The Continued Rise of the Intersectional Venture Fund: Lessons from Project Sage 4.0

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In December, Wharton Social Impact Initiative and Catalyst at Large published Project Sage 4.0, our fourth study of private equity, venture capital, and private debt funds with a gender lens.

There are now 206 total funds in Project Sage, a 3.5 fold increase since we began the study in 2017. 22% of these funds are raising $100M or more, with the majority in the $20–50M range. Only 38% of the funds surveyed are fully closed, which means there is a lot of room for investors to deploy capital, across every sector, vehicle type, and geography. (Note that Sage is not recommending these funds but illuminating the field.)

One of the most exciting trends in this year’s report is the continued acceleration of funds that combine a gender lens with a focus on other types of diversity — or what I called in 2019, the rise of the intersectional venture fund.

This multi-faceted approach to opportunity and impact has been a feature of the funds surveyed in Project Sage from the very beginning, but it has become more central year after year, as the investment community develops an increasingly sophisticated understanding of equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice.

In 2018, when the funds in Project Sage 2.0 were surveyed, 8% of funds said they explicitly considered LGBTQIA+ factors in their investments, and 21% reported their investment criteria included racial/ethnic considerations. In the 2021 study, 47% of respondents had a dual gender and race/ethnicity lens, and 15% had a dual gender/LGBTQIA+ lens.

Some caveats: The observations shared below are my own analysis, and do not represent the views of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. Unless explicitly named as data from the Project Sage study, they are drawn from my 15 years of experience working in and talking to people in the gender-smart investing field.

Finally, I have deliberately not named any individual funds in this article. There are so many of them now that it would be impossible to draw out specific examples without playing favourites. Instead, I encourage you to access this information directly through the Project Sage 4.0 report, where you can find information on fund size, targeted geography, and sector for each fund, along with information on diversity focuses beyond gender.

That said, here’s what you should know about this growing class of funds — and what they mean for our collective capacity to identify and invest in powerhouse entrepreneurs who are currently underinvested and underrepresented.

What’s Behind the Explosion of Funds with Dual Race and Gender Lens

First, let me start by saying that we know a lot more about funds with a dual race and gender focus than we do about funds with a dual gender and LGBTQIA+ lens: for one, because there are a lot more of them.

Some of these funds were created by women of colour who want to address the unique challenges that impact women entrepreneurs of colour, or who believe their lived experience and cultural insight allows them to seize market opportunities that other investors miss — whether that’s leveraging the power of the Black or Latinx markets in the US, or identifying market opportunities in the Global South. Others are run by white fund managers who have recognised the power of diversity, and who have their own strong networks with founders of colour. Together, these fund managers are bringing a diversity of thought and experience to their investments that is missing from the investment ecosystem as a whole.

Some funds in Project Sage 4.0 are driven by the thesis that women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of colour continue to be underrepresented and undervalued in the investment marketplace, and therefore represent a better opportunity for investors. Other funds featured in the study are focused specifically on businesses serving underrepresented populations, using their dual gender and race/ethnicity lens to sharpen their impact.

What Sectors are These Funds Operating In?

I asked my team at Catalyst at Large to do a cut from the Project Sage 4.0 data to identify the top represented sectors amongst funds with a dual gender and race/ethnicity lens. They found that the top sector focuses for funds with a dual gender and race lens were Healthcare, Environment, and Agriculture, which mirrors data from Project Sage 4.0 survey respondents as a whole. Femtech, Fintech, Food, Clean Tech, Consumer Technology, Future of Work, Consumer Products and Services, Renewable Energy, Water Sanitation and Hygiene, and Education and Training were also well represented, being named as an investment focus for more than 30% of funds with a dual gender and race/ethnicity lens.

Diversity at a Fund Management Level

Project Sage 4.0 also surveyed diversity in fund management, and found that on average, 69% of a fund’s senior leadership identifies as female, 48% as non-white, and 3.6% as LGBTQIA+. These numbers were similar, if a little lower, at the investment committee level.

It’s worth noting, however, that diversity of fund leadership varies significantly depending on geography. 42% of funds in Europe and North America have less than 25% non-white representation in their senior leadership, and two thirds of that group have no people of colour in leadership positions at all.

LGBTQIA+ Funds

Compared to their race and ethnicity focused counterparts, gender funds with an explicit LGBTQIA+ lens are relatively smaller in number. Most of them are focused on investing in underrepresented founders overall, including women, founders of colour, and LGBTQIA+ founders, rather than investing in companies that are focussed on addressing the LGBTQIA+ market, but we didn’t get a chance to dig into that in the research.

We still have much further to go, both in developing and understanding this lens, and with respect to LGBTQIA+ representation in fund leadership and on investment committees, which remains low. For gender-smart investors interested in deepening their understanding of this lens, and how bringing an LGBTQIA+ lens to their gender investments can enhance their ability to spot market opportunities and increase their impact, Criterion Institute’s 2020 report on Investing with an LGBTQI lens is a good place to start.

What’s Next?

There is still a lot that we don’t know about this burgeoning class of funds. We don’t have any data, for example, on the gender, racial, or ethnicity makeup of who is investing in these funds, although we do know that some of them have an additional mission of diversifying the investor base. We also didn’t ask whether the racial equity lens was about a company’s target customer or employee base, versus looking at the entrepreneurs themselves.

But the data in Project Sage 4.0 is unique for enabling investors to easily identify vehicles that focus not just on women, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity, but across multiple lenses at the same time — and then further hone in on vehicles that work in your preferred sector or geography. For investors that recognise that neither impact nor market opportunity exists on a single axis, this is powerful information.

I am tremendously excited by the investments these funds will make in underrepresented entrepreneurs, by the new ideas and innovations that will be given the investment fuel they need to get off the ground, by the market opportunities that will be identified, and by the diversity of thought this group of fund managers are already bringing to our field. Investors who want to tap into that should be reaching out to and getting involved with these fund managers.

I encourage you to download the Project Sage 4.0 report and learn more about these vehicles and the businesses they’re investing in, and from my personal perspective, consider investing in the ones that align with your investment agenda.

If the ideas and data in this article excite you, stay tuned for GenderSmart’s upcoming JEDI investment toolkit, which will cover the what, the why, and the how of investing with a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion lens.

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Catalyst at Large and Co-Founder, GenderSmart, investor, change maker, movement building leader. catalystatlarge.com, @zanne2, gendersmartinvesting.com

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suzanne biegel

suzanne biegel

Catalyst at Large and Co-Founder, GenderSmart, investor, change maker, movement building leader. catalystatlarge.com, @zanne2, gendersmartinvesting.com

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