Startups in Southeast Asia and India have a glaring gender disparity issue. However, they may still have the edge over the venture capital (VC) firms that invest in them, says a leading female VC executive.
“I see a lot of progress on the portfolio company or startup hiring side where the senior management is increasingly reflecting an improving mix of men and women. In the VC ecosystem, though, that is still not reflective at the senior level,” Rishika Chandan, a managing director at consumer-focused VC firm Venturi Partners, said.
Chandan is one of 107 female investment decision-makers at Southeast Asia-headquartered venture investors, according to a recent DealStreetAsia report.
A former entrepreneur turned investor, Chandan says she is encouraged to see a growing number of women in entry-level roles at venture firms who can progress to more senior roles in future.
“…while there is a change, this will take time, and we can only ensure equal opportunities and mindfulness to alter any biases that may exist and bring about this change,” she added.
Excerpts of an interview with Chandan:
Why is it important for VCs to advance gender diversity at their firms as well as at portfolio companies?
Gender diversity and having more women in the workplace are even more critical in today’s environment. Research has proven that women are better at reading non-verbal cues. They also facilitate collaborative work environments, which help in fast-paced environments to attract and retain good talent. I was also reading research conducted by McKinsey, which mentioned that gender-diverse companies have a higher probability of profitability!
Are VCs in Southeast Asia and India doing enough to attract and retain more diverse talent?
I see a lot of progress on the portfolio company or startup hiring side, where the senior management is increasingly reflecting an improving mix of men and women. In the VC ecosystem, though, that’s still not reflective at the senior level. I recently attended a number of events in Singapore and was not surprised to see only a handful of women in a room full of VCs. Now, that is at the senior level.
What is heartening to see is more young women in entry-level roles in these funds, and that can only mean we will see healthy senior-level participation in the future. So while there is a change, this will take time, and we can only ensure equal opportunities and mindfulness to alter any biases that may exist and bring about this change. At Venturi, in fact, four of eight team members are women, and that makes us immensely proud!
Can they do more? If yes, what actions would you recommend?
Yes, I think a lot more can be done. For starters, identify a role and mandate HR to have at least 50% of candidates in the review pool be women. Now, hiring must be purely meritocracy driven, but the pool should ensure diversity. I have personally strongly disliked when recruiters have called me to say there are roles available and the hiring company is only interviewing women for the role as they are keen to build diversity. I would much rather be in a diverse pool of men and women and hired on merit from thereon than have it this way.
Secondly, identify nuanced aspects of the role including softer skills that might be required such as empathy, persuasion, team building, different market insights & networks, etc. Most companies tend to focus on the immediate hard skills required and not pay much attention to the softer skills that might be essential to the role. I think doing so will also enable hiring the right person for the right job.
Is there a supply gap i.e., VCs cannot find enough women VC candidates?
Chicken and egg situation. VC has long been considered a bro club. Women have, therefore, been unable to get access. There is no dearth of well-qualified women in the field. As I mentioned, that is now changing at entry-level roles, and that is what I think will bring about more senior women in leadership roles going forward.
Does the VC bros-club culture act as a barrier to more women joining and more importantly, advancing in the field?
It definitely can come in the way of building real relationships and expanding your network. Having said that, it is also very individual. If you are perseverant and doing good work, you will eventually get noticed and break into circles that matter. But is it harder for women to do so? Yes, it most certainly is!
How significant is the gender pay gap at VC firms in this part of the world?
I don’t think that is a real issue today, especially in SEA. Companies are very fair in terms of remuneration. The issue is at the hiring level, not so much at the compensation level per my understanding and experience.
What advice would you offer to those interested in the field?
Never take no personally. You just need one yes to get to where you want to be, and that’s what matters. Don’t hesitate to speak up in male-dominant circles, whether on boards, in meetings or networking sessions. And lastly, leverage your family support to its fullest to make sure you can fulfil your professional aspirations.