By Florence Robson
t’s no secret that the financial sector doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to diversity. In its annual study of the European technology industry, venture capital group Atomico found that over 90% of venture money in the region in 2021 went to start-ups with all-male founding teams. What’s more, 62% of underrepresented founders found it more difficult to raise cash, up from 31% in 2019. These are depressing numbers – and ones that Catherine Lenson is determined to change.
As the first female managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, Lenson is on the leadership team for the world’s largest technology firm, with $100 billion under management in the two SoftBank Vision Funds. But, as she is quick to emphasise, her position as one of the most senior women in the tech investment industry was never a given. Starting out as an HR graduate at UBS, Lenson rose through the ranks in banking before making the leap to tech in 2017 as SoftBank’s Global Head of HR. Now Chief People Officer, as well as a managing partner, Lenson is responsible for shaping the firm’s culture, diversity and social impact efforts. And while she maintains that she has only ever had positive experiences as a woman in finance, she is aware that, for many women in the industry, that is far from the case – and it’s here that she wants to make a difference, starting by creating more opportunities within both the firm and its portfolio.
Her flagship project is Emerge, SoftBank’s tech accelerator for underrepresented founders, of which Lenson is the Executive Sponsor. Emerge was designed to solve a common issue which was preventing many founders from accessing SoftBank capital: the funding gap.
“In the early days of the Vision Fund, our funding threshold was $100 million, so it took companies a number of rounds before they were able to even approach us”, says Lenson. “We knew that women and other diverse founders were starting businesses and getting early funding from angel investors but we weren’t seeing them move successfully through the funding pipe – getting to Series A, B, C, and then eventually being ready for a Vision Fund-sized check.” It became clear that the system wasn’t going to fix itself. “We realised we would have to get involved at an earlier stage in the pipeline to open up our doors to underrepresented founders. And that was Emerge.”
After launching in 2020 in the US, Emerge ran in EMEA last year, with participation from some of the region’s leading seed investors, including Speedinvest, Breega, Cherry Ventures, firstminute Capital and Kindred. Industry and sector agnostic, the accelerator is aimed at seed-stage startups with at least one founder who identifies as non-white, female, LGBTQ+, disabled, and/or is a refugee. Alongside supporting founders with tools, connections and networks, SoftBank and participating VC partners actually invest in the selected companies at the end of the accelerator, fast-tracking the fundraising process. In this way, the majority of this year’s cohort had filled their rounds by the time the accelerator had finished.
Lenson is determined to use Emerge to help diverse founders move away from dedicated pools of capital – such as the firm’s $100 million ‘Opportunity Fund’ for minority-owned businesses – and towards SoftBank’s Vision Fund, by shifting investors’ internal biases.
“The selection and mentoring of the Emerge participants is done by the same investors that write cheques for the main fund on a daily basis”, says Lenson. “If an investor has just spent the last two months working with an insanely talented female founder, watching them grow their business and advocating for their success, that has to change their perceptions of what it means to be a diverse founder and how they could fit into our main fund.”
While there is still a long way to go, it appears that this strategy is starting to work. “There have been some fantastic recent investments in female founders from the Vision Fund, such as Rebecca Minguela at ClarityAI.”
For this year’s accelerator, Lenson is already looking at opportunities in India and the Middle East, and interrogating how Emerge can meet the needs of female entrepreneurship in those regions.
Ultimately, Lenson wants to prove that diversity has an important commercial role to play. “Founders often ask me how you build a diverse team without sacrificing growth”, she says, “but getting your culture right actually accelerates growth! Diversity is not a fluffy, nice-to-have.”
When it comes to SoftBank’s own diversity credentials, there is still progress to be made, particularly when it comes to Black investors, says Lenson. “We’re doing ok – but there’s definitely work to do”, she admits. The firm is 46% female but lacks women in the most senior positions. “We have the same problem as everyone else, which is that we have fewer senior women writing investment checks. So that’s one of our big areas of focus.”
When asked what advice she offers women with leadership ambitions, Lenson doesn’t hesitate. “Whatever your relationship status, you have to figure out your shit on the domestic front”, she says. “It underpins everything – and I've seen too many talented women throw up their hands and say, ‘it's just too much’.” She notes that we tend to be far less intentional about planning our home lives than our professional ones. “There’s a great book called ‘Fair Play’ by Eve Rodsky that helped me systematise my home life.” She grins wryly. “That's a slightly more domestic answer than I would have thought I’d have given a few years ago but unfortunately, it's the bedrock of everything.”
And she should know. Lenson is not short of professional achievements; in 2021, she was named as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, and she sits on the Sustainability 30 forum. As for becoming SoftBank’s first female managing partner? While it’s a nice accolade (“my mum loves reading it”, she jokes), Lenson isn’t a fan of exceptionalism. “Won’t it be nice when women’s achievements are no longer a ‘first’ or an ‘only’?”
Join us next Wednesday 19th for a live session with Catherine Lenson
By Florence Robson
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