Microsoft's venture fund, M12, wants to bridge a funding gap in venture capital and dispel the misconception that few women are building enterprise tech companies.
M12, along with EQT Ventures and SVB Financial Group, launched the Female Founders Competition in July, which will award two women-led companies $2 million each in funding. Ten finalists, selected from hundreds of submissions from 28 countries, pitched their companies to judges Wednesday at the Microsoft Reactor in San Francisco.
"There's some sort of myth out there that there just aren't a lot of women who are starting enterprise tech companies and that they're generally focused on consumer. I think we've proven that's not true with this competition," said Lisa Nelson, managing director of M12, which was previously known as Microsoft Ventures.
Broadly, consumer tech companies market to the masses, while enterprise tech companies focus more on selling to other companies.
Women make up about 40 percent of M12's investment team, but only 7.5 percent of founders in its portfolio are women, according to Nagraj Kashyap, corporate vice president and global head of M12. That's not enough, and he hopes M12's investment team, with its more diverse networks, can discover entrepreneurs that less-diverse teams might not come across.
"If we just play it safe and we just go back to our own networks, we will never solve this problem," Kashyap said. "There's no shortage of smart female entrepreneurs. We just have to look harder to find them."
There's good reason to fund female entrepreneurs. Research shows that companies led by women tend to generate better returns. Still, just 2.2 percent of venture capital funding in the US last year went to companies founded only by women, according to data from industry tracker Pitchbook.
Nelson wants the competition to bring awareness to this issue and to give hope to the finalists that there are investors who want to bridge the gap in funding.
"I don't want a VC to invest in me because I'm a female founder," said Milkana Brace, CEO and founder of Jargon, a content management platform that lets third-party voice apps support multiple languages. "I want a VC to invest in me because they believe I will build a multibillion-dollar company. But I don't want them to stop from investing because I'm a woman."
Tzvia Bader is CEO and co-founder of TrialJectory, an AI-based marketplace that helps patients and oncologists find clinical trials. Her hopes are broader than for the outcome of this specific competition. She wants her three daughters to face fewer hurdles than previous generations.
"I sincerely hope that [with] what we're doing now and what this competition is doing, it will be different for them," Bader said.
Greta Cutulenco is CEO and co-founder of Acerta Analytics, an AI-powered solution for automotive applications. Even if her company doesn't win the competition, she said, she's grateful to have met other female founders.
"There's a lot of money you can find, but sometimes meeting the right people and building this network of people who have faced the same challenges as you have in the past is extremely valuable," Cutulenco said.
In addition to $2 million in funding, the two winners will also get access to tech resources, mentoring and legal counsel. The winners will be announced Dec. 11.
Here are the 10 companies that made the final round:
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