower Field in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

In the audience was Arezou Zarafshan, founder of Call Emmy, a tech-based service providing on-demand help for household chores and child care. She wasn’t there for venture capital, even if it would be helpful. Rather, the company has a few angel investors and grants. It was selected for an Amazon Web Services accelerator last year and received $120,000 in “non-dilutive capital,” or cash without giving up any equity. She’s planning an equity crowdfunding campaign to raise additional money. She’s not counted in the VC stats.

“It’s not the right thing for us to get venture capital right now. We need the money, but if we were to receive venture capital, it would be on terms that I would not, as a founder, be comfortable with,” Zarafshan said. “Our business generates a good amount of cash flow. Now, are we completely out and totally profitable? No, because we’re still two years old. We’re still building the company.”

Without additional capital, Zarafshan, like many female and BIPOC entrepreneurs, must produce revenue to keep the business going. That’s the way of life for most businesses. It’s likely unfathomable to many business owners to remain unprofitable for nearly a decade, which was the case for Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos. Of course, investors who took the risk on Amazon were paid back generously

Arezou Zarafshan, founder of Call Emmy, at the Ladies Who Launch event in Denver on March 29, 2023. Call Emmy provides a tech-based service to help out with household chores and child care. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

However, in the current environment and especially after last month’s failure of startup-friendly Silicon Valley Bank and others, even venture-backed firms are being forced to  seek other options. It’s been this way for the past year, though, as investments declined from the record-setting 2021, said Kirk Holland, managing director at Access Ventures in Westminster.

“If you think about what happened last year, we had the first blip where we dropped down, and a lot of the private companies and us board members and investors in Q1 and Q2 last year, were kind of like, ‘OK, let’s hunker down. Let’s cut our spend. Let’s make our cash last longer,’” Holland said. “All those companies that did that last year are now all having to go out in the market to raise money. You’re having a flood of companies that need to raise money (and) you’ve got a slowdown in the venture world and the investment world. That combination is making Q1 to Q3 very, very tough.”

Women and BIPOC founders overlooked by venture firms have been building their companies differently. And there’s a growing support system in Colorado and elsewhere to support those early-stage companies. Access Ventures began tracking the metrics of its investments founded or run by women and people of color — it’s now “north of 60%,” Holland said. 

“There’s a little bit of a flywheel getting created,” he said. “We’re not there yet and we still have a lot of room to get better. … But in the last couple of months to three years, it started with talk and a lot of people surfacing the issue. And then folks start taking action with that talk. One thing that’s really cool to help create the flywheel (is that) there’s just been a ton of new kinds of female- or minority-focused funds (like) Melinda Gates. She’s publicly come out and talked about it and then put her money where her mouth is.”

Sarah Friar, cofounder of Ladies Who Launch and CEO of Nextdoor, speaks during a Pathways to Capital event on March 29, 2023, at Empower Field in Denver. On the right is Lee Meyer, CEO and founder of interior design site Havenly, one of Denver’s top venture-backed and female-founded companies. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Sarah Friar, CEO of online neighborhood-social site NextDoor, co-founded Ladies Who Launch in 2013 as more of a support meeting among friends who were female entrepreneurs. Beyond events, like the one in Denver last month, the nonprofit also provides business grants and mentorship. It’s strange to her, too, that female founders are still getting just 1.9% of the VC pot, which is down from the 2.4% in 2021. 

“It feels in some ways like we’re going backwards,” Friar said. “If you look at the stats, just as many women as men start businesses, so it’s not like there’s a lack of female businesses.”

Her analysis of why the gap still exists is that women tend to start businesses based on their own lived experiences, like child care, or health and wellness, or food. The businesses often remain small based on the founder’s other duties in life. But another reason? They lack access to capital. Ladies Who Launch tries to step in and help connect entrepreneurs to capital.  

“They’ll start with their own financing and maybe go to friends and family. But they often don’t make the leap to the next round of seed funding,” Friar said. “When COVID hit, we wanted to do our own grant program. … We’re actually closing out our fourth cohort. With this cohort, we’ll be close to $800,000 funded in small businesses with $10,000-ish grants. The grant sizes are small but that can be very meaningful when you’re first starting off. And then we’re trying to get people into a feeder system.”

At the Ladies Who Launch event in Denver, U.S. Small Business Administration District Director Frances A. Padilla explained that the SBA isn’t all just about small business loans. The agency also works with licensed private equity fund managers to lend “low-cost, government-backed capital” through Small Business Investment Companies. 

The Aurora-based Community Enterprise Development Services is a community development financial institution, which exists as part of a government effort to encourage banks and lenders to invest in their local communities and provide credit to those in lower-income neighborhoods. CEDS specializes in “culturally responsive lending,” said Alex Wise, the lender’s executive director. It’s a resource for folks who may not qualify for a traditional bank loan but have a business plan that can pay back the loan.

Makisha Boothe, left, speaks during a Pathways to Capital event on March 29 at Empower Field in Denver. Women and non-binary entrepreneurs discussed how to sustain and grow businesses through finance and investment practices. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Shoots, with NCTF, is like a traditional VC though very different because of its focus on BIPOC founders. She’s also taking a different strategy than the well-known VCs that place bets on hundreds or thousands of startups in hopes that a small fraction hit it big. She wants the majority if not all of the investments to succeed and become multimillion-dollar companies. 

“I’ve always said we’re an old school, high-touch venture in the sense that we want to participate in growing companies. And we want to grow $100 million companies and not just valuations,” she said. “That isn’t the game I’m playing even though I’m using venture, because it creates more room for risk tolerance that I think is necessary when you talk about investing in women and people of color. People think it’s a riskier bet than investing in white men. They just do. And it’s not. You just have to know what you’re getting yourself into.”

She couldn’t do it alone. The fund has support from Bank of America, legacy VCs like Brad Feld at The Foundry Group and the state of Colorado, through its own venture fund. If the NCTF fund does well, so will its BIPOC founders and Colorado. 

NCTF has already made some commitments and is raising a new $25 million round. One of the companies in its portfolio is a not-yet announced startup that will be moving to Colorado shortly.

“She’s moving from South Carolina with her entire team,” Shoots said. “She had more than (a million dollars) in topline revenue last year and she’s never raised a dollar. She has 70 1099s (contractors), so when you talk about economic development, this is our goal here.”

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Tamara writes about businesses, technology and the local economy for The Colorado Sun. She also writes the "What's Working" column, available as a free newsletter at coloradosun.com/getww. Contact her at cosun.com/heyww,...