Venture capital fund aims to unleash the power of female capital in the agro-technological space

CALGARY – To prove that female entrepreneurs face unique challenges compared to their male counterparts, just look at Katie Wilson.

The entrepreneur and founder of Belli Welli, a plant-based baked nutritional bar company for people with irritable bowel syndrome, was one day away from the official launch of his business last year when she gave birth unexpectedly with her second child, two and a half months before her due date.

“We started the business the next day, but we started it from the hospital room,” Wilson said.

Now, 18 months later, California-based Belli Welli is a thriving small business – one of 30 companies to date in Canada and the United States that have received funding from The51, a private equity fund. – Alberta-based venture that aims to harness the power of “financial feminism” by putting investment dollars in the hands of women entrepreneurs. The fund, so named because women represent 51% of the population, aims to “democratize access” to capital for women.

It’s a mission Wilson approves of, as she said foundresses like herself still face gender biases and barriers.

“The most important and obvious example to me is the fact that I raised money while pregnant, and I did not share this fact with any investor,” Wilson said. “I only got support from our male investors when I had to write this email saying ‘hey guys not only didn’t I tell you I was pregnant but it turns out I will now start the business from the hospital. ‘

“But I think there is something to be said about the fact that I didn’t share it. There was a part of me that felt it might hurt my chances of completing the round. “

The51 was started last year by Shelley Kuipers, Alice Reimer and Judy Fairburn – three Calgary women who together have decades of experience as business founders, board chairs, community leaders and investors. It has since grown into a community of accredited investors, entrepreneurs and those who support them.

The51’s industry-independent first $ 9 million fund closed earlier this year with 90 percent of investment dollars coming from women’s private capital. Fairburn – a former executive vice president of Cenovus Energy Inc. who sits on the boards of several leading energy and technology companies – said it was almost unheard of in Canada, and yet there is has no good reason for this to be the case.

She cites investment sector statistics that by 2030, 65% of Canada’s wealth will be in the hands of women. Yet women remain under-represented in venture capital firms, around corporate boards and in the startup investment space.

“What we’re hearing from a lot of our investors – and we have some incredibly skilled women – is that they’ll say ‘yes my husband is invited to get involved in these emerging companies … but I don’t. I’m not even invited to be at the table, ”said Fairburn.

The response to The51’s first fund has been so enthusiastic (the founders met with 300 women-led businesses seeking funding) that it is now actively seeking investors for its second fund, which will focus specifically on businesses run by The51. women and diversified in the food and agriculture sectors. technological space.

The decision to focus on agriculture and food was taken because of what the founders of The51 see as an “unprecedented economic opportunity” in space. The agriculture industry generated $ 143 billion and accounted for 7.4% of Canada’s GDP in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. And with global population growth and climate change putting the issue of food security at the forefront, the industry is only expected to grow – the projected size of the food and Ag Tech market around the world is expected. reach $ 8 trillion by 2025.

In addition, the face of agriculture is changing. According to Statistics Canada, nearly one in three farm operators aged 35 to 54 is female. And in the agri-food tech space, women entrepreneurs are working on everything from the way food is grown and harvested, to plant-based protein development, to blockchain and traceability innovations.

Yet, according to the Silicon Valley-based venture capital platform AgFunder, only seven percent of agri-food technology deals went to female-founded teams in 2018. And a 2015 study by the Canadian Human Resources Council in agriculture found that 95 percent of women in agriculture felt “significant barriers to their success.”

“The sector is diversifying rapidly, not the capital. So we try to provide that diversity of capital, ”said Kuipers, who herself has founded several companies and calls herself a“ serial private investor ”.

“We’re really trying to find these founders who are really innovative in this industry and who don’t get funding – and go for it. “

“Fundraising is really a challenge for everyone, and there is no doubt that women face another form of challenge that male entrepreneurs may not have,” said Bethany Deshpande. , founder of SomaDetect, a Halifax-based agro-tech company that benefited from an investment from The51’s first fund. “The dairy industry is not known for its diversity, for example. “

SomaDetect uses optical sensors, artificial intelligence and deep learning to monitor herd health and milk quality on dairy farms. This is just one example of the kind of cutting edge work the founders are doing in the field of agritech. And that’s the kind of work that women investors – with their money, but also their intellectual capital and networks – want to be a part of, Kuipers said.

“From the investor side, what we hear all the time from women is, ‘There is a place where I can activate my capital, in a way that makes sense to me,” Kuipers said. . “They say, ‘Finally. Thank you.'”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 10, 2021.

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