Leading the way for female-led ventures with Vanessa Dawson
After spending years in male-dominated fields including retail finance, private equity and digital development Vanessa Dawson is no stranger to workplace gender-bias. When she realized how deeply that bias affected female entrepreneurs, she took action and founded The Vinetta Project; an ecosystem designed to help high-growth female founders get the mentorship, funding, and support they need to take their businesses to scale. Now in its fourth year, Vinetta has helped hundreds of women grow their businesses.
Vanessa caught up with us recently to discuss the need for inclusive venture-funding communities, and what’s next for women in entrepreneurship.
Eliza: Women face an uphill battle when getting venture capital funding. What made this problem so present for you that you took charge and founded Vinetta, and how is Vinetta working to change the landscape?
Vanessa: Yes, studies time and again show that women are at a massive disadvantage when raising capital for several reasons. Societal stereotypes, unintentional and intentional bias; the fact that most venture capitalists are male.
But venture capital is the fuel that feeds the entrepreneurial landscape and is often a critical competitive advantage for scale. Women need access to these capital networks and need to be taken seriously. When I created Vinetta over 4 years ago there was no community for female technology founders that I felt was productive to be a part of. I wasn’t getting the visibility or resources I needed from traditional venture-capital communities, which were typically run by men. And a lot of what existed for women were what I like to call “Women and Wine” clubs where you drink wine and whine about your problems.
I launched Vinetta’s community model with the intention of building one of the largest deal flow pipelines of female founded tech companies in NY. If I could quantify some of these deals, surround myself with leading female founders and connect with investors who believed in the social and economic value for investing in women, I thought it would be a win – win – win for everyone involved. Our community model seeks to change the landscape in a very simple way- by providing curated access for our founders. We source high potential female founders with proven business models and connect them to vetted capital and strategic business resources for growth. This is primarily done through strategic event programming and lots of time and attention from our City Directors. We are almost like a professional matchmaking community in a sense. We focus on creating connections of high quality versus quantity and putting the right people together at the right time in hopes that deals will get done leading to more growth
Eliza: Building off the community or ecosystem concept you’re describing, what role do you think mentoring plays in that ecosystem and do you think founders have a responsibility to come back and help others?
Vanessa: I think that should be ingrained in you, not as a female founder specifically, but as a founder in general, to come back and help others. For a lot of successful founders, mentoring and giving back is a natural progression in their entrepreneurial journey. I was just on a call with a woman today who had a successful exit recently, took a year off, and then made over 10 angel investments in seedling companies, joined some boards, and said she feels like she’s come full circle. She was thrilled to be able to give back. The reality is that while we hear about the successes, the entrepreneurial journey from start to exit is a rare occurrence. About 80% of venture backed entrepreneurs end up failing. I think it’s critical that people who are successful cycle back and get involved at an early stage again, to whatever capacity they can manage. And I have noticed that a lot of successful founders think like that too.
Eliza: And do you have a trusted mentor you consistently go to for advice?
Vanessa: I don’t have one specific person; I’m an avid learner, and I think that everyone in my life, at all levels of experience contribute to my personal mentorship. I love expanding my network and absorbing new lessons from everyone around me, whether it’s a design intern that’s still in college or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I just think that every person you engage with has an interesting story or something you can learn from them. So I don’t have one mentor who is my be-all-end-all person; I have different people for different things, and I like to think I contribute to them as well. It’s all about being continuously engaged to keep moving forward and keep learning.
Eliza: Having spent so much time working with female entrepreneurs, what differences have you found (if any) in how women found and lead companies versus men?
Vanessa: I am sure men and women have different ways of leading, different ways of problem solving and different approaches to collaboration, team building and culture. But I don’t think that’s the important question. There aren’t definable and consistent differences that exist for every male vs female founder. What is consistently true is that diversity of thought has immense value when building and scaling a company. So if you are looking for a competitive edge taking a look at the diversity of your team make-up is a smart strategy.
Eliza: What constitutes a female-led company for Vinetta?
Vanessa: In terms of female-led we want to see that there is diversity in your thought leadership and decision-making team because we believe that drives better company results. We have a ton of great companies that pitch who have a combination of male and female founding teams. There is a list of more specific criteria on our website.
Eliza: What has it been like to scale Vinetta and bring the opportunity of investment to women across North America?
Vanessa: It’s been very exciting! As we grow, we want to expand with intention and focus on quality experiences and connections that drive results. By maintaining some exclusivity, we can create networks that drive results for founders seeking funds and for investors looking for the next big idea.
After year 2 we took a step back to become more thoughtful about how to scale our model. It had been heads down and go for so long we needed to look at what was working and what was not. Event models are not easy to execute profitably. DC is one of our golden children that operates optimally and we are started to use it as a test-hub for event configuration, organizational structure and community engagement. If we roll something new out there and it works well, we strategize on how to replicate that across other chapters. The Venture Challenge concept is a great example of a concept that the DC team dreamed up and launched. They rolled the annual Pitch events into a successive competition and added a prize package of $20K cash plus other great in kind services. This had a great outcome for several reasons: it increased the quality of our deal flow, it helped us engage more community partners who could contribute In Kind to the prize package, and it gave us something more press-worthy to talk about. Having a testing ground has allowed us to scale in a thoughtful way and keep focusing on what we do best.
Eliza: With all that growth, no doubt you stay busy. What’s something you do everyday that keeps you centered and focused?
Vanessa: Good question. I think it’s important that you take time for yourself, and I really believe this whole mentality of “work 24/7, don’t sleep, always on” is passé. One thing I do for myself consistently is exercise.
Interacting with nature and getting away from the screen is critical too. Whenever I’m feeling overly stressed or anxious, my boyfriend used to force me to go on a camping trips and wouldn’t let me bring my phone or computer. At first I thought it would stress me out even more to not be connected but it did the opposite. It allowed me to reset. Research has shown that different brain regions are activated when you are in nature and it gives your over used digital brain circuits a break. It’s not a daily activity, but getting into nature for periodic stretches of time has been a great way for me to step away, focus on myself and recharge. Slowing down so I can speed up effectively is how I think about it.
Oh and no phones or screens in the bedroom!!
Eliza: Great ideas! Looking ahead, what do you think is the next frontier in terms of helping women advance in the entrepreneurial space?
Vanessa: It seems like in the past few years, there has been a huge boom of independent community groups launching to try and help women in both their entrepreneurial journey and progressing up the corporate ladder. And while I’m all for organizations helping women, I worry that too many of these hashtag campaigns or community models are launching without a clear understanding of their own business model and the measurable impact they want to have.
I think we need more collaboration and consolidation in this industry of “support communities for women.” It’s great that there is a lot of momentum right now and noise around the issues but we won’t be able to have the impact that we’re all hoping for if we don’t act strategically.
Eliza: Definitely. Hopefully in another five years we’ll be able to look back and see all of the progress that has been made. Thanks so much for your time, it was great speaking with you.
Vanessa: This was fun! Thank you so much for having me.