Partner Series: Supporting Underrepresented Founders with Unconventional Ventures
This month we had the pleasure to interview Thea Messel, Founder & MP at Unconventional Ventures: an early-stage VC focused on women, LGBTQ, and POC-founded tech startups in the Nordics.
LEGO Ventures: Hi, Thea! Could you tell us a bit about your entrepreneurial journey before you started Unconventional Ventures?
Thea: “I worked in banking almost my whole career prior to starting Unconventional Ventures. Working within innovation and business development, I was what some call a corporate entrepreneur. I developed new concepts for sustainability in banking and various digital platforms helping entrepreneurs scale and become investor ready. All of this required entrepreneurial mindset, and that was natural to me. However, there was always a budget to cover costs, which is obviously not the case when building a company from scratch with very limited resources.”
What inspired you to start Unconventional Ventures?
“While working in the financial industry, particularly focusing on climate change, I experienced difficulties in getting buy-in from the decision makers to make financial products that had positive social and environmental impact at the core. This frustrated me, as that seemed like a no-brainer to develop. When I transitioned into the startup space and started working closely with female founders, I experienced a déjà-vu from my earlier work: amazing founders with groundbreaking innovations and businesses, yet did not get the funding that, to me, seemed like a complete no-brainer to invest in. Why wouldn’t the investors invest? As a mother of one and now two, I started to see structural and unconscious biases, as well as lack of equality in the venture capital industry. This was not only my own empirical observations: these were findings backed by research. Many of these biases affect female founders, with glaring effects, particularly when it comes to gender and ethnicity. What particularly puzzled me was that we could see so little early stage funding going to female-founded companies — even in the Nordics (2%), the most gender equal region in the world — and at the same time we could see that female-founded companies were over-performing compared to the all-male founded ones. In order to create more visibility around female founders, I created female founder pitching contests. The deal flow we received was amazing and the seed for Unconventional Ventures was planted.”
Tell us a bit about your portfolio — who are some of the exciting startups you’re working with?
“We have invested in eight startups led by underrepresented founders (defined by us as women, LGBTQ, & POC) and I have to say, they all excite us! Although health tech, fem tech (Boost Thyroid and Progress me), and fintech (Riteband) are high growth industries, there is particular rise in interest for our diversity tech startup Ceretai — a tool to analyze diversity in media — and EqualityCheck — a “Diversity Trustpilot” for employees. The portfolio also includes high demand industries like the food tech startup Grim — a marketplace for surplus organic fruit and vegetables — and the e-commerce company EasySize — an AI solution predicting the right size & fit for fashion online-shoppers. Finally, community and inclusive tech is on the rise, as users want alternatives to the huge tech giants like Facebook. In this industry, our portfolio has Panion, which creates a new way for people to connect online with inclusivity at the core.”
What are the top 3 features you look at in a company when deciding to invest?
“Like most early stage investors, I will say: #1 the team. The founder or founders should be slightly different from conventional investors. Besides the fact that the founder needs to be underrepresented, the founders we back are founders who are extremely mission driven. They are solving problems that are very important for them to solve, not only because they are big problems that will make the world a better place, but also because they possess “a problem-founder-fit”. #2 is the problem they are solving. We are industry agnostic, but there are some common denominators for our investment focus: we look for solutions that are typically democratizing, de-stigmatizing, and that increase transparency, making solutions accessible for groups that have not had this access before — like education, health, or financial services. It could also be within areas that are making the planet greener, like fighting food waste. Basically all areas that make our founders determined and go above and beyond to solve that problem. Finally, #3 is their persona: how do the founders engage and communicate to execute, drive change, and most importantly, work around challenges? There will be hundreds of big challenges for these founders to face and how they meet these obstacles is key.”
What are some of the most important things you’ve learned in establishing Unconventional Ventures?
“I have learned that I am capable of much more than first anticipated. That most great investor leads are just that: leads — and that this is particularly apparent when you are in the diversity industry, because nobody will admit and say to your face that this is not them, or that they don’t believe in the business case of diversity. Finally, I have learned it is important to trust your instincts — in combination with a pinch of data points, of course, but gut feelings are somehow always right.”
In your last Nordic Startup Funding Report, you note that 88% of Nordic VC capital went to founding teams with no women, and that for every 1 euro of VC investment, all-female founders get less than 2 cents. What’s the best way that VC’s can work to change this?
“Firstly, the VC needs to establish to what extent they want to change at all. When you know that, it will be easier to know what you want to be and to what extent you want to be a part of the change. We usually talk about “Listen, Learn, Act”:
- Listening is acknowledging the fact that less than 2% goes to all team female founders. Don’t expect it to just be a ”deal flow” problem.
- Learning refers to looking into how you can be that catalytic capital early, even if your focus is after pre-seed stages. There needs to be more support and new structures early — even earlier than pre-seed — to start supporting existing platforms outside the ”usual ones” that support aspiring/existing founders on their journey to investment readiness.
- Acting means starting to create inclusive infrastructures that enable change, both internally and externally. We would like to see limited partners pushing venture capital funds to prioritize finding and investing in underrepresented founders, as well as more activeness from bigger limited partners on tracking diversity and impact in general. Limited partners could at least mandate the venture capital funds they invest in to report how many underrepresented founders they meet, review and end up backing.”
2020 has been a very turbulent year, and we’re seeing a heightened awareness of racial injustice, gender inequalities, and other discrimination issues around the globe. What do you think the Nordic VC scene will look like in the future, now that so many organizations are actively trying to improve their diversity & inclusion strategies?
“I hope we will see more actual diversity in the VC industry — more actions and less talk — hire or wire! I also hope that the industry will be more supportive and actually endorse organisations and funds like ourselves, instead of owning activity themselves. Only by creating smart synergies, real change can emerge.”
What’s next for Unconventional Ventures?
“We just doubled the core team in size, and we are so lucky to welcome our newly announced partner Nora Bavey. We will continue what we are doing today, but at a bigger scale. Bigger impact, bigger fund, enabling us to do bigger investments in order to unleash the potential of underestimated founders in the Nordics and beyond.”
To learn more about Unconventional Ventures, visit their website at https://www.unconventional.vc.