Last month, the seventh annual Rock Health Women’s Summit was held in San Francisco to promote gender diversity and support more women leaders in Digital Health. According to research from Rock Health, women are the predominant players in the health care marketplace. Women represent 78% of the health care workforce, make 80% of health care decisions in families, and represent 75% of all caregivers in the home. Their influence on health care is profound.
It’s strange, then, that women don’t have equal representation in industry, especially in terms of leadership positions. Women run only 6% of the companies in Digital Health. As it so happens, women also represent only 6% of the venture capital industry. (According to angel investor John Landry, who spoke last month at Capital W’s Boston Women’s Venture Summit, this number is even worse in Boston, with only 3% of VCs being women.)
The gender disparity in venture capital creates a barrier to achieving gender balance in the companies they fund, as VC teams with mostly men are more likely to invest in companies with mostly men. It’s been found that VC teams with women are two times more likely to invest in management teams with women and three times more likely to invest in companies with women CEOs.
Besides being equitable, from a business perspective, it’s also profitable to invest in companies with women on the executive team. According to Rock Health, start-up teams with women on the executive team raise more money than all-male teams during first rounds. Also, companies that have women in board-level leadership positions have been found to produce a greater return on investment.
Gender diverse companies also tend to have greater diversity in general, in terms of race, sexual identity, and sexual orientation. This is important to consider because employees these days – Millennials especially (now the largest generation in the workforce) – prioritize diversity at work. Millennials have a “remarkable lack of allegiance,” according to Lynne Sterrett of Deloitte Consulting, adding, “It’s a serious challenge to us as business leaders.” What has been shown to attract and retain Millennials is having shared personal values and a deep sense of purpose. According to Ali Diab, CEO of Collective Health, a company with a health care benefits platform, “There is a certain meaning, a certain sociological tapestry that Millennials want to feel when they come into the workplace. They want to feel like what they do has that social impact broadly speaking.” Diversity has been cited in numerous studies to be integral to creating a more inclusive work culture and has also been found to result in teams that make better decisions, perform better, and are more successful.
Events like the ones sponsored by Rock Health and Capital W last month help to spotlight success stories that can hopefully inspire others. One Massachusetts firm, Zaffre Investments, the investment arm of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and its managing director, Leah O’Donnell, were recognized at the Capital W Summit for being the investment firm with the highest ratio of women-led companies in 2014 and 2015. Six of the firm’s 10 companies are women-led, including Boston-based Ovuline, which has a fertility-tracking app.
Although progress is being made, change has been very slow. Terra Terwilliger from the Clayman Institute, who spoke at the Rock Health meeting, discussed the problem (in both men and women) of unintended bias, sharing an eye-opening study that demonstrated how removing gender from resumes can improve the chances of hiring more women. She challenged the audience to consider before hiring or not hiring an applicant to ask themselves if they, too, may have an unintended bias.
Ali Diab has solved this problem at Collective Health by instituting a 1:1 men to women hiring ratio. He shared that his inspiration for this was his personal experience, having been raised by a mother who worked. “I grew up in a household where my mom was a surgeon but my dad went to grad school, a PhD program, so I got to observe the power of having that sort of a professional female force in the house.” He went on to say, “I also got to observe all of the gender issues she had from her home country, which is in the Middle East … but also here in the US where she dealt with a lot of sexism. So for me it was a very personal thing, I just wanted to make sure we had women well represented because I just feel very passionate about it because of my mom’s experience.” Collective Health has been very successful with this strategy and has even managed to create an engineering team that includes 25% women, which is unheard of – “astronomical” according to Diab – in typical tech companies. Diab also shared that he feels Collective Health has seen the fruits of this hiring policy in the market as well.
Former VC partner Karen Boezi, now an investor with Broadway Angels, urged women to be more confident, speak up, and take more risks. She also encouraged greater investments in women, sharing her thoughts about how successful they can be. “Women, I think, can be very focused on ‘getting it done.’ They have their eye on the ball and they are very good executors, very good managers.” The panel was especially bullish about women with children, calling them “ruthlessly efficient.” In speaking about the positive experience of a small investment firm called Mission Bay Capital, which invested in her biotech company (among others), she said, “They’ve had nine exits so far, all led by women.”
Hopefully, as more people in Digital Health recognize the business advantages of having gender diverse teams in their firms, opportunities for women will continue to increase.