What if Columbus was the home of the largest venture capital fund for women-owned businesses in the world?

Columbus has been dubbed a Smart City, the No. 2 city in the nation for hiring, the top rising city for startups, and even the City of the Year. Columbus is poised to be at the center of innovation in so many ways, but that commitment to innovation is not universal, and its benefits are not accessible to everyone. Not everyone is rising with the tide. 

Central Ohio women and girls represent more than 50 percent of the population but are disproportionately (1 in 5) economically insecure, lagging behind in opportunity and outcomes in wages and in wealth. And for women of color specifically, these gaps are even greater. 

To be a truly forward-thinking city, our growth and success must positively impact the community as a whole, not just the select group of individuals who already hold the most power and wealth. How can we accelerate true gender equity to ensure that this rising tide floats all boats? 

This piece of thought leadership is part of 11 Moonshot Ideas to Move the Columbus Region Forward: A Future 50 project.

THE IDEAS

The need for a civic renaissance • The private sector should fight inequity • Closing the digital divide • Driving equity by funding women-owned businesses • Designing a more equitable region • Using data to guide public policy • Customer-centricity in social services • A radical recalibration of education • ISO: Ambassadors for science • Finding true work-life balance post-Covid • Reimagining community-police relations • Why we did this project

Recent research by the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio identified “accelerators” that help people accumulate wealth and economic security at a faster rate, like homeownership, education, employment and entrepreneurship. 

Historically, women have lacked equal access to these accelerators, and many of the ideas proposed by our Future 50 colleagues in this issue will certainly improve access in meaningful ways, for women and men. 

But gender-specific barriers to wealth require gender-specific solutions.  

Business ownership is a primary method of wealth creation in the U.S. Women are starting new businesses at five times the rate of men, and when they succeed the impact is great, building independent wealth for women, improving lives for their families, creating jobs in their communities, generating returns for their investors and contributing to our region’s economic development. 

And yet, women lag in critical areas predictive of business success and face unique disadvantages. Women-owned businesses still account for less than half of all privately held businesses, employ far fewer people, and are based in less profitable industries than their male counterparts. The gender wage and wealth gaps make self-investment and external borrowing harder for women business owners, and a lack of access to capital makes it difficult for women to launch, invest in and grow their businesses.   

An infusion of capital at the start of a business is a leading indicator of its long-term success. But with only 4 percent of commercial loan dollars going to women-owned businesses and only 2 percent of venture capital dollars being secured by women entrepreneurs, women (especially women of color) are starting at a significant disadvantage.

What if Columbus led the nation in closing the wealth gap by funding women-owned businesses more than any other city through the largest venture capital fund of its kind in the world?

Boston Consulting Group reports that while women-owned companies receive far less in startup financing than companies founded by men, they generate more revenue for every dollar invested—more than twice as much as those founded by men. And business success expands as businesses grow if they maintain gender equity. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21 percent more likely to outperform on profitability and 27 percent more likely to have superior value creation.

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With the largest venture capital fund of its kind in the world, Columbus could invest in, support and encourage women to launch and grow businesses. And to increase its impact, this fund would put an emphasis on funding and supporting businesses owned and launched by women of color, social enterprises and B-corporations, and it would require businesses to commit to diversity and pay equity for women, further closing the wage and wealth gap.

Actions for business:

Partner with organizations like National Association of Women Business Owners  and Women’s Small Business Accelerator to advance women business owners. 

Require gender and racial bias training in your own business and make changes as a result—consider Women’s Fund Gender By Us Training and Gender YOUphoria.

Advocate for public policies that support women business owners, remove barriers and address the structural and systemic disadvantages women businesses.

Haley Boehning is founder of Storyforge and chair of Conscious Capitalism Columbus.

With contributions from Alex Anthony, Kelly Atkinson, Kristin Harper and Timothy Wolf Starr.

Sidebar: Celebrating a more open gender landscape

When growing up, my understanding of gender was boy/girl, man/woman, he/she. But as I talk to my 5-year-old about the subject, I understand how limited our understanding was. I will admit our son has a diverse set of influences—his Auntie Andrew is the international drag superstar Nina West, my sibling is non-binary, and he has watched some family friends transition. But he is not alone in the evolving conversation on gender inclusion. His peers discuss characters and toys as he, she, and now, they. This is the direction our world is moving. It’s time for us as a community to elevate our gender conversations.

As we were launching Pride Fund 1 in Columbus, the first venture fund focused on supporting the LGBTQ+ community, we knew we needed help to become better gender allies, advocates and true accomplices. So we called Ashton Colby, CEO of Columbus social enterprise Gender YOUphoria, who sheds light on gender and identity conversations by teaching compassionate communication using the same mindfulness-based emotional resilience skills taught to veterans with PTSD. Gender YOUphoria equips workplace leadership, journalists and marketers the tools to recognize the power of stagnant narratives carried around transgender people. 

Colby is uniquely positioned to lead this training, having lived for 20 years as a woman, even competing for Miss Ohio USA, before transitioning to male. Colby uses his decade of experience since coming out as transgender to build bridges. “If we want innovative and creative companies, everyone needs to be able to bring their fullest expression to the table,” he says.

An infusion of capital at the start of a business is a leading indicator of its long-term success. But with only 4 percent of commercial loan dollars going to women-owned businesses and only 2 percent of venture capital dollars being secured by women entrepreneurs, women (especially women of color) are starting at a significant disadvantage.

Timothy Wolf Starr is managing partner for Atlas Partners.