Lindsey Taylor Wood, The Helm founder and CEO, speaking at the In Charge Luncheon hosted by Diane von Furstenberg and LinkedIn. Photo credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Diane von Furstenberg
Haute Hijab, a direct-to-consumer company building a "next generation modest fashion brand" for Muslim women, offers chic, flowing silk, chiffon, satin and jersey head scarves on its own website and on The Helm, a New York-based e-commerce platform and venture capital fund focused on supporting female entrepreneurs.
The Helm's first VC fund, which closed this year, invested $1.4 million in seed capital in 11 diverse startups with female founders and CEOs, including Haute Hijab, farm technology firm Ganaz, postpartum maternity care platform Mahmee, data-driven women's healthcare company Tia, and plant-based meat substitute manufacturer Rebellyous Foods, among others.
The firm's portfolio companies have raised more than $24 million in capital from other investors as well.
Meanwhile, The Helm's e-commerce site — a self-described lifestyle brand — hosts items from nearly 90 carefully selected female-led businesses, including clothing and fashion accessories, home products, games, beauty, wellness and personal care items. The products include high-end aviator glasses from Coco & Breezy, an eyewear company founded a decade ago by twin-sister designers Corianna and Brianna Dotson, who are also DJs and artists and who were 19 when they started their firm.
"We make it easy to invest in women," said Lindsey Taylor Wood, The Helm founder and CEO, noting that investors and consumers interested in supporting startups founded by women can participate in the company's venture funds or "use their consumerism consciously" by purchasing products through the online shop.
The Helm arose from Wood's frustration over the lack of progress for women and girls in a variety of arenas, including success in raising venture capital. She came to that unfortunate realization, she said, after working more than a decade to promote women's equality.
Despite robust cultural conversations about feminism, talk only goes so far. Data showed that empowerment efforts were stagnant or slipping in many areas, from access to reproductive health care to women's presence in front of or behind the camera, she said.
"I just wasn't seeing the sorts of social returns I wanted to see when asking people for their philanthropic capital," said Wood, who worked on women's issues with nonprofits and other organizations. Trying to figure out why women weren't making greater strides, she talked with others and came up with a key question: Why is philanthropy the only way we invest in equality?
She came to a realization: "As a general rule, when men have wealth they are invited to invest and amass more wealth. But when women have wealth they are asked to give it away. It just radically changed my own theory of change."
Wood decided that capital investments provide a far more effective way to empower women. She formed The Helm about three years ago, starting the venture fund in 2017 and relaunching the e-commerce platform in mid-2019.
“The history of our country is one predicated essentially on investing in white men of privilege" so it doesn't take everyone into account, said Wood. She considered investing in women “one of the most transformational things we could do to invest in equality."
Female-founded firms in the United States received 2.2 percent of the total $130 billion in VC funds invested in 2018, according to Fortune, down from 3.1 percent in 2014.
The Helm's mission statement cites this imbalance.
"We believe that innovation is not gender-specific, so we do not accept that 97.5 percent of the most valuable capital supporting innovation should go to male founders only. It is imperative that female voices have a role in creating the companies, technologies and systems that will shape our future," the company's website says.
Haute Hijab is the only portfolio company selling through the e-commerce platform, as the rest don't operate in the consumer space; all funded companies, however, are featured in The Helm's content.
Just as the firm curates its e-commerce site's featured brands, it puts a great deal of thought into the ventures it has funded.
“We made a massive concerted effort to not just fund women in categories like beauty, consumer, parenthood," said Wood. "We really tried to home in on areas and industries where innovation was happening," such as wearable technology, agriculture, healthcare and the shared economy, and on areas where women founders typically weren't being funded.
Thirty-four limited partners — six of them men — invested in The Helm's first fund, with women ages 23 to 70, including many women of color, among the backers, said Wood. A number of them also invested in The Helm itself.
"The thing I'm proudest of is that we don't have an archetype in terms of limited partners," she said. "We have just a wide range of individuals who contributed and I love that we have such a diverse constituency of women behind us."
Women investing in the fund include television executive Pat Mitchell, TV executive and entrepreneur Geraldine Laybourne, and author and venture investor Crystal English Sacca, who participated with her entrepreneur husband, Chris Sacca. The handful of male investors include Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia and Nion McEvoy, chairman and CEO of Chronicle Books parent The McEvoy Group.
The Helm will announce a "significantly larger" second fund soon, and this time the firm's own e-commerce business will become a limited partner, contributing a portion of website sales to help finance more female entrepreneurs, according to Wood.
That's part of the firm's ultimate vision, she said, to have the e-commerce business help fund the VC enterprise, creating a "flywheel" to help propel women forward.
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