Bridging the Gap – Anya Navidski of Voulez Capital
Anya Navidski is the Founder and CEO of Voulez Capital, Europe’s first venture capital firm investing in female founders. With less than 3% of capital going to female led businesses and no European VC focused on this specific area, Anya identified an opportunity to create a venture capital firm with a difference and to bridge the gap. She is on a mission through Voulez to create a culture and approach which is trusted by female founders and an environment where they they can get the support, structure and investment they and their businesses need to flourish.
Can you give me an overview of your background and career so far?
I was born in St Petersburg and raised in Russia, the US and the UK. A development economist by training, I am always focused on making an impact in whatever I do. Somehow, I am not happy otherwise. I started my career in banking and consulting. Although I learned very early on that I wasn’t going to be fulfilled working for somebody else, this route provided me with a great foundation in terms of skills and experience.
My previous venture was a large biomass power plant here in the UK. Voulez is my third foray into running my own business. Although it is a venture capital firm, we are very much a growth company ourselves. Within Voulez I focus on what has become my expertise which is building businesses. This is the biggest value which I can bring to the table. At Voulez we get very closely involved with our companies, spending a lot of time with the founders and in some cases becoming almost a co-founder.
What led you to setting up Voulez Capital?
Last autumn I was pregnant and looking for a breast pump. Most of the products I found looked like they were designed in the 50s, but I finally came across Naya, a US company and the product is the iPhone of the breast pump world. I simply loved it. The technology behind it, the design, the whole package.
I also discovered that the founder had experienced a lot of negativity and disregard from VC’s who made no attempt to understand the market and proposition. Her story reminded me that I had seen this type of treatment many times before. Not only was this very wrong but it also meant that investors, customers and entrepreneurs were potentially missing out.
Having spent some time looking at this field, I learned that less than 3% of capital goes to female founders. I also saw that in the US there were a number of funds focused on female founders which were doing really well. The seed level ecosystem in Europe seemed to be ripe but there was no European VC focused on this specific area to bridge the gap with VC capital. As an entrepreneur I saw an opportunity to create value and also to deliver impact.
Having discussed my idea with a number of potential investors, it received great feedback and support. Two days before Christmas I had verbal commitment from my anchor investors and the journey began.
The world of venture capital is traditionally very male dominated, what do you think is needed in order to address the current gender imbalance?
I don’t think many people sit down and decide not to hire women or not to invest in them. A few perhaps but not the majority. Most of the decisions are made as a result of subconscious biases that we accumulate throughout our lives. The best way to combat this is through more awareness. It’s a little bit like the concept where an observation of a phenomenon changes it. Creating more awareness as a starting point is crucial.
We also need to put the spotlight on the women who are doing those jobs well. The more we see something, the more we get accustomed to it, like it and accept it. At least that is what neuroscience tells us. If young women (and other male VCs) see VCs like myself go out there and succeed, they are more likely to seek a career in the field and to support other women in their ecosystem.
A third way is for more LPs to support new fund managers. The most effective disruption to an industry happens from people who understand it well but come from the outside. It helps them to see things differently, to build organisations like Voulez, with a different culture from the start.
We do have a lot of work to do and I suspect it will take a generation to truly see change. Some VCs until recently did not even have sanitary bins in their bathrooms. Most still do not have a maternity leave policy (at least not until a female partner gets pregnant and the issue can no longer be ignored). If in five or ten years the industry has normalised and I no longer need to focus on female founders, I will be very happy. I will then invest in whatever makes sense at the time, but I suspect in ten years I will still be investing in female founders.
As a team what was behind your decision to focus on investing in sectors which are typically less associated with female founders like IT, manufacturing and engineering?
We wanted to focus on areas where the biggest gap existed in terms of lack of investment. Investors find it easier to buy into the idea of a woman running a fashion business or a cosmetics business, but find it harder to accept a woman running a tech company. So not only did it make business sense to us but we wanted to challenge rather than reinforce the stereotype associated with female led businesses.
Can you tell me more about the investment readiness programme and how this works?
This programme is the result of many years of work with various start-ups and growth companies and we use it with companies that are a little too early for VC investment but whose businesses and founding teams we really like. It allows us to get to know the founding team and to build trust. A strong relationship with our founders is at the core of how we work.
It also provides a forum for constructive due diligence – a method which helps us to challenge assumptions and preparatory work done by the company and to work together to find the best solutions. This creates a lot of alignment amongst stakeholders, which we see as one of the keys to success.
The programme has a core structure but is flexible enough that we can adapt it to the needs of the individual business. The key focus is on business planning, rather than a static business plan i.e. we build business processes and infrastructure as we go so that the company has a framework for moving forward, even if circumstances change over time and pivoting is required.