Promoting Female Founders and Leaders

Promoting Female Founders and Leaders

Hekla Goodman

Jul 8 2022


Talent exists in all forms whether hard or soft skills, and no matter gender, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or ethnicity and we are committed to diversity within our portfolio.

As a VC we know our remit is to invest in the most innovative solutions, play an advisory role in scaling each tech company and exit to make a return, but diversity is central to our success. But how are we promoting female founders and leaders?

How are we prioritising Gender Diversity?

We’ve been good at championing diversity as signatories of Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and Investing in Women Code (IIWC), in our partnership with Fund Her North and supported Future VC programme ran by Diversity VC.


Just last week the British Business Bank (BBB) released the Investing in Women Code (IIWC) annual progress report, announcing the growth of the signatories to 160. IIWC also reported that investment into all-female founder teams by the coalition of funders grew to 9% this year, up from 6% in 2020. Delving deeper into the low investment figure, only 12% of all pitch decks received by Venture Capital Firms were from all-female teams.

What is our role?

Our team gathered the North East Innovation Fund dataset and decided we would speak with female founders or female senior leaders within our portfolio to understand their experience. Extrapolating the baseline data can be daunting but an important task in understanding the underlying biases that go unnoticed when investing into tech companies. The baseline showed 37% of our North East Innovation Fund portfolio is female-led. 

Brilliant, but there is more work to do. From the IIWC annual progress report, we can see that there is a lack of female-led startups in the ecosystem. Funding is just one part of the picture. If we want to seek out businesses that are fulfilling society’s most pressing issues and turning industries on their heads with new ideas, we need to be involved. The way to get more entrants of female founders is to support organisations in the early stages, and this is our goal.

Female Founders and Leaders

To get further insight, we interviewed four of our portfolio companies to hear their experience as either female founders or female senior leaders within their startups. The main takeaways can be seen below.

Female-Led organisations bridge the employment gap 

Arquer Diagnostics has developed cost-effective, non-invasive tests which utilise patented biomarker technology to diagnose and monitor several cancers including bladder, endometrial, prostate and ovarian cancers. At the forefront of the organisation is CEO Nadia Whittley. female-founders-and-leadersWhittley has worked in the life sciences sector for the last 27 years and has noticed its lack of diversity. Having undergone endometrial tests herself, she understands the value in Arquer’s technology and how she can be a voice for non invasive diagnostic tests, especially for some indications where current diagnostic tests are painful and often done without general anaesthetic unless patients have private insurance. This is Whittley’s main driver behind Arquer.

Throughout Whittley’s career, she’s been able to find mentors to push her forward, but it wasn’t necessarily women who were in the position to help accelerate her career. This lack of female leadership able to mentor and foster female talents prompted her to be a source of inspiration to women in the life sciences space; she is currently a mentor and works within a couple of associations to give back to young females. Whittley stated,

‘The next generations will make leaps compared to previous generations, and I believe this will be possible with strong mentorship programs, support and by leading by example.’

Arquer’s female-led senior management team has the drive, grit and determination, which Whittley believes is a characteristic that has been a critical success factor for their organisation. While the recruitment program was not intended to focus on female professionals only, Whittley believes that during the interviews women demonstrated more determination and drive. A study by Kauffman Fellows showed that female founders fill their staff with 2.5x more women, and startups with a female executive are six times more likely to hire women.

Female-Led organisations foster empathetic work environments

AMLo Biosciences is translating ground-breaking research in cancer biomarkers into a range of prognostic and diagnostic products to improve patient outcomes and reduce the financial burden of cancers on global healthcare economies. female-founders-and-leadersDr. Marie Labus, CEO of AMLo, has over 16 years of business experience in managing spin-out companies from Universities. Coming from a very deprived community in Central Scotland, Dr. Labus has conquered generational norms and found early opportunities as a PhD student, which led her down a pathway towards Senior Level Executive positions at various Biotech research companies.  

This opened her sphere and Dr. Labus encourages everyone she meets to get involved with spin-outs [consistent use of hyphen or not] purely for the experience they’ll gain in learning about IP, building a company to commercialisation, growing a team and fundraising. However, there have been downsides as at times Dr. Labus found that females in business doctors aren’t always taken seriously. She draws strength in knowing she’s building a strong team as they launch their product in the US. When asked about which leadership qualities have carried her on the journey, Labus stated,

‘…being empathetic is important with staff. We have a small team and outsource a lot of work. You must understand what’s going on with your team, for example, if there are issues going on at home or with work. You need to know them. But when you show empathy and care, the staff buy in to the vision of the company…I’m more carrot than stick.’  

Dr. Labus mentioned that as a female founder she’s proud to be a part of the 1.7% of the female founders who raised Venture Capital in the UK this last year and that their board is well represented.  

Female-Led organisations have unmatched tenacity

Bellevie is driving change in the care sector to enable patients to live the best quality life for as long as possible. Another main objective for Bellevie is to attract and retain the right support workers by introducing a model of self-organised teams. Trudie Fell, CEO and Co-founder, has two achievements to date which have been key motivators for her work at Bellevie:

  1. founding the first Diversity, Equality and Inclusion initiative called Women in Tech for Telco Systems
  2. transforming departments into self-managed teams finding that employees are happier when they’re more productive.


Bellevie’s ambitions are national, and Fell finds tenacity is her greatest asset. However, at times feels the tenacity needs to be harnessed as it can become a hinderance. That’s where Fell brings in her Co-founder, Violaine Pierre, to balance out characteristics in the workplace.

Female-Led organisations have the opportunity to inspire others 

Sphera develops a low carbon and environmentally friendly aggregate for concrete that will help the construction industry become net zero. Dr. Natasha Boulding, CEO and co-founder of Sphera, has a knack for finding solutions to difficult industryfemale-founders-and-leaders challenges. Together with her founding team, as a part of their PhD programme, she had to complete a two week practical module. The assignment was to draft a business plan and financial forecast. At the end of the two weeks they were awarded funding for their proof of concept of Sphera. Two years later, Sphera has raised over £2.2 million, won the coveted Women in Innovation Innovate UK grant, and been nominated for The Earthshot Prize – the most prestigious global environment prize in history.

Dr. Boulding is inspired by the impact the product will create once rolled-out. Concrete is responsible for 8% global emissions, and she wants to be one of the first movers in solving the problem. As a female founder Dr. Boulding is out to inspire other women, for them to feel empowered and see that there is opportunity out there. Boulding stated,

‘When considering career opportunities, it’s powerful to see someone with similar experiences and characteristics as you in a variety of roles – so you can picture yourself there too! Role models have the potential to lower the barriers for everyone to get involved in global challenges.’

She has found her voice and would encourage others to listen to their intuition.




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