Why women are still underrepresented in business, and how it can change

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Why women are still underrepresented in business, and how it can change

The founders of an Israeli venture capital firm tell Candice Krieger how they have made it in a man’s world and the ways they feel the status quo could be changed

Mastercard has ranked Israel the best country for female entrepreneurs. At the end of last year, the annual Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) promoted Israel to the top for the first time, up from fourth place in 2019.

But behind the headline lies a tougher reality across the globe for women who are trying to make it in business, particularly as founders or venture capitalists, says Cynthia Phitoussi, managing partner and co-founder at venture capital firm SeedIL Ventures. 

“With only seven percent of Israeli entrepreneurs being women, and female-led counterparts raising $1 for every $2 raised by their male counterparts, many stereotypes associated with entrepreneurship continue to create barriers for female entrepreneurs,” says Phitoussi who, together with her SeedIL co-founder Audrey Chocron, has seen the challenges first-hand.

Both Paris-born immigrants, the entrepreneurs have spent the past decade establishing a name for themselves in a male-dominated industry. Fascinated by the Israeli start-up ecosystem, they moved to Israel from the UK in 2010 and founded one of the first accelerator programmes in Israel, TheHive by Gvahim. 

Then, as Phitoussi puts it, armed with some Israeli chutzpah, they focused their efforts on bringing investors from around the world to invest in seed stage Israeli start-ups. Their SeedIL Club gathered 65 business angels in 2014. They then decided to action their dream and launched their venture capital fund, SeedIL Ventures, in 2018. They have invested in 22 Israeli start-ups, which have raised $185 million (£133m) between them, employing 385 people across the globe. But it has not been easy.

Cynthia (left) and Audrey (right)

“Although there has been some improvement, women are still underrepresented in many areas,” notes Phitoussi. “Only a few women are hired in VC [venture capital] funds, let alone at a partner level. For the past 10 years, we have been surprised by the underrepresentation of women in business meetings, boards of directors, and tech networking events. 

“Recently, we organised a Zoom event with 14 of our founders and were the only two women, reinforcing our feeling of being alone in a man’s world. As for our limited partners, only five percent are women.”

Chocron adds, half-amused: “Even after a decade navigating the ecosystem, we are often asked who are the managing partners of SeedIL Ventures, because they assume it must be a man.”

Recently, we organised a Zoom event with 14 of our founders and were the only two women, reinforcing our feeling of being alone in a man’s world. As for our limited partners, only five percent are women.

The pair, who met through friends, believe women make great venture capitalists. “Research hints at many benefits of women investors: being more risk cautious, better at cutting their losses, having better crisis management skills and putting extra time to research to enlighten their investment decisions.”

“We feel women can better grasp an entrepreneur’s personality, their DNA, strengths and weaknesses,” says Chocron. “Many of SeedIL’s founders will tell you that part of the investment process consists of putting them on the spot about every aspect of their business, irrespective of the ticket size. 

“In that sense, women are more forthright, more “tachles” [Hebrew slang meaning getting straight to the point], less prone to battles of ego and more open to admitting when they are wrong or when they don’t know.” 

The Mastercard index tracks the global progress of women entrepreneurs and business owners across 58 economies. The US, Switzerland and New Zealand ranked second, third and fourth, with the UK sixth. So what enabled Israel to take the top spot? 

“Since girls and boys are equal when they serve in the Israeli army aged 18,
it helps women to feel more confident when they start their own business,” says Chocron. 

“Also, there are plenty of special science education programmes for girls, a plethora of organisations to promote coding training for female students or ultra-Orthodox women and non-profit organisations for female entrepreneurs.” 

Yet the duo believe there is still an urgent need for a shift in the gender perceptions of female entrepreneurs across the globe.

“It starts at school when girls are less encouraged to study science,” explains Phitoussi. “Starting a business, they feel less competent to start a technological project. When it comes to raising funds, female entrepreneurs have to pitch in front of male investors who are not so keen to invest in women founders and it makes them even less comfortable and confident. 

“Also, at the start, being an entrepreneur requires you to work days and nights and travel all the time, which is difficult when you raise young children.” 

When it comes to raising funds, female entrepreneurs have to pitch in front of male investors who are not so keen to invest in women founders and it makes them even less comfortable and confident

It is partly for this reason women have borne the brunt of Covid-19. According to the Mastercard research, 89 percent of women business owners have been adversely affected during the pandemic.“There has been no school during the pandemic in Israel, making it very difficult for parents to work,” notes Chocron. 

“I believe mums are more likely to be expected to stay at home, probably linked to the lower salaries level, and therefore the gap has been even bigger this past year in terms of number of female entrepreneurs and funding.” 

Chocron and Phitoussi moved to Israel in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Fascinated by the ‘Start-up Nation’, they wanted to make a mark there. Chocron had been a senior relationship manager for corporate clients in a large bank for more than 13 years, while Phitoussi had created and run a corporate event company she sold.  

“Audrey and I are atypical VC partners in many ways,” says Phitoussi. “As new immigrants, we haven’t served in the army, in the expected 8200 or other prestigious elite unit where most of our colleagues started their ‘career’ and built their network. 

“Israel is a small country, so network in the entrepreneurs’ ecosystem is a key success factor to attract the best deals. After more than 10 years surfing in this world, we managed to carve out a place for ourselves and build our reputation.” 

Companies they have backed include BreezOmeter, Invocap, Donde and Dataloop. Konnecto and myInterview recently secured major seeds rounds. The fund has also forged strong partnerships with top start-up accelerators in Israel, such as Technion DRIVE and IDC’s Zell Entrepreneurship Program. 

But they are not fininished yet. “We feel a sense of responsibility as women investors,” says Chocron. “We believe entrepreneurship should be the way for women to set their own rules and challenge the outdated gender bias.” 


Mastercard top 10 countries for female entrepreneurs:

1 Israel

2 United States

3 Switzerland

4 New Zealand

5 Poland

6 United Kingdom

7 Canada

8 Sweden

9 Australia

10 Spain

Odelia Zucker, business development consultant and owner of Zucker Consulting

“I have seen a growth in female entrepreneurship over recent years. As a result, many not-for-profits and companies in the UK have put women at the forefront and are organising female networking and other dedicated events. That’s fantastic news, resulting in more business opportunities and successes for women, which is great for our economy. In my experience, women like to support each other and enable each other’s success. 

Odelia Zucker – ‘Work as a team and encourage each other’

“My advice in this changeable climate is to be empathetic and patient as contacts and clients’ circumstances are constantly changing: their working environment has changed since many are working from home, and their needs are developing. Work as a team to compliment each other’s strengths and encourage each other; tap into your network of contacts for support.

“Post-pandemic, I foresee a new way of working, more home-based, online with fewer face-to-face meetings, networking and events. For female entrepreneurs, it would mean more thinking on their feet combined with careful planning in online communication, while at the same time enabling them to juggle home life more
effectively. Honing in on online tools and social media will become a priority. Most importantly, working with a collaborative approach will be key.”

Odelia Zucker recently presented to London firms through City Business Networking about business development during Covid-19


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