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More women are leading Boston area startups. But still not nearly enough

"The Fearless Girl" statue stands across from the iconic Wall Street charging bull in New York City. State Street Global Advisors installed the statue as part of a campaign to pressure companies to add more women to their boards.Drew Angerer

This column started with a string of text messages from Julia Austin, chiding me for not including many women entrepreneurs in a collection of my writing about the New England startup ecosystem published in February.

Austin has been a key part of that ecosystem for a few decades, as a vice president of engineering at the Internet cloud services provider Akamai Technologies, and then as an investor in startups, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, and the founder of a leadership development program for women entrepreneurs called Good for Her.

“There are tons of women CEOs” in Boston, Austin wrote. “They just need more visibility and funding. As do BIPOC founders,” she continued, referring to “Black, indigenous, and people of color.”


I wondered in the text chain about how many female CEOs were running startups that had raised venture capital money over the past decade. If we created a list, could we get to 50? Austin was confident we could.

We set some criteria: The company needed to be still active, and founded from 2010 to the present. We wanted companies in Massachusetts, though we’d consider Rhode Island and New Hampshire as part of the Greater Boston metroplex. We were focused on companies with women as cofounders or CEOs. We were looking for companies that had raised money from venture capital firms, not those that relied on checks from friends and family members, government grants, or customer revenue (like most consulting and services firms).

The list eventually expanded to include biotech companies that had gone public in our time period.

I asked for some help from well-connected women such as angel investor Kirstan Barnett, venture capitalists Marian Nakada and Sarah Hodges, executive recruiter Pearl Freier, product development consultant Jen Foley, and Bobbie Carlton, a public relations adviser who also runs an online speaker’s bureau called Innovation Women. (Nakada’s colleague Robert Sohn also provided some quality assurance on our data.)


Some caveats: It’s hard to know when you’re done with a list like this. The people who helped me assemble it are mainly in the Boston area, so we may have missed companies in Northampton or Worcester (not to mention Providence and Nashua). But this was a rough census of venture-backed and public companies, primarily in tech and biotech, with women in the top roles.

We arrived at a list of 164 women at 156 companies (some have two female cofounders) who have collectively raised just over $7.5 billion in venture capital.

It’s an impressive number, but it’s also worth noting, for comparison, that total venture capital funding in the New Hampshire/Massachusetts/Rhode Island corridor for this same period was roughly $90 billion, according to data from the National Venture Capital Association.

According to Crunchbase, an online funding database, 9 percent of all venture capital funding last year went to companies that had a woman on the founding team. In our tally, women represented about 8.3 percent of that $90 billion total raised.

The range of companies these founders are building is as broad as the business world itself, from Accion Systems, designing ion thrusters for satellites, to Zingeroo, creating an online platform intended to make stock market investing more social (and competitive) among groups of friends.

When I called Austin to get her thoughts on the list, she acknowledged, “I thought we’d get to the edge of 50, but I didn’t think we’d get to over 100.” Even with her vast network, Austin said there were plenty of companies on the list she didn’t know. And, she added, “these are not like cute ‘lady companies.’ These are badass companies.”


Of course, Austin had plenty of questions that the list doesn’t answer. Such as how many of these companies raised capital from Boston investors, versus investors elsewhere? And is the investment activity trending up, staying the same, or getting worse?

Diane Hessan, who in 1999 founded C Space, a customer research firm, also said she was surprised by the number of women on the list. “It says to me that after 20 years of really working this issue, and helping women envision themselves as entrepreneurs, and helping them get access to funding, we’re finally at critical mass,” she said.

Hessan said that in the early 2000s, as she was building C Space, it felt like there were only a handful of women running venture-backed technology companies in Boston, often sitting together on panels “talking about how women could do it,” including Gail Goodman, the former CEO of Constant Contact, who took that company public in 2007.

When I asked Goodman about the early 2000s, and whether she felt there was a prior generation of women who had successfully raised venture money and taken companies public, she said, “Not really. There were just a few women, some of whom were slightly ahead of me,” including Pamela Reeve, who took the wireless communications company Lightbridge public in 1996.


“I was very much looking for mentors to lead me forward,” Goodman said, “but they were all men.” Goodman said she has tried to do what she can to mentor other women founders and CEOs.

What still needs to change, said Kristen Anderson, is to make it easier for women-founded startups to raise capital at any stage of development. “We still lag dramatically,” said Anderson, CEO of Catch, a site focused on providing benefits for freelancers. “The standards are higher. I need fewer panels to speak on, and more term sheets,” she added, referring to the documents used to finalize venture capital investments. (Catch is on the list, having raised $8 million.)

But in assessing where we’re at, Hessan is somewhat more optimistic. “I think we’ve turned the corner,” she said. Hessan believes that nonprofit groups like All Raise and Springboard have helped to alter the status quo over the past two decades. So have women-founded venture capital firms like Boston Seed Capital, Victress Capital, and Glasswing Ventures. “Does it mean we’re finished? No,” she said.

For me, the list will be a fantastic resource as I look for opinions from founders and CEOs for future columns, or when I’m seeking to make panel discussions that I put together more diverse. (I’m leaving the topic of people of color and funding for another column.) If you might find this list useful for similar reasons, or want to improve the data in it or add to it, just drop me a note at the e-mail address below.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.