Credit: Her World Singapore

There’s no denying the facts: There are fewer female entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (VCs) than men, and if you look at global standards, the numbers are dire. In 2020, less than 3 per cent of venture capital funding went to female-led start-ups. Singapore fares better, comparatively – a report by marketing research organisation Straits Research states that 54 per cent of the women who seek funding receive it, compared to 56 per cent of men. But underlying this statistic is another hard truth: 41 per cent of female founders have experienced gender bias.

To dissect the numbers and understand how we can build a more equitable ecosystem, we brought together two players from different sides of the equation: a founder and a funder.

We sat down with Leung Pui Yan, partner at investment holding firm Vertex Ventures, and Annabelle Huang, managing partner of crypto-finance service provider Amber Group, to discuss the current state of the industry and how we can do better.

About the panelists

Leung Pui Yan (left), Annabelle Huang (right). Credit: Her World

The Founder: Annabelle Huang, managing partner of Amber Group

Annabelle was born and raised in China, and studied at Carnegie Mellon University. After a stint at Wall Street, she joined the crypto world as a lead at AirSwap, a decentralised crypto platform. Equipped with this experience, she’s now a managing director at Amber Group, a decentralised finance platform. Amber Group is backed by Temasek, and its latest Series B funding round places the group’s valuation at US$3 billion (S$4.2 billion).

The Funder: Leung Pui Yan, Partner at Vertex Ventures

A born and bred Singaporean, Pui Yan is a partner at Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia and India, an early-stage venture capital funding platform. Prior to joining Vertex two years ago, she was an investment director at SingTel Innov8, its corporate venture capital arm. She’s a Kauffman Fellow, and graduated with an engineering degree from the National University of Singapore.

1/3 — The fraction of global wealth that women control, predicted to rise by 5.7 per cent annually

There are fewer female entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (VCs) than men. Why do you think this is so, and have you personally experienced this?

ANNABELLE HUANG (AH): From my experience, there are not many female entrepreneurs to begin with – that filters down to how many of them actually get funding and become successful business leaders in a specific field.

It also comes from a lack of representation – I didn’t really have that many role models within fintech, or more emerging tech for that matter. I can think of only a few names in finance who’ve been hugely inspiring, and we need the same for emerging tech and new industries.

LEUNG PUI YAN (LPY): We also need to ask: What is the proportion of female-led start-ups? My guesstimation would be around 20 per cent. It’s not a lot. Apart from representation, I think being able to stay in the profession is important as well.

I just gave birth to my second child, and even though it’s not perfect, I can still balance [work], continue to be a mum, and push my career. But if the culture at Vertex was not inclusive, I might have had to make a hard decision to choose [between career and family], and that’s never a perfect situation to be in. Some might have it harder, and they may choose to leave the workforce because of that.

12% — The percentage of female decision makers in the venture capital space

Only 12 per cent of decision makers in VC firms are women. How can we grow that number and bring more women into this field?

LPY: I think there is a top of the funnel problem. We all have to rise through the ranks before we can become decision makers. I have slogged for 18 years to get here – but we have to encourage more females to even join the profession in the first place.

We don’t have to be trained to be a VC. I’m not an accountant; I was trained as an engineer. As a VC, we need to be generalists, we need to ask the right questions. The assumption is that you need some finance training, but it’s not true.

AH: It’s not just limited to the decision makers or investors. [This needs to extend to] everybody – the operators and industry participants. But I think the beauty of the Web 3 industry is that it’s incredibly nascent, so it’s relatively the same playing field for everybody.

This has created a perfect opportunity for anyone, females in particular, to join. We’re seeing more women [choosing to be] in the industry – a lot of them are younger, and just out of school.

How do you inculcate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) measures in what you do?

LPY: Team diversity matters. When we evaluate a deal, we actually form a little deal team, and ensure that this team has diversity – whether in thoughts, gender or expertise. So when we debate a deal, it’s not single dimensional, and we reduce our own blind spots.

As early stage investors, we place a lot of emphasis on founders and team profiles, and who they have been able to attract as the second layer.

So we spend a lot of time debating whether the team has what it takes to stay nimble and steer the company for the long haul, because whatever business plan they might present will definitely change within two years.

And at times, it’s easy to pass on an opportunity because we think the founder doesn’t look strong enough. Sometimes, the definition of a strong founder can be so narrow-minded – talking loudly, being extroverted, and standing in a certain way.

Research has shown that female-led companies tend to outperform men-led companies that received funding. Moreover, women entrepreneurs tend to be more well-prepared when they pitch, because they are said to do more homework and practice runs than their male counterparts. Do you think it’s true?

LPY: If we believe the statistic that only 20 per cent of all global start-ups are female-led, then I would tend to believe that these 20 per cent are the ones that have a strong conviction about what they do.

The emotional mental hurdle for women to start companies is so high that those who decide to do it are really the cream of the crop.

The way that investors ask questions to male and female founders may also be slightly different. When female founders pitch, they tend to get asked a lot of “prevention” questions: What if things go wrong What if the market doesn’t correct? Have you covered your bases?

And when it comes to male-led start-ups, we tend to ask: What if you’re right? What if your assumptions are correct? Can you return to the fund? This is especially so if a guy who is very confident comes into the room with this swag and talks about his vision. So that mentality is not balanced.

And I don’t want to generalise too much, but as women, we don’t want to paint a picture that is not realistic, we want to be grounded in the truth. Many times, female founders are focused on the here and now, and they have a higher level of evidence of delivering the near-term plan.

But the VC business wants to know whether you can return the funds in five to seven years. It’s a balance – you need to paint a picture that’s more exciting and aspirational; otherwise, you’re just building an SME.

The investor community needs to be mindful about how we ask questions, and founders need to steer conversations back on track too.

41% — The percentage of female entrepreneurs who’ve faced gender bias in Singapore

How can we tweak our communication styles to be more effective and inclusive on both ends?

AH: I sometimes catch myself apologising, even when it’s not my fault, and I don’t think men really do that. I don’t think that overcorrecting is good, because you may end up in the complete extreme, and I think we need to find the balance and embrace that. [So we have to tell ourselves] that there is a gender difference, but how do we use it to our advantage? [At some point] I even went from wanting to disassociate myself from a lot of these female [conversations] because [I didn’t want people thinking] I got here because of some unfair treatment.

LPY: The best way is to be transparent about your own thought process. Walk everybody through how you get to different positions, how you get to the point, and let the work speak for itself. If you just explain the endpoint, some people may [be underwhelmed].

Make sure [you iterate] that it’s not just luck, because this shows how you can take your company to the next level. It’s okay to share your journey – it must have been a grind in the first place. Without being too
overdramatic, share some of the hard choices you’ve made… that gives investors and your business partners some comfort level about your decision making process and your logic.

Text: Her World/ Karishma Tulsidas