When Gerri Kahnweiler and Cayla Weisberg met, Weisberg was the director of sales at a venture-backed tech start-up and Kahnweiler had spent years working in philanthropy aimed at women and girls. The conversation turned to their shared perception that start-ups led by women had difficulties finding funding, which led to a series of conversations with female founders who confirmed that the perception was reality. (National statistics confirm this too: PitchBook says that just 2.2 percent of all venture capital dollars invested in 2018 went to start-ups headed by women.) Determined to help level the playing field, the two partnered in 2015 to launch InvestHER Ventures, the first venture capital fund in Chicago dedicated to female-founded tech start-ups. Access connected with Kahnweiler to learn more.
What did you hear that surprised you when you started talking with female founders?
The percentage of all venture capital dollars invested in 2018 that went to start-ups headed by women*
It seemed so weird to us that even though more than half of college graduates are women and the start-up space is supposed to be about doing things in new ways, this macho atmosphere persists in funding. We talked to a lot of women who felt like they had been turned away and dismissed quickly because they were women. And when we talked to male funders, they insisted that they’d invest in anyone, but the numbers told a different story.
You say that you don’t take pitches from founders — instead, you have conversations. Why that approach?
For us, it’s more about talking together, as opposed to firing questions at them and trying to trip them up. Anyone can do a PowerPoint presentation about how they’re going to make a billion dollars in five years, but we’re less interested in that than in getting a realistic view of what their vision looks like. It just feels different than a pitch session. And we’re willing to have a conversation with any female founder in Chicago. Even if we don’t invest, we might be able to make introductions that are valuable or talk about what we think they should do to get themselves ready to seek funding.
Inc. magazine says that nearly 34 percent of Chicago start-ups are run by women, more than in any other major U.S. city. What’s going on there?
There seems to be a concerted effort by a lot of groups supporting start-ups to think intentionally about women, with training and classes that are aimed at engaging them. I’m thinking of the WiSTEM program at 1871 [a tech hub and coworking space], and programs at mHUB [a hub for prototyping and fabrication] and MATTER [a healthcare tech incubator]. We also have a lot of global companies headquartered here, which means that there are a lot of highly skilled women who want to start companies or work in start-ups. Plus, the women who’ve started companies and gone on to bigger rounds of funding are available to help other women — I’ve found that they tend to be willing to give back and be thoughtful about helping others. If women don’t support women, nobody will.
We know this is like asking you to pick a favorite child, but are there a few Young Innovators among your founders who really stand out to you?
For every 10 investments, you might see two home runs, five that do OK and three fail. So I think we’re beating the odds.
Alex Niemczewski and Aviva Rosman were University of Chicago students concerned about getting young people to vote and turned that into BallotReady, which lets voters enter their addresses and get nonpartisan information about races all the way down the ballot. Agrilyst was started by Allison Kopf after she worked at an indoor farm. It’s a web-based platform to help indoor farmers track and manage their crops. Cooper Harris founded Klickly, a platform that lets people make one-touch purchases directly within digital ads. Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake started Bridgit with a mobile tool for tracking punch lists on big construction projects, and they are now developing other products in that space. All of them were under 30 when they started their companies, and all six saw issues in their jobs or their daily lives and thought, “I think technology can solve this problem.”
How’s your track record so far?
We’ve had no exits yet, but we’ve invested in 14 start-ups since 2015 and only one has shut its doors. The rule of thumb I’ve always heard is that for every 10 investments, you might see two home runs, five that do OK and three fail. So I think we’re beating the odds.