At a time when women receive a paltry 2.9% of venture capital funding, 500 Startups is trying to change the situation by setting an example at home. The venture firm and startup accelerator is now run by two women, and its executive team touts full gender parity.
This week, 500 Startups announced that Courtney Powell was joining as Chief Operating Officer. Along with cofounder and CEO Christine Tsai, the top two positions are held by women, a first for a generalist venture fund.
“It just occurred to me the other day that half our executive team is women,” Tsai told Business Insider. “I can’t really say it was architected in any way, but it is partly because it was part of our values. From an outside perspective, it’s either unusual or remarkable to have that in leadership, but from the 500 Startups perspective, it’s just natural. Hopefully, going forward it won’t be as much of an anomaly.”
500 Startups, which just celebrated its ninth anniversary, has had its share of controversial leaders. In June 2017, the height of the #MeToo movement, cofounder and CEO Dave McClure resigned after allegations of inappropriate behavior towards women. Tsai took over and began working to repair the firm’s reputation.
“It was obviously a big change, but I think my big reflection on it was that we have built something that is so much bigger than one person,” Tsai said. “I just keep going back to our mission statement and that’s what has stood out in how we have succeeded beyond that.”
According to Tsai, 500 Startups now counts 10 unicorns— startups with private market valuations of $1 billion or more — among its portfolio, up from three in 2018. Powell was brought on to continue expanding the firm’s international initiatives by working closely with governments around the world. She wants to help educate policymakers and other stakeholders on what makes a healthy startup environment, and what entrepreneurs need to become successful at home and abroad.
“It’s great to see the markets progress from just accepting outside capital to building their own ecosystem with investment firms and then seeing that ecosystem take off,” Powell said.
Powell’s first introduction to 500 Startups was as a founder in the accelerator program’s fourth batch of startups in 2012. During her pitch to join the batch, she saw that the team had built a Mother’s Room, a private area for nursing mothers, just for Tsai at the time.
“Coming to 500, I had never met a female venture capitalist and Christine was the first VC I had ever met,” Powell said. “It was a really meaningful experience for me. I was feeling really supported as a female and as a mother.”
But as women continue to make only marginal gains in funding, Powell thinks 500 Startups has become a model in closing the gap by starting with its own leadership team.
“My experience with 500 Startups has always been with strong female leadership with Christine and the other female peers,” Powell said. “There can be mothers in leadership. There can be better representation in leadership and in VC. It’s not a far-flung scenario anymore.”