I grew up being taught that self-reliance and working for yourself is the ultimate mark of success. My father dropped out of high school to start working in his late teens and became a business owner in his late twenties, around the time I was born. My mother graduated high school and was a tutor for a stint before spending the better part of her twenties and thirties as a stay-at-home mom. Both came from large families with seven siblings each, and grew up in a small town in Sumatra in the 1950s and 1960s where schooling was basic and opportunities were limited. Most of my uncles became small business owners themselves and the women of my mother’s generation, by and large, either worked alongside their husbands or were full-time homemakers.
As the oldest of four, I was the first in my family to complete a university degree. My siblings have since eclipsed me in their academic achievements, but I remember thinking on my first day at Yale that my life trajectory was about to go a very different way from my parents’. A university degree opened a world of possibility for me and I wanted my fellow Indonesians to experience the same. It would be another 15 years before the idea for ErudiFi came to be, but unbeknownst to me, the seed for entrepreneurship was already planted. Today, ErudiFi is one of the leading education financing startups in Southeast Asia, enabling students in Indonesia and the Philippines to pursue higher education, and backed by investors such as Y Combinator, Monk’s Hill Ventures, Qualgro Ventures, Patamar Capital, Intudo Ventures, and ACV.
Not many women are as lucky to turn a desire into reality. It’s the year 2022 and, yet, only 2% of last year’s record-breaking USD 330billion VC funds went to all-female founding teams. Dig a little deeper and a range of thought-provoking statistics surfaces. A 2018 study by Boston Consulting Group showed that businesses helmed by women deliver higher revenues than those founded by men, generating more than twice as much per dollar invested. While every entrepreneurial journey is challenging in its own rights, there is compelling evidence that women can do just as well if not better than men in this arena. Moreover, women represent a significant half of the consumer base and play a critical role in driving innovation in areas such as femtech, a USD40 billion global opportunity in 2020, projected to reach $75.1 billion by 2025.
So why are we not seeing more female tech founders? One might argue that there’s implicit bias in the investment process that often leaves strong women-led businesses bereft of adequate funding. After all, technology has been largely seen as a male domain, and as archaic as that philosophy is, it is going to take some time to shake that generalized belief. A lot has also been said about carving out agender-balanced space in the VC universe and, yet, the needle hasn’t moved much. Most conversations veer towards the lack of female founders being a result of not enough LPs backing female VCs, funds not offering women the same scope given to men, and not enough female VCs being promoted to partnerships. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article reports that since 1990, only 8% of VC investors in the US are women. This figure is not much more encouraging when it comes to emerging markets.
On the founder’s side, experiential studies point to evidence that pitches delivered by men are 60% more likely to receive funding – even though the pitch may be indistinguishable. Of course, we need more data to conclude the root cause, such as whether this is indeed a result of systemic bias or a “top-of-the-funnel” problem with fewer founders compared to male counter parts to begin with. Regardless, the lived experience of many female founders suggests that these challenges are very real, albeit nuanced.
That said, not all women experience entrepreneurship the same way, just as not all men (or insert any other qualifier here) experience entrepreneurship the same way. Some have been extraordinarily successful while others have found it more challenging, regardless of their gender. Ultimately, I believe that the sum of our identity extends beyond any singular trait, be it gender, race, socio economic background, belief systems, and so on. However, as social creatures, women have had to grapple with self-limiting beliefs that are often perpetuated by our environment, both socially as well as in professional settings.
My own struggles stemmed from not having many role models at a time when I needed guidance or someone to talk to. I could fundraise or hire as effectively as my male co-founder, so my struggle was not as much with gender bias as it was todo with my life stage. When I became a mother, I looked around for those who have walked the founder-mother path and I found very few. In my fundraising experience, I never pitched to a female VC Partner and didn’t feel I could speak to any women within the investment community about navigating parenthood and helming a startup. Eventually, I did find one startup founder who navigated the same life stage struggles as mine, but we truly do not have enough of those examples even today. The point here is not whether or not motherhood is compatible with being a founder, but rather that we need more women to model out the different paths and possibilities in entrepreneurship.
To overcome this, I hope to see more role models and examples of successful women founders and senior women investors in the startup world, particularly in Southeast Asia. I am proud to say that at MHV, one-third of our portfolio companies have at least one female founder on the team, and 20% are helmed by a female CEO. Over 50% of the leadership roles at MHV are held by women, and half of our Venture Scouts are women. As part of our community building efforts, we support diversity across all our initiatives in programs such as Generation Girl, a non-profit organization that aims to introduce women to the field of STEM, to help nurture the next generation of tech founders. We also track gender representation across all levels of our portfolio companies as part of our ESG efforts, which I lead.
Part of my motivation to become an investor at MHV is to pay it forward and be are source to female founders in their journey as well as connect founders with each other through introductions, founders’ events, office hours, and more. There has never been a better time to be a founder in SEA. Female founders should actively seek to build peer relationships within the startup community and find mentors, male or female, who can help them grow, as individuals and as a company. These can be founders, senior operators, angels, advisors, and VC investors, ideally someone who has had similar experiences or knows the industry vertical very well.
As a female founder and now a VC Partner, I hope to see more senior women investors come to the fore to support the development of the Southeast Asia tech ecosystem for all entrepreneurs. By enriching the diversity of perspectives and experiences, we can begin to rewrite the narrative for success that is not only inclusive but also provides better returns for all.
IFC/Oliver Wyman/RockCreek. Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity and Venture Capital. 2019.