Venture as an opportunity for gender equality

Nov 3, 2022

Executive Summary

Sturgeon Capital is a London-based Venture Capital (VC) firm that invests in the frontier markets (FM) and emerging markets (EM) of Central Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Egypt.

We invest in tech-enabled start-ups with visionary founders who understand opportunities arising out of the rapid development of digital solutions, wider smartphone and internet penetration as well as a growing middle-class of consumers. As a result of our investment activities and extensive time spent in these regions, we have seen first-hand that women are underrepresented amongst leaders and founders in the venture ecosystem of each country. Our philosophy is rooted in being both a for-profit and for-impact investor and we invest in companies that present an opportunity to solve fundamental societal problems and basic needs that exist in each developing economy. Accordingly, we believe that the impact generated through job creation, financial inclusion and further digital transformation of a wide range of industries needs to be sustainable and equitable along gender lines. Therefore, we initiated this study to build a bottom-up understanding of the underlying causes of women’s underrepresentation in the venture ecosystem, and to find actionable ways to address it on the VC side and share it with other ecosystem partners.

We interviewed 83 participants in each country’s venture ecosystem, including 18 VCs, eight accelerators, two research groups and 40 start-ups, and collected information relating to women’s representation as founders, co-founders, C-Suite members, directors and employees in the start-ups. Furthermore, we asked whether start-ups had any qualitative policies that would be beneficial to the recruitment and retention of a diverse slate of employees, including gender-balanced interview panels, parental coverage, flexibility around work arrangements and remote working opportunities. Through this data collection exercise, we were able to create a snapshot of women in venture per reviewed country and compare it to the overall female labour force participation as a share of the female population.

Snapshot of women in venture in the EMs

Indicator Bangladesh Egypt Pakistan Central Asia & Georgia
Female labour force participation 35% 15% 21% 50%
Women employed in start-ups 31% 31% 24% 49%
Total companies in the sample (#) 33 98 39 18
Total employees (#) 671 11,145 5,942 748
Companies with female founders 12% 13% 15% 17%
Companies with female co-founders 18% 26% 10% 28%
Women in C-Suite roles 27% 40% 16% 34%
Women on Board of Directors 16% 14% 17% 16%
Equity owned by women 15% 19% 13% 30%
Companies offering product/services for women 13% 4% 14% 22%
Policies beneficial to recruitment and retention Yes Yes Yes Yes

Based on this quantitative review, we are able to conclude that, indeed, there are fewer female founders than male founders in the countries of interest, but there are positive dynamics with regard to representation amongst C-Suite roles, as well as women’s overall employment in venture, which tracks with the female total labour force participation in each country. Women are also represented more frequently as co-founders than sole founders, which was further validated by conversations with founders of both genders as a potential way to mitigate certain cultural limitations that many women may still face in regard to networking and travel. More importantly, gender-diverse founding teams appeared to be more cognisant of creating inclusive workplace environments, whilst complementing each other’s diverse skills and experiences.

Based on our analysis of the challenges that were brought up during each interview, we have identified themes within these and put forward actionable recommendations, described in the following section. The obstacles women in EMs face in regard to participation in venture can be divided into eight overarching themes and four country-specific themes. All themes are listed on the next page.


1) Lack of exposure

Lack of exposure and operational know-how, which is exacerbated for women due to historical barriers to entry into certain fields, like finance, logistics or technology.

2) Lack of trust

Lack of trust by investors and fellow colleagues, who may often question women’s leadership and management abilities explicitly or challenge their authority more subtly.

3) Traditional role in society

The traditional role of women in EM societies often dictates family obligations and the corresponding need for security through joining more stable sectors and companies with set working hours.

4) Sector concentration

Women tend to be overrepresented in Health, Education, Beauty & Fashion fields, and structure businesses with impact in mind, which is seen as less commercially viable by investors.

5) Lack of role models

Lack of female role models and less inclusive working environments create a vicious cycle, in which fewer females feel comfortable joining an industry that appears to be dominated by men.

6) Index on male persona

Investors tend to index founders based on the male persona, in which the more collaborative approach and conservative projections are labelled as being less aggressive and imaginative.

7) Role concentration

There are fewer women in purely technical roles in venture that still tend to be overrepresented by males. Women often occupy roles in HR, marketing and internally facing support (i.e. call centre).

8) Imposter syndrome

Many women suffer from an imposter syndrome that is expressed through added pressure to perform and lead, but also to juggle their family responsibilities with career aspirations.

9) Mobility and safety concerns

Women in Bangladesh and Pakistan still face mobility and safety concerns, especially during travel.

10) Doctor and teacher brides

There is a ‘doctor-bride’ and ‘teacher-bride’ phenomenon in Central Asia and Pakistan, in which many women attain university degrees in order to have a more advantageous marriage pairing.

11) Lack of constructive feedback

Women in Bangladesh are faced with a lack of constructive feedback by investors, due to the latter group’s fear of offending. Often women in Pakistan do not get any feedback at all, because some investors still think that backing a female-led business is not commercially viable.

12) Day care shortage

Women in Pakistan are faced with a shortage of day care centres due to the cultural belief that children should be raised by their mothers and family.


Themes Recommendations
1, 4, 7

Offer internship(1) or externship(2) opportunities to up-and-coming tech talent in the portfolio companies

VCs can do their part in influencing the breadth and depth of experience of first-time or to-be founders, especially females, by running internship or externship programmes with companies in their portfolio. This will allow up-and-coming tech talent to gain practical operational experience or gain exposure to the work of existing start-ups. Whether incorporated on the side of the VC itself through an internally-run programme or through partnership with local or regional universities, accelerators and incubators – this will gradually increase the pipeline of talent with hands-on experience in the start-up ecosystem.

8, 4, 7, 11

Offer mentorship opportunities to up-and-coming tech talent

VCs can either run internal mentorship programmes or sign up to become a mentor with an existing accelerator/incubator in each market to ensure they’re not only meeting diverse talent but can help in providing practical advice to new founders on fundraising activities and structuring of their businesses. This is a stage, at which VC mentors can also nudge founders to pair up with someone who can complement their skills and experience. As we have seen through the research, female founders in the EMs may be faced with challenges related to limitations in travel and networking, so having gender-mixed founding teams could solve this issue.

3, 2, 9

Make gender parity part of the conversation and incorporate into the DD process

Incorporate questions related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the makeup of the team earlier on, so the importance of diversity and gender parity can be highlighted from the start. Guide start-ups through the process of identifying key performance indicators (KPIs) that would be tracked, should the investment occur and work with them in creating action plans, if the companies are initially more homogenous. Stress the importance of diversity as a way to create stronger teams that can mitigate risks more effectively. Check-in regularly on progress.

5, 8, 3, 9, 12

Establish best practices for DEI policies and share them with ecosystem partners

Create template documents of qualitative policies that have been proven to be beneficial in attracting and retaining female talent (i.e. maternity leave, day care coverage, flexible work arrangements, transportation support, gender-balanced interview panels, etc.) and share them with start-ups and other VCs. Identify existing parental policies put forth by the governments in each market, including differences in maternity and paternity leaves, where applicable. Work with start-ups to ensure these governmental policies are added to the onboarding package for all new hires. Discuss ways in which start-ups can incorporate other policies from the template list to attract diverse talent and ensure they include equal opportunity and gender-neutral language in every vacancy posting.

5, 8, 3, 10

Encourage the creation of marketing campaigns highlighting the diverse talent

As the issue of role models was mentioned almost uniformly across all conversations, VCs can work with start-ups in their portfolio to identify diverse talent within their companies (in gender, background, and age) and highlight them on the start-up’s website or LinkedIn page. Some start-ups in the EMs have already done this and went a step further to run campaigns that highlight women as their customers in sectors that are generally associated with males (i.e. investing). These campaigns have resulted in increased participation of the highlighted segment as part of the user or employee base.


Recognise likely variations in founders’ communication approaches and styles in the EMs

Founders in EMs may not follow the same style of pitching or presentation as their counterparts in more developed economies, especially those who have not been exposed to other markets through work or education. Furthermore, there may be gender differences in communication styles that are wholly dictated by cultural norms of behaviour and earlier socialisation practices, often putting women at a disadvantage for being ‘less aggressive’ and ‘more conservative’. It is important that VCs look beyond appearance and focus on the business opportunity at hand.

(1) Internship is a temporary work arrangement, providing practical work experience through completion of assigned duties and projects.
(2) Externship is a temporary shadowing opportunity, providing observational exposure to a job, company or industry.