The Changing Face of UK VC: Cassandra Harris, advisor at The Billion Dollar Fund for Women

We sat down with Cassandra Harris earlier this year to talk about her experience working in the VC and investment space. Meeting at a posh coffee shop in Holborn, Harris gave us a detailed insight of her seven-year career in investment.

Harris is the CEO and cofounder of Venturespring, an early-stage VC fund that connects entrepreneurs with big-named companies. She invests through Venturespring and has backed the likes of Taylor Morris Eyewear and more.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Read more: Meet the changing face of UK venture capital

Hannah Williams, staff writer at Techworld: Could you start by telling me how you got into venture capital?

Cassandra Harris, advisor at The Billon Dollar Fund for Women & CEO/ founder at Venturespring: My career started out in the media and advertising space, I worked for global media and advertising giant WPP, which is part of the group and network known as Mindshare Worlwide.

I studied a business degree, my majors were marketing and computers. I left the corporate world at the age of 27 and jumped into the startup one by launching my first venture, fundraised for with another business partner. After two and a half years or so I decided to leave the business and told my partner that I wanted to sell my shareholding to her. Upon leaving that business I  invested into my first startup.

At that time, it wasn't like I had a huge exit, but I had a bit of disposable income to play around with in the startup investments space, something that I had always wanted to do. A good friend of mine, who I worked with in the past, had exited his business and he was looking for his next venture, we started collaborating and eventually we cofounded the business together.

He was quite a prolific angel investor in the UK, so he was very instrumental in terms of influencing me and inspiring me into the space of angel investments. Within the company that we cofounded together, a component of it was focused around backing young talent.

So we set up a social enterprise and a component of it was working to basically back some of the ideas that were coming out of these young people, so we ended up creating a very early-stage tech fund and I was very instrumental in helping to come up with the concept of the fund and also working with my network to help fundraise it.

It was a really small fund, it was £7.5 million, which is tiny in terms of venture capital fund, but it was just a component of our business so that was sort of the first sway into angel investing and VC.

I've always really been interested in the investment side of working with startups, so I was very excited to be working on that particular project and through working on it I was very much inspired to invest in startups, and at quite a young age I had invested in quite a few.

However, I ended up leaving that business and after being exposed to those different ways of working I came up with the idea of Venturespring with a couple of business partners. Essentially, what we did was we blended an agency business model, which was my background, with a venture capital one.

Venturespring has predominately been focused on helping big corporates come up with creative ideas around how they can work with startups, how they can engage the startup space and community, how they can use startups within their innovation strategies and which startups they should be investing in.

So essentially, Venturespring was helping corporates in the corporate venturing space in a very creative manner and that led to us generating some good revenue through the client engagements that we had. So Venturespring over the years has invested off its balance sheet because of the revenues that we get from our larger clients like IBM and Tata Communications.

We've worked with Unilever, we've done a bit with big banks like RBS and Natwest. We've also done mobility challenges with BP, so that's allowed us to invest off our balance sheet but then over the years I've been quite involved with funds as well to the business, so that was the original way I got involved.

Just to confirm, do you invest in startups or is it specifically to combine big corporate and startups together and what kind of startups?

We invest in startups. We launched a corporate accelerator program in 2017 in partnership and collaboration with Singularity University, Virgin Unite and Tata Communications, and as part of that programme we send young entrepreneurs to Richard Branson's island and that programme has about nine categories such as retail, AI and fintech, so it's quite broad.

We look across sectors, so we're not sector-specific and the reason why is because we work with corporates across different fields as well, so I just think it's nice to be cross-sector because you can bring the innovation and great ideas from one sector and merge it with another so there is no reason for us to be focused on one specific sector.

As a woman in the VC space, what's been your experience overall and how have you found it change over the years?

I haven't really had any problems in the area. However, that's not to say that the problems don't exist and I think one of the major stats around why females are not winning when it comes to raising investment is because they aren't tapped into VC networks to the same level as their male counterparts are, and that is one of the key ways that I believe they can win.

Venturespring has very much focused on building an ecosystem over the years, so that's been a very important part of our business model and what that has led to is us generating relationships with most of the institutional funds in the UK, lots in the US and lots of corporate venture divisions as well.

So, it's something that we've really paid a lot of attention to and as a result it has been easy for us to go and fundraise for an internal startup or a spin-out, or help other startups fundraise because we've got that network.

It's very nice to see more and more women getting into the space now. When I first started, there were hardly any women even in the large institutional funds, you very rarely saw a female principal and now it's just becoming more of a norm, which is great.

One thing I would say though, another big stat around why female-founded businesses don't get money is because there isn't a huge representation of women in software-related industries, so those are the industries that are commanding the majority of the investment from these venture capitalists and it's not necessarily a case of them not wanting to back female-led businesses, it's just that they can't find them.

I have also noticed over the years that women tend to generate businesses based on what they're exposed to, or what they become passionate about. I've seen a lot of beauty-related businesses, also a lot of fashion-led businesses coming out of female founders and I'm not saying those businesses aren't necessarily the ones to get funded, but there are a lot of them in that area.

I guess, what needs to happen is women need to move more towards industries where they are underrepresented and we would definitely see more of a shift in terms of capital as well.

What do you think can be done? How do you think investors can embrace more female founders in sectors such as software and deep tech?

It's not just about a call from the investors, but I guess women also need to want to enter this industry. So education is key and inspiration is also key.

I think now that we've got so many wonderful female role models in different industries, I think those individuals should be put on a pedestal, highlighted and celebrated because women can find inspiration in that and feel encouraged to want to get into those industries.

And the fact that there might not be many women in those industries could actually be a positive because it means that there is probably going to be more of a spotlight to be shone on the people that are doing great and innovative things in those areas. Women in AI for example, are incredibly inspiring.

I think education and wanting to embrace those industries rather than shy away from them, so maybe generating more awareness of those industries and being inspired will help. They don't have to be boring.

In the VC space, the British Business Bank for instance is doing a lot to encourage diversity so companies can take specific steps to ensure there is more of a diverse workforce and encourage people to participate, create and do great things.

Do you think there is an unconscious gender bias that lies within VC? And do you think it's something that investors need to tackle?

Yes, 100 percent. There is definitely an unconscious bias, and this cropped up in the British Business Bank report, and what it's showing is that it's quite typical for there to be a female-founded startups and teams to be perceived as riskier deals as they are perceived to have less access to resources and funding networks compared to male-led startups.

I would say the way to de-risk in this situation is to look at having a diverse team of cofounders and to look for the strengths that a male might bring in this particular environment today. Yes, we do need to change things and yes we do need to ensure there's more investment into women-led businesses however, we need to face the facts and currently the money is being diverted into male-led teams.

Therefore, let's use that to our advantage as female founders and go and get a male co-founder. I would encourage that because you want to try and mitigate that perceived risk as much as possible, and it's not just about the pitch presentation because, we don't only look at ideas, we look at the founder profiles and that's the thing that really counts.

So, when you're doing your due diligence you're looking at the person's background, what they've studied, their experience level, what kind of networks they have and I guess you go through this checklist and if it isn't scoring high it becomes a riskier deal.

Therefore, if the facts are saying that women don't have access to as diverse networks as what men do that's immediately showing that they have less opportunity to a certain degree or less resource, so we need to combat those issues but they also need to show investors that they are compensating for whatever perceived risk they might present and just be smart about how they present your deal.

So that would be the moral of what I'm trying to say, just be smart around how you present it and ensure that you de-risk the perceived unconscious bias around investing into women.

I'm not saying that it is impossible to fundraise if you're a female-only team, it could just potentially be harder for you. It's just the reality right now and I guess it will change, but there needs to be data points around this, which is what this report is showing.

Diversity equals higher revenues in some instances, there are reports that suggest that females generate more revenue than their male counterparts in a business-case scenario. We need more data points to show these things.

Would you say this is down to a fear of the unknown?

I think that unconscious bias is a huge component of that. It's linking back to a perception of it being a riskier bet and you're making huge bets, especially with early-stage because you don't have much information on the company, you don't know how well it will perform because there's no data so you have to make those decisions based on the founder profile.

You look at things like, what has this founder done before, what do you think they are actually capable of doing, what are their networks like, what resources do they have access to? Traditionally, there is data to suggest that men have got more diverse networks than women have within the fundraising sector.

So they have access to people who could potentially help them to fundraise, and I think it's about focusing on what we can do to address it instead of just acknowledging it, let's focus on what the solution is.

I think the solution is very much encouraging women to build their ecosystems in the space, upskilling them in terms of how they can engage. Anything as simple as networking or simple handshake gestures.

Things like education, upskilling, exposing them to better networks when it comes to raising finance and inspiring them, providing access to resources. I guess it's just really about focusing on the solution, I'm sick of hearing what the problem is, we need to do something about it now.

So what is Venturespring doing? What solution are you offering to help get more female-led businesses invested in?

So I'm an advisor to the Billion Dollar Fund for Women, and that has a mandate or mission to basically help to push funding towards more females. The mission is to deploy at least a billion [dollars] over the next few years.

The whole ethos is around helping to generate awareness around funding women and why it's important to do so, and working with existing funds, corporate venture divisions and institutional funds and gravitating them towards backing female-led businesses as well.

A component of what we're working on is to help to identify where these female-led businesses actually are. There aren't many sources which highlight them. So, there's an internal project which has been looked at around building some sort of platform to highlight those, and to give them more awareness.

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