How women can break barriers in the VC and startup industry

Iman Abuzeid is one of few Black women to ever lead her company to unicorn status — the elite tier of private companies valued at $1 billion or more. But the co-founder and CEO Incredible Health, a career marketplace for health care workers, hopes the milestone is “not as big of a deal over time.”

“On a personal note, of course, I’m proud of the accomplishments and impressed by what the team has achieved, too,” Abuzeid said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit this week. “But … we need to be on the 100th, or 200th, or 700th woman or Black woman starting a unicorn company.”

Abuzeid and Kirsten Green, founder, and managing partner at Forerunner Ventures, discussed breaking barriers and the quest to fund more women founders during the conference, Laguna Niguel, Calif. Forerunner Ventures, one of the few female-founded and female-led venture firms, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and recently announced the closing of another $1 billion fund. Incredible Health, founded five years ago, has raised $80 million in series B funding and is valued at $1.65 billion.

Lest the significance of these accomplishments be unclear, panel moderator Mandela Schumacher-Hodge Dixon, the CEO of the non-profit All Raise, provided some sobering context.

“Ninety-three percent of all venture capital dollars are managed by white men,” Schumacher-Hodge Dixon said. “And 82% of all capital deployed to startup founders last year went to all male teams. And ProjectDiane reported that less than 1% all venture capital went to Black women founders,” she said.

How did they navigate such a difficult environment?

“The truth is I didn’t do it by myself,” Abuzeid said. “First and foremost, I align myself with investors and venture capitalists [of which] frankly, I wasn’t their first female CEO. I wasn’t their first minority CEO. And the great thing about the Internet is their portfolio companies are all available, right? You can see who has a track record of investing in women and minorities or not.”

Abuzeid said she also sharpened her skills for operating a company and for pitching investors to raise capital. “I just surrounded myself with CEOs that were ahead of me; they were in the next stage. And those were individuals who gave me an enormous amount of advice.”

Forerunner Venture’s Green echoed the importance of tapping into networks, especially in the venture capital business, where “ecosystems” of other founders, investors, and business leaders play a vital role. “I’ve come to really understand that, but appreciate where I find support and how we collaborate together,” Green said.

And while the tiny amount of VC money going to women founders industrywide remains a frustrating reality, Green pointed to various ways to improve the ecosystem. For example, Green explained, she’s able to leverage her influence in boardrooms to create priorities around career development and diverse executive teams. The idea, said Green, is “to really think about getting more parity in leadership roles, and have that be part of the role of advancing the whole industry.”

Ultimately, success brings more success. “The biggest thing I can do for this industry is win, frankly.” That, she said, would contribute to bringing forth change.

The number one piece of advice Abuzeid gives to women business leaders is: “Can you please be more ambitious?” That means painting a picture of the future that makes investors want to lean in more, she said. “Because your male counterparts are going in there crazy ambitious.” And, she added, understand that “venture capitalists need really high returns.” 

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