After selling the medical manufacturing business she co-founded for 21 million in 2008, Fiona Cruickshank sought out to accelerate the success of other women entrepreneurs. Cruickshank approached her financial services firm about investing in women entrepreneurs through angel investing. Despite numerous conversations, she was consistently told she didn't "have the risk tolerance for it." While she recognized it would be a smaller and riskier portion of her overall portfolio, Cruikshank was seeking opportunities to earn a return and have a meaningful impact. "I neither felt like an important client nor did I feel they understood my value proposition as an investor," she says.

Women around the world wield tremendous economic power. But, for the most part, the market women represent as investors is vastly untapped. This represents an enormous missed opportunity for women entrepreneurs.

Women control $20 trillion, or about 27% of the world's wealth. In the U.S. alone, women exercise decision making over $11.2 trillion of investable assets. And they don't just control the purse: They're filling it. In the U.S., women own 8 million businesses, with an annual economic impact of nearly 3 trillion. If American women-owned businesses made up a country, it would have the fifth-largest GDP in the world, ahead of the U.K. and France.

Yet much of this wealth is surprisingly on the sidelines particularly as it pertains to closing the funding gap for women entrepreneurs. According to recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation, an estimated $5 trillion of investible assets go unmanaged. Why? Women do not feel that the financial services industry--and, by extension, the world of venture capital--truly understands what they want from their wealth. As I explain in my book, Harness the Power of the Purse: Winning Women Investors, women have a unique value proposition when it comes to investing.

Women want to invest in diversity

Women, like men, want to invest for a solid return, but they also want to do more than merely accumulate more wealth; they want to leverage it to have agency and impact by seeding new ventures, funding social enterprise, creating charitable foundations, and leveling the playing field for all by opening access to education, employment and capital. "Women want money not so much for what it can buy, but rather, for what it can do," observes former Goldman Sachs partner Jacki Zehner, CEO of Women Moving Millions.

Women want to invest according to their values. A stunning 90% of women in CTI's global sample agree that making a positive impact on society is important. When it comes to women's values agenda for investing--diversity emerges as a top focus. Fully 77% of women across the U.S., U.K., India, China Hong Kong and Singapore want to invest in organizations with diversity in senior leadership.

While more women and men seek to align their personal values with investing, the marketplace has been slow to adapt. As would-be investors of early-stage entrepreneurs, women like Cruickshank tend to be shut out of the obvious opportunities with limited channels to invest in areas they are most passionate about advancing.

Access has been limited

As individual investors, women have represented a minority of angel investors. In 2013, only 19% of all angel investors in the U.S. were women, according to the Center for Venture Research. Unsupportive financial advisors can be a gating factor. Professional women investors have also struggled to breakthrough particularly in venture capital (VC). According to a Babson College report in 2014, women represent only 6% of partners in U.S. VC firms. Furthermore, only 3% of VC dollars go to companies with a female CEO, according to the same Babson College study.

It's not just that VC firms tend to be overwhelmingly male dominated, as has been well documented in recent months with the highly visible lawsuit of Ellen Pao against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. They also operate in an atmosphere in which women's ideas and insights are less likely to be heard or endorsed--both as investors and as entrepreneurs. Research by the Center for Talent Innovation found in fact that 56% of decision-makers don't value ideas they don't personally see a need for, even if there is strong evidence it is a good, marketable idea.

What can VC firms do to transform the status quo? Intel Capital has put a significant stake in the ground launching a new $125 million Diversity Fund with the mandate to invest in start-ups run by women and minorities. VCs also need to consider building more diverse and inclusive cultures by taking a hard look at how groupthink impacts deal-sourcing and investment decision-making. According to Kate Mitchell, Co-Founder of Scale Venture Partners and Board Member of National Venture Capital Association, "VCs need to redouble their focus on increasing returns by both investing with and in women and minorities. Investment and startup teams with women and minorities have lower turnover and improved performance. Increasing diversity in our firms and our portfolio companies isn't just good to do, it is the smart thing to do."

The playing field is slowly expanding

There is good news for women as individual investors too, thanks to the emergence of organizations that are trying to change the game by tapping women's wealth and elevating their investment savvy. Firms such as 37 Angels, Astia, Golden Seeds and Plum Alley specialize in early-stage investment opportunities with an emphasis on expanding diversity in the investment community and increasing the base of capital for women entrepreneurs. In offering innovative channels to engage women investors, angel groups and crowdfunding platforms would be well-served to apply some of the gender smarts and inclusive tactics highlighted in my book including:

  • make information digestible and interactive but don't dumb it down
  • bring information to life with visuals
  • link to outcomes -- not just financial but social and personal return on investment

By furthering the success of women-founded and women-owned businesses, these groups increase the possibility that classic VCs may kick in funding at a later stage, promoting a virtuous circle of more women investors, more women entrepreneurs, more women VC partners, and, just as important, more women with power to decide who gets financial support.