Being human, and not immune to ego, I recently felt some kind of way upon realizing I hadn’t been invited to speak at a “women in impact” themed conference in my area. I’ve been in the impact investment world for 17 years and have spoken at just about every major conference in the sector. So why did I get passed up for the women’s event? Are people getting sick of me?
I realized there was likely a great reason that I wasn’t approached:
I have never represented myself as a woman investor. If anything, I spent much of my career convincing people NOT to see me as a woman.
In the process—I made a large part of my actual identity invisible, and did a disservice to women coming up behind me who needed stronger advocates for women’s leadership. But I also just didn’t understand what it meant to rep for the women’s team—so I didn’t do it.
I still honor that just existing in such a male-dominated industry is part of changing culture—for instance, across asset classes, women- and minority-owned firmed manage just 1.1% of the $36 trillion of AUM in North America. I happen to be a partner in one of those firms—a Registered Investment Advisor.
When I signed up online to get my firm registered, here were the security questions offered up by the regulating agency, for Pete's sake:
Clearly a man wrote these questions, for men who presumably have already had very lucrative finance careers—not for women, and certainly not women who prioritized social outcomes over high salaries. (And for the record, if I did have a vacation home, it would be by a beach…who in their right mind puts their vacation home in a city?)
As a woman partner in a field where women are barely holding on at less than 1% of AUM, it makes me much more conscious of my role in the market. And that means I’m challenging myself—and indeed, have been lovingly challenged by women peers–to have a better understanding of what being a woman investor means to me, and to the broader field.
I started out by interrogating more why I pushed back so hard against being labeled a woman investor, and wanted to share some of my insights for women investors who are equally struggling to situate the meaning of their identity to their investment practice. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
As a young woman I pretty much abandoned my team to make sure I could play with the “big boys.” My book is filled with numerous anecdotes: I spent years being asked to bring people water, if I was the secretary, or asked where their table was despite having “CEO” on my business card. I refused to speak on panels that emphasized my youth or my gender. I’d be willing to write for Forbes, but not for Forbes Women. I worried once I got labeled as a “young woman”—and all the stereotypes that go along with that—that I wouldn’t be able to work my way into professional adulthood.
The sad part is—I can’t say I would’ve done this differently. I don’t feel like I had a choice. But now I’m here with the conventional markers of success that men can’t arbitrarily take away–that means not needing to hide or apologize anymore for my gender, or relative youth, or any other element of myself other than my actual weaknesses. It’s on me to succeed or fail at this point.
Then there was my resistance to the solution of just saying “Yes, I’m a woman investor, and that’s important”: I didn’t want to privilege gender, rather than a more intersectional lens prioritizing race and class.
Like many people, I was deeply impacted by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw’s TED talk that helped popularize the notion of intersectionality: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” I.e. that being a white, cis-gendered woman, and queer is a different “identity basket” than being a black, cis-gendered man and heterosexual. Both face discrimination, but in very different ways and circumstances.
As a white, middle-class Oakland resident who is none-the-less steeped in the racialized impacts of housing, health, and educational discrepancies, I felt it was more important for me to center race and class in my work rather than gender, or if anything—the experiences of women of color who face multiple types of barriers that reinforce each other.
For instance—while 500 or so entrepreneurs reach out to me a year asking to speak, an impossible number of requests to fully honor, I try my hardest (and usually succeed) to sit down in person with any woman entrepreneur of color who has a business relevant to our investment thesis. I recognize they may face more barriers from other investors, so even if I can’t invest I will try to do what I can to help them break in. And selfishly—these women generally over-index as incredibly committed and talented entrepreneurs given what it often took for them to get a company successfully off the ground.
Is this a gender-lens investment practice? Yes. But it’s also an intersectional lens. I’m learning that its ok for me to say, “I am concerned with race, class and gender equity” and not feel like I only have to rep for women. I might have been born into a jersey for the white women’s team, but it’s got big sewed-on badges for race and class, too, as I try to prioritize solutions coming out of affected communities in the context of impact investment. It has made me sad to hear some entrepreneurs say, “we reached out to the gender-lens investment community, but many of them just don’t care about race.”
It’s true that just advocating for gender equity is an upward battle in itself—so I don’t fault the gender lens community for prioritizing women, and they have done a fantastic job of comprehensively elevating awareness regarding both women and girls in society. But we all need to care about—and celebrate—the various diverse lenses we bring to the entrepreneur and investor community.
Finally, I didn’t know what actually made my investment practice different as a result of being a woman. If I was going to start talking about being a woman investor, I would actually need to think that being a woman made my work different than a man’s work, right? And is it?
I am blessed to have a male business partner who also views the world through an intersectional lens, and is extremely respectful of women’s leadership. It’s very difficult for me to say that the way I approach investments is particularly different than the way he does—unless in a few very specific circumstances where we investigated companies manufacturing birth control pills or organic tampons, for instance. So why does it matter that I’m a woman?
I would argue that being part of a minority group gives you a greater ability to empathize with people of that group, whether it be based on gender or race. You grew up with more examples of people in that group being successful and considered worthy of love and attention, and hence carry less unconscious bias that would prevent you from seeing potential in people of that group. This I think most people get intuitively (or conversely, may not understand is a blind spot they carry as they struggle to be “race blind” or “gender-neutral.”)
I was talking to a colleague, one of ten black women partners at a well-known investment bank out of over a thousand partners worldwide, who added the following insight that I also see as relevant to my experience as a white woman investor: Being one in a thousand also means that you’re constantly used to navigating the distance between yourself and other groups, which makes you a better investor. You’re simply more comfortable with the idea of difference, as it’s constantly around you. You’re reminded to question assumptions and equally step outside your home-base cultural group or general understanding of how people work.
As she noted, “Being ‘different’ and successful, allows you to know instinctively that value can be found in places, spaces, and people that are often overlooked. I have always had to build bridges to survive and thrive because I am always a non-correlated asset class. As a finance professional, as a person focused on finding opportunity – it is important to be able to see nuance and shades of gray. If you are always looking to find investment opportunity in all the obvious places – so is everyone else.”
Her analysis reminded me of the political scientist Robert Putnam, whose seminal work addressed the differences between bonding and bridging social capital in society. Being a black woman in the investment world gave her a unique kind of bonding capital—within black and female-centered communities–but her experience also made her stronger in her bridging capital, as she’s more used to navigating difference across groups. At Candide Group the companies and funds we have supported have over 50% women or people of color founders and management, which I do believe is a direct result of our diverse team—also majority women and people of color—having significant bridging experience.
So, I’m coming to terms with being a woman investor. A woman investor who wants other women to fight past suppressed memories of the algebra teacher telling them they were stupid, or the economics professor telling them “don’t major in economics, you won’t be able to do the math,” to do the work that excites them and can drive social change. (Ok, I tell these as hypotheticals, but yes, they happened to me). A woman investor who is used to navigating difference, and thus is hopefully more astute in identifying trends that will light the fire of an increasingly diverse world. And a woman investor who will fight fiercely for other women to take an intersectional approach to our work—lifting up the voices of women, with a distinct eye towards race and class as well.
That’s what I’ve discovered being a woman investor means to me…what does it mean to you?