For the past several years I have celebrated International Women’s Day by recognizing female innovators.
Last year my article highlighted Hedi Lamarr, who, unbeknownst to many, co-developed a frequency hopping system during World War II to guide Allied torpedoes to their targets. This invention supported later developments in Bluetooth, GPS and other wireless technologies that we rely on every day.
Lamarr received far more recognition as an actor than as an innovator. While Hollywood recognized her film accomplishments with a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960, it wasn’t until decades later that she received awards for her inventions. In 2014 she was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The lack of recognition for female innovators is a source of continuing frustration for me. I was a judge last fall for Sønr’s InsurTech 100 program and was excited by the novel capabilities many of these companies bring to the insurance industry. But I couldn’t help but notice the low proportion of women leaders at these companies. Among the 100 top-ranked InsurTechs, just 12 have female CEOs or co-founders.
The lack of women innovators and entrepreneurs is an ongoing problem. But women are certainly making progress in the tech sector and more generally as entrepreneurs.
One of my colleagues, Anne Bodnar, recently mentioned to me that she had attended a pitch event sponsored by Golden Seeds, an angel investment firm focusing on women-led start-ups. I began looking into the organization and the more I learned, the more I became passionate about what they are doing.
Stephanie Newby started Golden Seeds in 2005 to help women entrepreneurs get start-up funding. Back then, only 5% of angel-backed companies had female CEOs. But because of Golden Seeds and others efforts, that number had risen to 21% by 2018, according to the 2019 ACA Angel Funders Report.
4x Increase in the number of angel-backed companies with female CEOs since Golden Seeds launched
Since its inception, Golden Seeds has invested over $170 million in a diverse set of companies across industries and geographies. Some of its notable investments: Donde, founded by Liat Zakay, uses visual intuitive search technologies to discover and purchase products. Little Passports, started by Amy Norman and Stella Ma, inspires children to discover new cultures and be better global citizens.
Besides funding, Golden Seeds provides feedback and coaching to female founders and connections to additional resources. It also is active in college entrepreneurship programs to help develop the next generation of female leaders.
Here at WTW, we have our own innovation incubator called Horizons. We encourage female participation to create more women “intrapreneurs” at our company. Women bring a different perspective to our teams brainstorming new ideas. Studies have shown that women have higher cognitive empathy, enabling them to step into the shoes of customers and see challenges from the customers’ eyes, a key skill for successful innovation.
When we started the Horizons innovation program six years ago, only 10% of the idea proposals came from women. I am happy to say that through our efforts to encourage more female participation, last year fully half of our finalists were women, and two of the three funded ideas had women leaders.
It’s encouraging to see more women at WTW and elsewhere creating breakthroughs across the corporate world, setting an example for the next generation of female innovators and highlighting that gender, cultural, structural or societal obstacles can be overcome. Innovators shouldn’t go unnoticed, and I’m confident that with time, society will learn to recognize women’s passion, determination and perseverance to bring new ideas to life – every day, not just on International Women’s Day.
Finally, I want to thank my colleague Anne Bodnar, who has been one of the judges for our Horizons program and, as I mentioned, alerted me to work of Golden Seeds. Anne has forged her own bold path in the corporate world, leading one of our businesses earlier in her career and then moving into the C-suite as our chief human resources officer and more recently as our chief administrative officer.
Anne will retire from WTW this year. I, along with so many other colleagues, will be sad to see her go. She has provided deft guidance to me in my role and always made me feel like I was making an important contribution to the company. We certainly need more leaders like Anne, and I wish her well in her next chapter.