Good news: the percent of investment that venture capital firms make in female entrepreneurs tripled over a recent 15-year period. According to a 2014 study done by professors at Babson College, it has risen from 5% to 15%.
Not so good news: per the same study, only 15% of the businesses venture capital firms back have a woman on the executive team. And less than 3% of them have a woman CEO. The numbers are particularly bothersome since the study also shows that the VC-backed companies that do have women on their executive team have outperformed other businesses in terms of their valuations at both their first and final funding rounds.
Are you a woman who is starting or managing a small business? Then you may have a tough time getting venture capital funding. You are probably also less likely to be approved for a bank loan.
Women have made great strides in being worthy of business investment. Those who typically make those investments have not yet caught up. Here are some of the best ways around that dilemma:
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First a word about grants. Technically, they are awards of money — often from the government but also from private companies and foundations — that never have to be repaid. They do generally have strict reporting requirements and are very specific with regard to how the money can be spent. They also are not terribly common.
There are also new online lending organizations that offer pretty speedy loans which take into consideration your type of business along with other factors not typically factored into the decision making at banks. Find out more about them and other resources specifically for women in business in our new article about Business Help For Women.
In this article we review not only grants but also other funding resources women should pursue. As noted above, the playing field is not yet level and women must be even more creative than other entrepreneurs to get the funding they need.
If you are a female entrepreneur and have had interaction with venture capital firms, don’t be surprised if they contact you to discuss the nature of those interactions — and to assess their (men’s) behavior. There have been a number of law suits and sexual harassment scandals lately that have gotten plenty of press. And wise VC’s are encouraging their male partners to honestly reexamine their own behavior to be sure it had been and will be appropriate. Men comprise almost 90% of venture capital partners and this situation makes for a potentially problematic power dynamic. So if you have encountered sex harassment issues in you dealings with male VC’s be sure to speak up and make it clear that such behavior is unacceptable.
Fortunately there are more options out there now than ever before for entrepreneurs seeking money for a new business. And at least one of them actually appears to favor women rather than putting them at a disadvantage! More on that in a moment: here we begin with traditional grants:
Have you heard of the “Idea Cafe”? This is a site where small business owners (or wanna be owners!) can use forums to discuss ideas, share tips and more. In addition, they give out some small grants. Though they’re not specifically for women a large majority of the grants do go to female entrepreneurs. The awards are for $1000 and are offered periodically. Anyone who has a small business or wants to start one can apply. You can learn more on their website and also see write-ups of past grant winners. Those stories can be inspiring and educational for others hoping to win a grant.
Federal Government Grants
Women may have some advantages competing for government grants since agencies are particularly sensitive to providing support to women and minorities.
The mother of all grant websites is grants.gov. Some articles actually recommend that you consult this site to look for grants for small business.
The fact is that very, very few small businesses can find a grant on this site. It’s true that it is the central and most complete repository about grants and other funding from the federal government. But the federal government typically provides grants only to the states and to other government agencies. They rarely award a grant to a small business. When they do, the grant will be for a very narrowly defined group of eligible applicants.
To qualify as eligible, your business would have to be in an area that is considered to “contribute to the public good.” Examples would include so-called green technologies, and businesses closely related to health care, energy efficiency or perhaps business technology.
If your business is in one of those areas you should certainly take a look at grants.gov and see if related opportunities are open. You can easily do a search right on the landing page by entering your keyword(s) in the search box on the upper right. Be sure also to include the terms “small business” or you may be overwhelmed with results that don’t apply to you. If you do find something that looks promising you can click to learn more about eligibility or get an application for more details. Be sure to read and follow all requirements to the letter even if they seem repetitive or overly detailed.
For example, we recently searched grants.gov with the keywords “women” and “business”, and chose the eligibility filters for grants that would be available to small businesses and to individuals. We actually got a result for one that an individual could win, but it might not be quite what you’re looking for. It’s funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is looking for nonprofits or individuals with projects that create or operate programs that will contribute to the long-term conservation of African elephants. If that’s not your business model there’s also some grant money available for small businesses which are doing innovative research and creating commercial products which would benefit older adults. They are offered by the National Institutes of Health and have $6 million in funding to work with. So it’s worth checking out grants.gov even if relevant grants offerings are not abundant.
State and Local Government Grants
State and local government grants are much more widely available for small businesses. And many are likely to focus on groups that have been “underserved” — which typically includes women. One good place to start is on your state’s website. Look for a business section or enter “small business grants” in a search box to see what is currently available.
Another great place to check is your state – and sometimes even your city's – Economic Development Agency. These agencies are primarily interested promoting a strong economy in their local areas. They may be offering grants to stimulate business and you could be a good candidate! Even if they don't offer grants directly, they probably have a good list of resources you should check out.
Do the same for local grants. These may be offered by cities, counties, or local businesses. They come and go so there is no set list, but you can do a periodic internet search with the name of your city and/or county and “small business grants”. You should also go to the website of your largest local newspaper and do a search for small business grants or contests.
Last but not least, check out our articles about state grants that are offered by California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. These are some of the most generous states in terms of grants, and each article provides details on grants in several categories including business. If you live in one of these states or are considering starting a business in one of them they are definitely worth your time.
The Small Business Administration
The SBA does not give out grants or loans directly to small businesses, period. It does, however, subsidize or guarantee some bank loans and provide lots of training and information services and support. Please see our review of the SBA and how it can help you! In addition to their basic services they have a number of excellent support programs specifically for women.
This is where women are winning! If you’re not familiar with crowdfunding, check out Crowdfunding News.
You may very well have heard of sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, where entrepreneurs and others make a pitch and receive “donations” from supporters. In return they offer rewards or incentives based on donation amounts. So those contributing money are not technically “investing” as they do not become shareholders or partial owners of the business venture. The money the entrepreneur receives is taxable but many consider that to be a small price to pay as they do not have to give up any part of their company to get it.
Here’s the best news if you’re a woman trying to get a venture off the ground or give it the money it needs to grow: women are doing a great job on these sites and in fact are outperforming men! According to the Wall Street Journal, studies are showing that women are 13% more likely than men to achieve the goal they set on Kickstarter (where you must meet the goal you set in order to receive any money). The result holds even if you filter results by the type of project or the size of the goal. There were 1,250 projects studied which covered five different categories and each had a goal of $5000 or more. The study was conducted from 2010 to 2012.
One caveat to be aware of, though, when using sites like Kickstarter. Be very careful in your selection of the incentives you offer at different levels to those who contribute to your campaign. If you have a very popular physical item to offer and your campaign is wildly successful (usually a good problem!), you could be on the hook to deliver lots of goods before you are ready. And though people know you're not yet a “store”, they still have been conditioned to expect great service – and speedy deliveries. Failure on your part can lead to negative feedback on social media sites and a pr nightmare. You might want to check out an example by reading about Radiate Athletics' Kickstarter campaign – and be sure you are well prepared for success!
Indiegogo, another popular crowdfunding platform, says that on their site women are 61% more likely to meet their financial goals than men. And women account for close to half (41%) of the small business and technology campaigns that successfully meet their targets. (There are other types of campaigns, but small business and technology areas are where women have a harder time raising capital than men from banks and venture capital firms.)
Women who have difficulty securing venture capital can be highly successful on crowdfunding sites. Part of the reason appears to be that women like to support other women and go out of their way to help them be successful on these sites. Part of the reason may also be that women are doing a better job telling their story on these sites.
Whatever the reason, crowdfunding should be high on your list to secure financing for your business. Take advantage of the tutorials and guidelines offered to increase your odds of success on these sites and focus on communicating your story: it could be just what it takes to get your venture off the ground!
If you own your own business or are thinking of starting one, grants are available from some private sources. For example, the National Association for the Self Employed (NASE) is an organization that supports - you guessed it — the self-employed. Members can get advice from experts, help with benefits, better buying power and more by joining this group. Their NASE Foundation also provides scholarships, research support and awards and grants. Members can apply for small grants through the NASE. It does cost $120 per year for membership. You can also learn more about business resources in Small Business Grants for Women.
Also referred to as P2P, peer to peer lending sites also “democratize” business funding by opening opportunities outside of the traditional bank or venture capital communities. These are not specifically for women. But it’s possible that the same phenomenon could occur as it does in crowdfunding: women support women and increase their chances of getting the amount of capital they need.
P2P sites bring together individual investors and borrowers. Two of the best known are Lending Tree and Prosper. Lending Tree loans range from $1,000 to $35,000 at rates between 6.6% and close to 30%. The average investor earns 5-9%.
Keep in mind that neither these nor funds raised through crowdfunding are grants. Crowdfunding funds do not have to be paid back, but they are taxable. Funds acquired via P2P sites are loans and must be paid back, sometimes at high rates. But neither type of financing requires that you give up partial ownership of your company. And both could be feasible alternatives to banks and venture capital firms.
Always keep a positive attitude and be inspired by those that have gone before you! For additional tips and ideas, see Grants for Women Owned Business.