Entrepreneurial women have fueled innovation in the plant-based food and food-tech spaces with mission-driven startups aimed at tackling global concerns including climate change, human health and animal welfare.
Yet, as in other areas of innovation, plant-based startups led by women often lag behind those started by men when it comes to winning venture capital investment.
Venture capital funding in startups across all sectors fell after the start of the pandemic, but the pain wasn’t felt evenly. While investment in startups founded by men fell 5.4% from March to June 2020 before ticking up again, investment in female founded ventures declined nearly 30% and stayed suppressed through the end of 2020, according to Pitchbook data.
In the plant-based space, 59% of women founders reported facing bias in fundraising and 89% of those founders said they specifically encountered gender bias, according to a 2021 report from the Vegan Women Summit, which surveyed 145 women founders across the globe. Additionally, 13% reported encountering increased gender bias in 2020 after the start of the pandemic.
Plant-based investment in the pandemic
“Unfortunately, investments in women founders went down [during the pandemic] because investors saw male founders as a safer bet,” said Jennifer Stojkovic during a session at the Plant Based World Conference & Expo in New York City in December.
Stojkovic partnered with successful vegan entrepreneur Miyoko Schinner, the founder and CEO of plant-based dairy company Miyoko’s Kitchen.
Schinner’s company raised $54 million in a Series C funding round last year, making it one of the few exceptions that prove the rule, she said.
“I’ve talked to so many women whose technology and products are as good or better than [those from men] and they can’t get funding,” Schinner said.
Plant-based startups in the food and food-tech spaces ended up raising about $3 billion in 2020, but only 3% of that went to companies founded and led by women, according to research from the Vegan Women Summit.
Women face challenges that men don’t, Schinner said, starting with the way they’re evaluated.
Startups founded and led by men can often raise funds with pitches that outline innovative technologies with the potential to take off in the future, Schinner said. In contrast, women entrepreneurs must often show a track record of past performance to be taken seriously.
And even after women prove themselves, they still face doubters, said Schinner, who has built her company into an industry leader in the plant-based dairy alternative space.
“I was a founder in denial about bias,” Schinner said.
Then she encountered it firsthand more than once even as her brand was taking off, she said.
“I heard from male investors ‘It’s a great idea, what you’re doing, but you’re never going to be able to do it on your own,’” Schinner said. “I hear ‘You’ve done a great job building the brand and the company to this point, but if you don’t hire someone like me, you’ll fail.’”
Making plant-based connections
Women founders often face hurdles when it comes to accessing the networks they need to connect with investors, Stojkovic said.
For startups in every industry, the lack of women in top positions at venture capital firms has been a challenge. There are some signs of change – the percentage of women in those roles grew to 15% last year from 12% at the end of 2019, according to Pitchbook data. Additionally, the number of women angel investors rose from 740 to about 1,000.
Last year brought some other high notes – while women-led ventures across all industries still lagged behind their counterparts led by men in attracting investment, they raised about $40 billion in the first nine months of 2021, according to Pitchbook. That’s about twice as much as they raised the previous year.
In the plant-based space specifically, groups and events like Vegan Women Summit aim to foster the kinds of connections women entrepreneurs in the plant-based space need to succeed. The next event is scheduled in Los Angeles in April, with a slate of high-profile speakers networking opportunities.
In addition to finding ways to connect with investors, women entrepreneurs also need to connect with media sources where they can tell their stories, Stojkovic said.
Women leaders in the plant-based space need to start from a place of self-confidence as they face down the doubters, Schinner said.
“It’s really important for women to understand that you’re the one who founded the idea. If we can’t believe in ourselves, no one will.”
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