Although he controls the purse strings for many Canadian business ventures, Vincent Gasparro gives off few anxiety-producing Dragons' Den vibes, especially to women.
He's the very approachable managing director of Toronto-based Green Tomorrow Fund, an independent private-equity fund that invests in environmentally sustainable businesses and clean-energy projects.
And about 60 per cent of the businesses the fund invests in, or conducts due diligence on, he says, are either 100-per-cent female owned and operated, or some part of the capital structure is controlled by women.
"If I am looking at two businesses with comparable rates of return and all other factors are equal, the female- or minority-owned businesses will get the investment," said Mr. Gasparro.
He is a relative rarity, however. Data about the number of female entrepreneurs who secure venture capital can be depressing. One recent study, by the University of New Hampshire's Center for Venture Research, found that only 12 per cent of startups that made a pitch to U.S. angel investors during the first half of 2011 were led by women – and that only about a quarter of them secured financing.
But there's no question that venture-capital support for businesses owned by women is growing.
"The glass ceiling for women receiving venture capital funding is slowly beginning to shatter and will continue to improve at a faster rate moving forward," Mr. Gasparro said. "Ultimately, the trend for female entrepreneurs is moving in the right direction."
In fact, companies owned by women are the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian business sector, according to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. The number of female entrepreneurs in Canada increased 208 per cent between 1981 and 2001, compared with an increase of 38 per cent for men.
In the United States, an organization known as Golden Seeds, which operates in several cities, has focused on helping female entrepreneurs for at least a decade. New firms, such as the Women's Venture Capital Fund, based in Palo Alto, Calif., demonstrate that the appetite for diversity at the startup level is catching on.
Venture capitalism, of course, shouldn't be confused with philanthropy and Mr. Gasparro insists that capital will always move toward the greatest rate of return.
Monica Dodi shares that sentiment. She is managing director and co-founder of the Women's Venture Capital Fund, which focuses on early-stage female entrepreneurs working in digital media and eco-friendly businesses.
"As with any private-equity firm or venture capital fund, it's our fiduciary duty to look out for our investors and get a return," Ms. Dodi said. She and her partners launched the fund with the help of investments from their former female classmates at Harvard Business School. They started with a "modest" fund of $25-million and closed their first deal last summer, and lament the fact that less than 5 per cent of venture capital in the U.S. goes to startups run by women.
Ms. Dodi and her partners may represent a new trend among venture capitalists, with their focus on female entrepreneurs, but in the first half of 2011, only 12 per cent of U.S. angel investors were women.
Natalia Oberti Noguera is aiming to change that low tally, and get more women involved in helping female entrepreneurs. She founded the Pipeline Fellowship to train women to become angel investors. The organization graduated its first class in New York last October, and has since launched in Boston with plans to expand in the San Francisco Bay Area next fall.
"I believe that more diversity on the investor side will ultimately unleash more capital directed toward women and people of colour on the entrepreneur side," Ms. Oberti Noguera said.
Barbara Orser, who holds the Deloitte Chair in the Management of Growth Enterprises at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, is head of the National Task Force for Women's Business Growth, which has been advocating on behalf female-run enterprises since 2009.
"The task force is challenging some dated assumptions about women and entrepreneurship," said Dr. Orser, citing a misconception that women don't want to expand their businesses.
This misconception exists despite the explosion of female entrepreneurs in Canada and the United States, and the world at large, she said. She attributes the problem to the media's lack of attention on successful female-run businesses.
"If you are going after revenue as your criteria, you won't see them." Dr. Orser said. "If you are going after employment, community development and innovation, you can find them."