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In conversation with Sharon Vosmek

Sharon Vosmek, CEO of Astia, is passionate about investing in high-growth start-ups founded and led by women. She spoke to Dolfin’s Head of Investment Management, Simon Black, and Investment Associate Anny Giavelli about her vision for the organisation and the role of women in business

26 November 2019 / Entrepreneurship

In its 20 years of operation, Astia has been through three iterations. It was founded as a physical incubator space for start-ups, then moved beyond the four-walls model to become an accelerator offering companies access to expertise, to investors and networks. Finally, the most recent phase of its evolution has seen Astia emerge with a new focus on investment: investing itself in the companies it supports and pulling in capital funding from other sources.

As part of Women’s Wealth, Dolfin’s programme of events devoted to empowering women to navigate the investment landscape with more confidence, Vosmek joined a panel at our Investing in Female Founders seminar in September 2019, which centred around investment opportunities in high-potential women entrepreneurs and female-led businesses.

“We are laser-focussed on ensuring access to capital for companies that have women leaders.” – Sharon Vosmek, Astia

Anny Giavelli: Could you please give our readers a brief overview of what Astia actually does?

Sharon Vosmek: We are laser-focussed on one thing, which is ensuring access to capital for companies that have women leaders. That has many components because it is a complex problem, so you have to approach it from multiple sides. Where we see our focus today really is on moving capital, moving investments of our own, into companies that include women. We’re direct investors ourselves, pulling in other investors with us and making sure that adequate capital is flowing.

AG: Tell us more about the investors in your network?

SV: A key measure of success in securing funding for our companies was who was advising them. We reached out to the innovation ecosystem, to build our relationships for the benefit of our companies, and now have a network of 5,000 individuals, serial entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who support and advise our companies. The Astia Community includes also have 1,200 to 1,300 VCs and angel investors who invest in the space. Astia Angels today has 60 members who have invested more than $24m since 2013 into 52 companies. We have industry leaders, such as Nick Donofrio from IBM and Ruth Owades from Calyx & Corolla, as well as academics and policymakers within our network.

AG: With the problems that women entrepreneurs face so profound and so embedded in society, what can be done to change the situation?

SV: We originally thought we didn’t want to be a separate ecosystem from the current ecosystem. But after 10 years, when the market hadn’t moved at all and venture capital had actually retracted and invested in fewer women, we set out to build our own ecosystem, centred around our core values. We value women as leaders, we value entrepreneurship’s role in the economy, we value the give back and our community certainly gives back.

“There’s a stickiness across power, equity and influence, the stickiness being that women aren’t present.” – Sharon Vosmek, Astia

Simon Black: Is the issue a lack of opportunities that founders are aware of, rather than a lack of money? Or is it a lack of faith and belief?

SV: I recently listened to Geena Davis talking about the film industry, where only three per cent of directors are women. That’s quite similar percentage to the flow of venture capital. And representation of women in politics globally is something like two or three per cent as well. So, there’s a stickiness across power, equity and influence, the stickiness being that women aren’t present. Moving women into positions of power, equity and influence is just harder.

SB: You’re the bridge between the entrepreneurs and the investors. Why do angel investors come to Astia? Are they using it as the diversifier in their portfolio? Are they consciously wanting to increase the number of female entrepreneurs?

SV: It’s interesting to see how that has changed over time. Our original angels did it because they knew that Astia was doing well in sourcing deals and this would be a great diversification strategy. Today, Angels chose Astia because of the performance of our investments and the consistent performance of the Astia Expert Sift – our proprietary method of sourcing and screening investments. The Sift engages the 5000+ members of the Astia Community, leveraging the expertise of many and harnessing the wisdom of our expert crowd in selecting which companies to consider for investment.

“Where women are excelling in high growth entrepreneurship, they have access to a global network.” – Sharon Vosmek, Astia

AG: On a global level, you work with entrepreneurs coming from different countries and investors coming from different countries. Do you see any difference in attitudes towards and representation of women there?

SV: First, and most importantly, gender is a universal construct. Universally women are second-class citizens as it relates to money. I have yet to find a country where that’s not the case. Second, however, where women are excelling in high growth entrepreneurship, they have access to a global network. It’s about who gets to define who you are in business and in life, and if it’s local, they’re going to define you as mother, daughter, caretaker, all those roles as it relates to family. But if you can break out and somehow be an entrepreneur on a global scale, you can define as entrepreneur, as CEO, as Board member, all these very different things, and you can get validated in a very different way.

AG: Is the next generation of millennial investors more aware of these issues? I believe my peers, and perhaps the next generation of investors, will focus more on ethical investments – anything that’s related to gender equality, inclusion, environmental matters.

SV: I see that on the impact side, yes. But then I also teach a course on entrepreneurship at Stanford, and within the class the dynamic is that the women are deferential to men and don’t ever speak. Some of the dynamics are still there and embedded in that generation.

Sharon Vosmek was a lead speaker at our “Women’s Wealth: Investing in female founders” event in September.  Please visit Dolfin events to see, and sign up to receive, a schedule of upcoming events, including our series of Women’s Wealth events.

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