Rethinking Gender, Rethinking Impact

Jenny Abramson on Creating Balance and Inclusion at the Upper Levels of Venture Capital

“Why so few women leaders?”

In days past when Jenny Abramson was invited to give a talk or participate in a panel discussion, she often found herself to be the only female executive on the stage.

Today, Jenny [New York, 2000–2002] is founder and managing partner at Rethink Impact, the largest U.S.-based impact venture capital firm with a gender lens* investing in female leaders who are using technology to solve the world’s biggest problems.

“Gender-lens and impact investing are coming to the fore in response to longstanding inequality in the venture capital space. More and more investors, particularly women and millennials, are eager to see their investment dollars aligned with their values. Some of this demand is coming from data showing that impact investing can beat the market. Further, we believe that much of the top tech talent in the world wants to work at companies that are tackling global issues,” says Jenny.

Nonetheless, Jenny points to a tangible lack of women at both ends of the startup and venture capital spectrum: A little over 2 percent of all 2017 venture capital dollars went to female founders—a decrease from 20 years ago; and less than 8 percent of venture capital investment partners are women—down, if you can believe it, from 10 percent in 1999.

“And this despite the fact that female founders are performing better than all male founding teams,” notes Jenny. “As the Peterson Institute for International Economics reported, when firms go from zero to 30 percent female leadership on their teams, they see a 15 percent increase in revenue.”

Add to this the recent reports exposing Silicon Valley’s poor track record on its treatment of women and the moment was ripe, says Jenny, to create a tech-focused impact fund that invests in companies with diversity at the most senior levels.

Rethink Impact—launched, fittingly, on International Women’s Day, 2017—invests mainstream capital in companies that fit three main criteria: tech driven, with revenues between $1 million and $50 million; businesses geared to make a positive impact in education, health, environmental sustainability, and economic empowerment; and, of course, businesses with gender-diverse leadership teams.

Jenny says that her time as a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics focusing on the ethical, political, and legal implications of the Human Genome Project—combined with her work at BCG on the program strategy for Teach For America—helped her to begin appreciating the significant role business can play in “fixing our greatest inequalities and challenges.”

“The experience afforded me a deep understanding of and an appreciation for the ways that businesses operate, the dynamics of organizations, and the value of hiring top talent—skills that I’ve utilized in every role I’ve had since.”

Jenny sees a direct correlation between her BCG experience and the work she’s doing today. “At its core, BCG works to help executives and leaders run and grow their businesses to the fullest and most successful extent possible. Here at Rethink Impact, we work to select, invest in, and support CEOs of companies that are solving our world’s greatest problems and who will be our future global leaders.”

Post BCG, Jenny served as CEO of LiveSafe, a mobile technology company created to address and combat school campus sexual assaults and shootings. Through that experience, she saw huge opportunities to invest in tech-driven companies created to help address social ills and imbalances, given their potential for scale and innovation.

“In the past ten years, we have seen impact investing go beyond the realm of a do-good experimentation, to become front and center on Wall Street,” says Jenny. “Even some conventional firms have launched large-scale impact funds.”

However, she cautions, impact investing is barely clear of the starting gate as it relates to solving some of our most pressing global challenges.

She cites experts who claim that $6 trillion of commercial capital must be unleashed every year for the next 15 years if we are to see meaningful change around issues such as poverty alleviation, climate change, and social equality.

“It’s my belief that over the next decade or so, we will see a great many more financial vehicles with an impact lens,” she adds. “Demand, combined with interest we’re already seeing from millennials and women, will lead to a massive influx of mainstream capital from our largest institutions, putting significant capital to work in this space.”

In the meantime, Rethink Impact is doing its part to upend the diversity status quo. A full 100 percent of its companies have at least one female on their executive teams; more than 70 percent have a female CEO; more than half of their leaders are over 40 years of age; and almost one-quarter have a CEO who is a person of color.

“Venture capital firms like ours are funding the Googles of tomorrow, and we need those companies to have gender diversity—all kinds of diversity—in their senior leadership teams from the start,” says Jenny. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have as many women as we have men leading our top companies.

“My mission is to help create balance and inclusion at the highest ranks of our best, most promising tech companies because I believe, fundamentally, that it’s good for business and good for the world.”

*According to B Lab as of March 2017