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How Women Are Shaping the Alternative Protein Landscape
“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”
– Hillary Clinton
The rise of feminism – advocacy of women’s rights to achieve gender equality – has come in waves, each striving to further their rights than the one before it. The start of the women’s liberation movement coincided with the Women’s Rights Convention, held in 1848 in the United States. It advocated for equal social and constitutional rights for women on matters such as voting, education, property ownership, and an individual identity distinct from their spouse. The second wave occurred in 1963 – 1980, triggered by Betty Friedman’s book, The Feminine Mystique, which sought to break social conventions through its portrayal of women. It advocated ending sexist discrimination by focusing on equal pay, birth control, abortion, and racial equality. The successes from this period led to the third wave, which began in the 1990s to address challenges such as sexual harassment in the workplace, equal representation of women in places of power, and greater race and gender inclusivity. The fourth wave of feminism is currently underway with the onset of the #MeToo movement and the idea of intersectionality. It seeks greater gender equality by focusing on women’s empowerment and addressing the marginalization of women in society.
The Gender Employment Gap Index (GEGI) – the gap between male and female employment as a percentage of total employment – indicates that on average the GDP per capita of countries would be 20% higher if we closed the gender gap. Of the 146 countries covered by the GEGI, not one has achieved full gender parity. Based on our current trajectory, it will take a staggering 132 years to achieve it!The fight for equality has been a long and arduous struggle for women. Although the United States declared its independence in 1776, women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, nearly 150 years later. Despite advocating for equality over a span of 175+ years, gender bias still continues to impact various facets of their lives, particularly their careers. The gender gap begins with entry-level employment and runs upwards to C-suite and Board positions. Women also start fewer companies which then face greater funding challenges. The alternative protein industry is no different, but there are some bright spots.
The Rise of the Female Founder
Similar to the lower numbers of women in the corporate world, women founders are severely underrepresented in the startup ecosystem. Women make up 48% of entry-level employees in America, but the number shrinks precipitously with each level of the corporate ladder, dropping to just 26% by the time they reach the C-suite. Female entrepreneurs face similar challenges. Just 20% of all startups globally had at least one female founder. Women clearly bring unique insights across a range of customer segments, but far fewer venture out to start their own businesses. Female-founded companies also experience funding challenges. Although 26.1% of startups founded by at least one woman get funded, the quantum of funding they receive is only 18.5%. These funding numbers don’t stack up when we look at the performance of female-founded startups. A study by First Round Capital found that investments in companies with at least one female founder performed 63% better than investments with all-male founding teams. Research has shown that female leadership has a positive impact on business performance and growth. In a survey of more than 350 startups, Mass Challenge and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that women-run businesses deliver higher revenues – more than twice as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men.
Research further supports the positive role women can play in the workplace. Women bring diversity to the table, leading to alternative approaches to problem-solving. They are more likely to focus on sustainability and prioritize long-term growth over short-term gains. Women are often more collaborative and inclusive leaders, resulting in stronger teams and better decision-making. Most importantly, they have historically faced more obstacles and barriers in their careers and are hence more resilient – a skill whose importance is hard to overstate in today’s challenging business environment. Despite these advantages, women are less likely to be given a seat at the table.
The Promise of Alternative Proteins (for Women)
The venture capital industry predates the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, but its performance on gender equality leaves much to be desired. Only 26.1% of funded startups in the U.S. in 2022 had a female as part of the founding team. By contrast, the percentage of funded startups in the alternative protein industry with at least one woman founder is much more equitable at 34.7%. The percentage improves if we look at all women-founded teams – 13.4% of all women-founded startups have received funding in the alternative protein industry while the number stands at only 6.7% for the U.S. VC industry last year. The alternative protein industry is off to a great start when it comes to backing women-run businesses, but it falls behind in the quantum of funding. Just 9.9% of all funding in the alternative protein industry has gone to startups with at least one female founder (the U.S. VC industry’s number stood at 18.5% in 2022).
The industry needs venture capitalists to not only back the women founders but to do so with conviction i.e. larger check sizes. The massive underrepresentation of women in the venture capital industry is cited as a key contributor to the gender gap in startup funding. Women investors can better relate to challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and provide valuable connections to their personal networks. Yet, they account for less than 15% of the decision-makers who write checks to fund these startups. Increased female representation in the investor base can lead to more equitable access to funding for female founders. Greater diversity and inclusive investment practices will help to create a more level playing field for all entrepreneurs. Organizations such as Vegan Women Summit (VWS) have done laudable work to promote female entrepreneurs and foster a community of mutual help and support while acknowledging the challenges we face. According to a survey of women founders by VWS, 60% of respondents reported an experience of bias during fundraising, while 50% reported they had ended a business relationship as a result of experiencing gender discrimination or harassment.
Shattering the Glass Ceiling
To close the funding deficit for women-founded startups, we must first acknowledge the gap that exists today. The alternative protein sector has the potential to make an outsized impact for humans, animals, and the planet. To do so, we must utilize the full complement of our intellectual and creative talents, which requires us to create a meritocracy that gives all changemakers equal opportunity to make a difference.
Organizations that utilize the entire talent base available in our society are likely to be the best performers. Women leaders will further magnify the impact. For example, private technology companies led by women are more capital-efficient, achieving 35% higher ROI, and, when venture-backed, see 12% higher revenue than startups run by men.
The women’s rights movement has come a long way since its start in the mid-1800s. It is exciting to consider the realm of possibilities as women continue to ascend the ranks in our society, overcoming bias and shattering myths to help us build a better world. Women represent half the world’s population and remain its most underutilized group. In that context, the alternative protein industry has the opportunity to tap into this resource and make an even larger impact on our society.
Thanks to the team at PitchBook for their contribution to this article.
History, What Are the Four Waves of Feminism
World Economic Forum, Gender Gap Report 2022
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2022 Report
PitchBook, US VC Female Founders Dashboard
First Round 10-Year Project
University of Mississippi
UBS Investment Bank Report
Harvard Business Review
Good Signal analysis based on PitchBook data
Harvard Business Review
Green Queen, Vegan Women’s Summit Survey
The Kauffman Foundation