Venture capital had a record-breaking year in 2018, with $131 billion being invested in the U.S., according to a report from Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association. That's the first time annual venture capital investment has reached more than $100 billion since 2000.

It's unclear if it was a record-breaking year for women entrepreneurs, too, since the report doesn't sort deals by gender. As CEOs, women get only about 2.2 percent of venture capital, and founding teams that include a female entrepreneur win about 20 percent of venture capital. But even if 2018 wasn't record-breaking for women, a number of notably large venture rounds did go to female CEOs. And women entrepreneurs who raised venture capital last year cite a number of trends that could make it easier for women to get venture funding in the future.

"As women continue to take their seat at the table, and as women, like men, continue to have operational experience and come up through those moments of change, women will get their fair share," says Tina Sharkey, the co-founder and CEO of Brandless, a household items e-commerce company that raised $240 million last year.

One reason to suspect that women at least maintained their share of venture capital last year is that the largest round to date -- $14 billion - went to Ant Financial, a payments company founded by Lucy Peng, a female billionaire from China. While Ant is a division of Jack Ma's Alibaba, for many rankings, that $14 billion will still count.

By comparison, Ann Wojcicki's success at raising $300 million for 23andMe, most of it from Glaxo SmithKline, could seem modest. So could Tina Sharkey's success at bringing her total venture capital raise for Brandless to $292 million. Until you remember that it wasn't all that long ago that 23andMe emerged from a years-long buffeting from the FDA, and that Brandless was founded only in 2016.

There were other notable deals by women founder/CEOs, as well: Julie Wainwright brought in $115 for luxury consignment company The RealReal, increasing the total amount raised for that company to $288 million. Stephania Mallet brought in $100 million for ezCater, as did Shan-Lyn Ma, the founder of wedding registry company Zola.

Rachel Carlson, the co-founder and CEO of Guild Education, which raised $40 million in July, says attitudes may be changing in a way that could benefit women entrepreneurs. She tried to plan her pregnancy so that she wouldn't have to fundraise while pregnant. "I'd heard horror stories," she says. But the reality turned out to be much different: Felicis Ventures, a fund in Silicon Valley, contacted her with a term sheet in May 2018, about five months before she intended to start raising money for her company, which helps employers offer education for their workers as a benefit. At the time, she was seven months pregnant with twins. The lead investor and the vice president on the Felicis side, she says, were both men, and "they weren't bothered a bit" by her pregnancy.

The fact that more women are being hired as decision-makers at venture capital firms is also beginning to make a difference, says Carlson. That's true, she says, even though about 75 percent of venture firms don't have even one female partner. "The best firms have done it, or are very, very close," she says. In December, Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee led a $75 million Series C investment in female-centric co-working company, The Wing, which is run by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan.  

That same phenomenon benefitted Shivani Siroya, the founder of mobile money company Tala, when she started out. Among the early backers of her company was Female Founders Fund, which was founded by Anu Duggal and invests in women-led companies. (Likewise, Aileen Lee, of Cowboy Ventures, joined the seed round for Guild Education). Siroya raised $65 million for Tala in April, and says she sees investors becoming a bit more conservative across the board. But she can't say for sure if that's because her company is more mature and moving more money, or if it's a reaction to larger economic concerns. She says she's getting a lot more introductions now, and she's optimistic for her female colleagues in entrepreneurship, too. "Hopefully there is more thoughtfulness in the industry," she says. "It does feel like so many more friends of mine who are founders, their rounds are coming together." Says Carlson: "The best investors are the ones who believe that talent is equally distributed, and opportunity is not."

Published on: Jan 11, 2019