“It is a man’s world out there … and substantially harder for women to fundraise” for new businesses, said Nadia Leonelli, who two years ago founded Element Snacks to make and market puffed corn and rice cakes dipped in chocolate and fruit spreads for a healthy, indulgent and gluten free treat.
“Women-created start-ups have traditionally been under funded and … there are few women among venture-backed entrepreneurs or venture investors,” she said, pointing to a survey of women entrepreneurs published last fall by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
The survey notes that male founders are more than three times as likely as women founders to access equity financing through angel or venture capitalists; five times more likely than women to tap networks of close friends for funds; and tend to start firms with nearly twice the capital that women do.
A fear women will disappear to have families
One factor contributing to the investment discrepancy is investors have unspoken fears that female entrepreneurs will “disappear” to have a family before the investors realized their full return potential, explained Leonelli.
She advises women to proactively address this concern early in negotiations with potential investors by outlining a contingency plan if they will be unavailable for a long period of time for maternity leave or illness. This would include a line of succession showing who will be in charge in her absence, plans for covering financing and a clear path for growth even while she is away, Leonelli said.
She also noted that while many mothers of small children are successful business owners, she knows from experience that each role is a lot of work and balancing the responsibilities of each position can be challenging.
Leonelli is a mother and says the skills needed to raise a child and found a business are similar – as are the time and energy commitments, which can be all-consuming for just one position, let alone both at the same time.
Leonelli waited until her child was older to launch Element Snacks, which allowed her to focus on each responsibility separately. It also helped her better identify what moms, who are her target audience, consider when buying snacks for themselves and their families. For example, her snacks are low in sugar, fat and calories but are satisfying because they are made with high quality ingredients that provide complimentary aroma and taste experiences, she said.
Partner with men, women and established firms
Women should help each other out by partnering with each other when possible, but not to the exclusion of partnering with men, Leonelli said.
She explained that many investors were interested in her company but always wanted to know who else was involved, and often were more at ease when they realized her husband was a pivotal player in the company, even though he does the marketing and she deals with the financing.
This was one reason that she ensured both men and women were involved in her company.
“Women need partnerships that go beyond themselves and that give reassurance” to investors, and the way to do that is to partner with the best, regardless of their gender, she said. “I would never do something because it is just women. That is sexist in the other direction,” she said. But, she added, she does try to surround herself with competent women when possible.
Being a woman in a man’s world is not all bad, she added. For example, she has caught the attention from others who want to increase the status of women entrepreneurs.
Among those is AccelFoods, an early-stage accelerator founded by two women, that provides seed money for operational support of food and beverage businesses, Leonelli said. She noted the money will help ensure the company’s supply chain is safe and ingredients are clean.
AccelFoods likely was attracted to Leonelli’s business not just because she is a woman but because it has grown 300% annually since it launched two years ago, according to Element Snacks.
Leonelli plans on fueling this growth going forward by launching line extensions that feature new flavors or target different consumer segments. She also noted she wants to move beyond rice and corn cakes to other healthy indulgent snacks.
While she would not divulge many details about her new product pipeline, she said that the new products will “be a little fun, and interesting and are never going to be chemically. They will be all natural, healthy indulgences.”