Today, we are sharing an interview with Sheryl Marshall, founder of the day-long Capital W conference/pitch event occurring this Thursday, June 8th at District Hall in the Seaport District. A “real” child of Boston and feminist from birth, Marshall has been here, investing in female-founded teams since the late 90s. With a personal mission to put herself out of business, she is bringing together both genders to connect women to capital. Sheryl also talks about her favorite industries at the moment, big data and healthcare, both here in Boston and beyond.
If you’re a female founder who wants to learn more about your funding options, meet the people who make the investments in this city’s startups, and see other women pitch and be evaluated, then you need to purchase a ticket! Click here to purchase tickets and I’ll see you there!
Nina Stepanov: Tell me about your background, where did you grow up?
Sheryl Marshall: I grew up in Boston and spent my whole life here. I tell everyone that by the time I figured out I could leave it was too late. Between 0 and now I have lived here.
I’m a real child of Boston. My father’s business was in Boston and a funny side story, my mother was the 100,000th patient at the Faulkner Hospital the day I was born so my picture was in the Boston Globe that day.
NS: You attended Emerson for your undergrad and Simmons for your MBA, a women’s only college. Why?
SM: I always had a left-brain, right-brain conflict. Emerson had a very strong English department and I met amazing professors there so I thought I’ll major in English, which I did.
As for Simmons, I felt very strongly about going to an all women’s business school. I even dragged all of my girlfriends who wanted to go to business school there with me. I was a member of the 2nd graduating class, which was an amazing experience to be part of.
NS: Was it difficult to find your place in the financial industry coming from a business school that wasn’t top 10?
SM: An MBA is an MBA. I had this bee in my bonnet about being a stockbroker. I had tried when I finished my bachelor’s degree but didn’t end up there until after I’d graduated from business school.
NS: Tell me about your career. What was it like to be in the industry at that time?
SM: I was a stockbroker for 25 years but I really wanted to try something else. I was in touch with a lot of people in the tech community during those years and I had women calling me all the time complaining that they couldn’t get any funding for their companies because they were women. I researched it and saw that it was a giant hole waiting to be filled. So I left my job, started a venture capital firm, Axxon Capital. It was the largest women-owned and woman-targeted venture fund in the country at the time. We had a $60 million fund in 1999, which is not chopped liver.
Then I had the perfect storm. We saw the worst fund year in history, which was 1999, I had issues with my partner and the story goes on. I shut the fund down in 2005 but we made a few very successful investments including Maria Cirino’s company Guardent. which we sold, then Circles founded by Janet Kraus which was sold to Sodexho.
NS: Was the gender and wage a hot topic back then like it is now?
SM: It was absolutely being talked about back then, just not to the degree that it is now. The difference between then and now is the media. There was no VentureFizz or Facebook back then, so it’s being discussed in a much larger way now. I wish that the discussion was leading to more successes but it’s not.
Coincidentally, the same year that I started my fund Dr. Candida Brush from Babson wrote her first report on the industry called the Diana Project. Her data underlined all that I was trying to do. The difference between then and now is social media.
NS: What made you pursue this journey on behalf of women and what keeps you going?
SM: I saw injustice around me. It wasn’t necessarily fueled by my own “mistreatment”, though I had plenty of that. I’ve always been passionate about advancing women. As I like to say, “my whole career has been about moving women through the economic food chain”. That’s really what it’s all about. I think I’ve been a feminist since I was a little kid. For so many reasons including that I only liked to read biographies of women. I have a vivid memory of reading Marie Curie’s biography.
... Let’s talk about Capital W
NS: Why did you start it and who is it intended for?
SM: I know exactly why I started Capital W. After I wound my fund down, I was still coaching a few women entrepreneurs and my now partner Jill Kravitz, who has an unbelievable background, came to me with her Partner. They were trying to raise money for their business and Jill had already had 1 successful business. Let me underline that, 1 successful business, just what the VCs are looking for. This new company was in the beauty space, a massive industry, and she was getting pushback from the men. I was furious. I said, I’ve got to do something about this.
Nothing had changed in the 15 years since I closed my fund down. I called Lakshmi Balachandra, who used to work for me before I sent her out to go to business school, and who is an assistant professor at Babson to ask for advice. She was excited about the idea and suggested that Babson would be interested because of the research that Dr. Brush had done and because of their Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership. (CWEL) I had thought that this would be a one woman show but after sitting down with them, they made the decision to be a part of it. That’s how we got going.
Capital W is intended for all the female entrepreneurs who do not have access to the male partners at the major VC funds in this town. I know this is a need because during the first year, one of the VCs admitted that if someone wasn’t in their Rolodex, they weren’t even going to take a meeting.
NS: What’s your goal for the event?
SM: I want women to get their companies funded. Period.
I want to close up shop. We’re just trying to close the gender gap. I realize it’s like throwing a stone into the ocean but sometimes one stone can make a difference.
NS: The event is open to both men and women. Why did you decide to have it that way?
SM: A very good friend of mine said something to me years ago that was very profound but very true, “unless you get men involved in the problem and in seeing that there is a problem, then you’re never going to make any progress”.
We are supported by the predominantly male venture capital firms in town and I’m very proud of that. These guys have been terrific. They know there’s a problem and they’re supportive in so many important ways. The check is great, don’t get me wrong, but the other things they do are extremely helpful.
NS: Why do you think we’re still experiencing these problems?
SM: That’s the $64 million question. One giant problem is that there aren’t enough women on the other side of the table, as venture capitalists. We need more women with the ability to write checks. Women are going to understand a lot of the businesses that men simply don't.
The only way the problem is going to go away is if the biggest funders of venture capital, which are the pension funds in the United States, say to the VC firms, either you get more women-owned companies and more women partners or we’re not going to fund you.
Money talks, bullshit walks. It needs to happen and they’re the ones to do it.
NS: What are your thoughts on the bias that investors have against women?
SM: It doesn’t make economic sense. It’s a simple answer.
Do we make up 50% of the country? Yes.
Do we make up 50% of the economy? Yes.
Do we make up 50% of household buying decisions? Yes.
Do we take up 50% of healthcare. Yes!
So why wouldn’t you want to invest in businesses that target 50% of the economy?
NS: Where do you see Capital W going from here?
SM: I’d like to see it go national but my end goal is to put myself out of business.
We don’t know of another conference like this in the country. We’re very targeted. It’s not a feel good event. If you are trying to raise money for a company and you are frustrated, come to the conference and learn something about getting money.
... Let’s talk about your investing activities and preferences
NS: When you’re evaluating an investment, what are the top traits you look for in a company and founder?
SM: Team, team, team. The team can always pivot. When an entrepreneur gets funded, whether it’s by a man or a woman, they’re going to focus on the team. They want to know, can the team execute and deliver the product? Most importantly, successful companies have a great team and they’re solving a problem.
NS: What sectors of technology, industries, or trends are of interest to you?
SM: I’m interested healthcare and big data. The past 2 years we’ve been drowning in healthcare businesses plans to the point that we had to add a physician to our judging team.
I’m interested in anything that is disruptive, that can disintermediate. For example anything that can disintermediate healthcare,
NS: You’re a Boston-native, what excites you about the current market in Boston?
SM: Healthcare! We’ve become a major biotech center. We are so lucky in this town to have this ecosystem. Whether it’s biotech and research or data or apps or devices. It’s happening here.
That's why we are focusing on wellness and technology at our conference.
... Let’s wrap things up
NS: Who do you admire and who has been the greatest mentor for you?
SM: The Deans who founded Simmons Business School were amazing to me both as teachers and mentors. Once I got out of business school, it was very difficult back then, at least for me, to distinguish between what was outrageous sexist behavior versus people just dumping on me. The Deans, Dr. Ann Jardim and Dr. Margaret Hennig and others were very helpful in showing that these were people who just didn't like women,
Additionally, I had started my career at Merrill Lynch, which was an awful experience. During my time there, I had gotten divorced and was a single mother, I wanted to leave but I was terrified because I was my daughter’s sole support. I had a boyfriend at the time who told me to talk to Drexel Burnham. I did and found a wonderful boss there and had a phenomenal experience. They didn’t care if you were a woman, they didn’t care if you were purple people, as long as you produced. I never felt mistreated or manhandled.
I personally always reached out to other women because I needed a reality check or to hear that other women were having the same issues I was. I’ve always been a part of women’s groups like the Boston Club or the Simmons Alumni Association. I also have a very tight knit group of girlfriends to lean on who all have careers too.
NS: Do you think it’s important to have a group of girlfriends?
SM: I can’t speak for other women but I could not live without my amazing female friends. Most of whom are hugely accomplished. They give me the kind of feedback I need, straightforward feedback, supportive, and kind. All of my friends are women who really care about the world.
NS: Outside of your day to day work, what are your personal interests or activities?
SM: My three major interests are my grandchildren, cooking and entertaining, and quilting. I’m a manic, modern quilter.
NS: These all sound generically feminine hobbies. Do you ever feel like you have to act or speak in a certain way or be interested in specific things to get along in the financial industry?
SM: Never in my life. I have always been my own person, take me or leave me. I didn’t take up golf when I was a stockbroker when everyone was golfing. That’s just not me. You have to be true to yourself.
NS: What’s something that most people don’t know about you or would be surprised to know about you?
SM: I’m a manic traveler, as soon as I get back from one trip I’m planning the next one. I also read like a fiend.
NS: Do you prefer a Kindle or physical book?
SM: If it’s fiction, I read on a kindle but non-fiction has to be a physical book because I end up underlining.
NS: What advice have you received that has stuck with you or struck a chord?
SM: When people are behaving badly, generally speaking, it’s about them not you. Decent people don’t act like jerks. That advice has helped me out in numerous sticky situations.
Images courtey of Sheryl Marshall and Capital W.