DEI for the Startup Community 3: Marcia Dawood on the Investor’s Role

What’s the role of the investor in building a startup that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive? Marcia Dawood has invested in over 200 companies, so she has a unique insight into what needs to be done.

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Winning with Diversity Marcia Dawood


Shelley Willingham: Welcome to Winning with Diversity, a podcast to help you be the diversity champion in your business. This is episode three of our series on DEI for the startup community, where we’re discussing how founders, leaders, and investors can think about DEI when they’re just starting out and why it’s so important. As well as actionable steps you can take right away to sit your company on the path to success. I’m your host, Shelly Willingham, vice president of business strategy at The Diversity Movement. And with me today is Marcia Dawood, angel investor, venture partner at Mindshift Capital, and incoming chair of the board of the Angel Capital Association. Thanks for coming on the show, Marcia. So glad to have you.

Marcia Dawood: Thanks for having me. 

Shelley Willingham: So, Marcia. Let’s just talk a little bit about your background. I know that you’ve invested in over 200 companies, which is amazing. How did you get started as an investor? 

Marcia Dawood: So, it was about 10 years ago. I was asked to go to an angel investing meeting. And I remember asking, like, “What’s angel investing?” I don’t even know what that means. So, but I went and I was just kind of blown away by all of the different types of innovation you get to see as an angel investor. And I got involved in a group, a local group in my community, and started to see some companies that were being developed, really in my own backyard.

And then as I had to move around the country a little bit due to my husband’s job, I got to see a lot of different things. Everything from smaller things that were happening in places like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to bigger things that were happening in New York and Silicon Valley.

And then also in places like Dallas. So, I got a different perspective, I got to invest a couple of different ways, which is how I got exposure to so many companies. I like to see what people are doing in different types of funds that are out there. And I like to participate, which is a way that I kind of got exposure to all these different companies.

Shelley Willingham: Very cool. So you’re a partner in Mindshift Capital, where you invest with a gender lens, ensuring diversity of thought while narrowing the funding gap for female-led ventures, which is amazing. Talk to us about why investing in women is so important to you. 

Marcia Dawood: So, when I first got involved in angel investing, I didn’t really understand, like, all of the different statistics around who got the funding or who didn’t until I went and became a member of a group called Golden Seeds, which is out of New York, but they’re a national group. So, there’s actually many chapters now throughout the country. And they invest with a gender lens. And they want to really support women-led businesses. It doesn’t mean it has to be an all-female team, but there’s diversity within the team.

And that there’s a woman in the “C-suite.” And so, I started to realize that less than 5% of all funding at an early stage, that would be venture capital or angel, goes to women. And I thought, “Wow, that is really crazy.” You know, women represent 50% of the population, but yet, when it comes to these businesses, they’re only getting less than 5% of the funding.

So, how do we change that? And over time, I started to see that it isn’t just about getting more funding to women. That’s great. We want to do that. But that’s almost like giving people fish. What we really need to do is get more investors who are women, who are people of color, who are of those underrepresented groups. We need to get them to be writing the checks, also. That’s what’s really going to start to change things. 

Shelley Willingham: I love that. At the diversity movement, we call ourselves business strategists with a DEI lens. So, having that lens, right? Is so important when you’re trying to make a difference in a particular segment. So, that’s great. So, where do you as a VC investor, see diversity, equity, and inclusion culture, you know, that’s important in startups, how do you see that as– from your vantage point? 

Marcia Dawood: Well, I think that you need to have awareness. You need to be talking about it. This isn’t something that you can just say, “Hey, I’m going to go in and I’m going to do something. I’m going to have it in my handbook.” Or, or something like that and kind of check the box. This is something that needs to be talked about all the time in weekly meetings, in things like hiring, in vendors that you’re going to use for your business. 

Whether you hire them to be a full-time person or even contract work, just being thoughtful and being considerate, and thinking through what is it about this different group or this different business that I’m going to be using? How are they going to help me make sure that I have diversity? And when we talk about diversity, it’s very obvious for us to talk about things like gender or race, but we also have to think about diversity in thought, you know? 

Are you taking a whole lot of people that you’re hiring maybe from the same school? Or from the same part of the country? Or the same part of the world? Diversity of thought comes from so many different things. And having that diversity is really what makes companies grow and makes companies so much stronger. 

Shelley Willingham: Awesome. I love that. As a VC, how do you help startups create the DEI culture from the ground up? Or when they are just getting started?

Marcia Dawood: Again, I think it’s just a lot of awareness and talking about it. Sometimes people kind of tip-toe around talking about diversity, they’re not really sure what to say, they don’t feel comfortable.  It’s just a matter of having conversation, making people feel more comfortable about it, having it be a part of the discussions really from the beginning. If you’re a company that has only a couple of employees and you’re going to be growing, how do you do that?

Have a plan. Even if you can’t stick to the plan completely because every plan that you try to make always gets a little diverted here and there. But, at least have something written down so that you have some way to kind of follow. 

Shelley Willingham: Great. So, I’ve seen that a lot of venture capital firms are starting to not mandate, that’s not the right word, but encourage their portfolio companies to have a DEI initiative. When you’re talking to your founders,  is there anything that your firm is doing to encourage that, or support that? Or give them– you know, whateverthe steps they need to do in the very beginning? Or to make them even recognize why it’s so important?  

Marcia Dawood: Yeah. And I mean, we say the word “mandate,” and it’s an important word. Because in some ways we do need to mandate things because that’s the way that we’re going to create the change. Eventually, we want it to be just a natural occurrence, of course. But in the meantime, are we going to have to do some mandating? Kind of like California did with how many women are going to be on boards by a certain time?

Yes. You know, we, we need to do that. But I think that, that also encourages the conversation. So, when you’re talking to your portfolio companies and saying, “Hey, these things are important.” I think they also have to understand the “why” behind it. I mean, I really truly believe, and there’s been studies that have come out pretty recently even, that have said, “Look, companies with a diverse team, they have higher revenues, they have better profitability.”

This isn’t like, “Oh, you’re doing this, like, out of the goodness of your heart or because of charity.” No, this is because it’s actually working. 

Shelley Willingham: Yeah. It’s so interesting because you know, it feels like we’ve been having these conversations around diversity and inclusion for so long and the needle just hasn’t moved in certain areas in certain industries.

When you find from even your peers, like, there’s a disconnect with DEI or they don’t really make it a priority. Like, what do you think that disconnect is? And how can we maybe work to try to bridge that gap, especially in the startup community?

Marcia Dawood: Yeah. I actually spoke to somebody not that long ago, who said that he didn’t like that his group had a mandate for the number of diverse founders that were going to be seen in the group. And then he said, “Well, I wouldn’t be open to everybody.” And I appreciate that, that he said that, but at the same time, if you don’t have the mandate, you’re not necessarily going to see the possibilities of what else is out there. And it’s also not welcoming or inviting to the founders either. 

So, these underrepresented founders, do they feel like, welcome if all of a sudden, you know, they’re putting in their application and a lot of the other people that they’re applying with are all not diverse? So, it’s kind of like, how do you find a balance? And I think as a country, as people  we’re trying to figure that out, you know, all the time. Even more so in the last year.

And it’s sometimes an uncomfortable conversation, but again, if we just keep talking about it and we keep being gentle and kind to each other, as we talk about it, I think that’s going to just encourage so many more people. People don’t want to feel bad about being related to this. They want to feel good.

They want to be inclusive. I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I’m just going to go out and be non-inclusive today.” They want to be–

Shelley Willingham: Right.

Marcia Dawood: So, how do we make people feel like, just more comfortable about it?

Shelley Willingham: Yeah. In the beginning, you mentioned, you know, wanting to have more underrepresented investors, right?  Angel investors. And I thought that was so interesting because I’ve started a few businesses and I never, in the beginning, even considered an angel investor, or was very intimidated by that world. And so, what do you say to underrepresented groups that, you know, what do you think is the– where’s the disconnect there?

What can we do to help kind of bridge that gap to where, you know, in some groups, you don’t even think about this as being an option of getting any type of venture capital backing? So, tell us about some of the things you’re doing to kind of help bridge that gap. 

Marcia Dawood: I think a lot of it is just getting the conversation started. In some cases, founders, they– it is, it is scary. I mean, having to raise money is probably the most daunting thing and the biggest hurdle that an entrepreneur is going to have to face. And it doesn’t matter really how big or how small the company is, or, you know, what really they’re trying to accomplish. It’s just, it’s tough. It’s a very hard thing. 

I really encourage entrepreneurs to, from the very beginning, just start to have conversations with people. And one door will open, another door will open, another door– and it seems like a lot of work and a lot of things that you have to do in order to accomplish that, but it really–  don’t try to eat the whole elephant. Like, just take those steps, start to meet with people who can give you some advice, give you some guidance before you’re actually asking for money.

Because, for example, I just invested in a company. I’ve known the entrepreneur since 2015. I met her when I lived in New York, I was very interested in her business. She was really early though. It wasn’t really ready for funding. And then, you know, now she’s, she’s going gangbusters and things are great.

 And you know, she has a bunch of people that were interested in investing. And– but I mean, I’ve been building a relationship with her for six years. So, these are the types of things that I’d really encourage entrepreneurs to do. And it takes the pressure off of them a little bit too, because now they’re building their network where it’s not like you’re asking people for money all the time.

I mean, I get a LinkedIn request from somebody I don’t know. And in the very first line, it’s “I need $50,000.” I’m like, “Geez.” You know? Why can’t we, like, have a conversation?

Shelley Willingham: Right. 

Marcia Dawood: And then tell me what you’re doing. You know? 

Shelley Willingham: That’s interesting. So really kind of helping people understand that, you know, the dance, if you will, on having the conversations and what needs to happen. So, I mean, and that’s very similar to people feeling like there are opportunities that they would not even go after simply because there are unwritten rules, if you will. Right? There are ways that, you know, the things that you can’t read about in the book. But you have to learn through experience and meeting people and making those connections and improving and building your network.

So, that’s great. So, what would you say to venture capital firms? Like, what would you say to them, those firms that have not made DEI a priority for their portfolio companies? Is there any advice you can give them on how they should be thinking about it? 

Marcia Dawood: Well, I think it goes back to looking in the mirror. How many people within the firm are diverse? You know, if you have an all non-diverse team of people at the firm, that makes it a little bit more difficult for it to be more comfortable to invite entrepreneurs in who are diverse. So, I think it starts by looking within, and then again, it just is all about communication, talking about it, even having like a goal. It doesn’t have to be some huge audacious goal?

Like, “Oh, I’m going to have 50% of our companies are all diverse, but, you know, led by diverse founders.” But, but at least have, like, steps of how you’re going to get to a bigger goal. Right now, if you look across your portfolio and you’re seeing that you have less than five or 10% of your companies led by diverse founders, then start to figure out how are you going to get that number up?

Shelley Willingham: Yeah. And I think when we talked earlier about mandates, right? Nobody likes a mandate. When we are working with clients, we make sure, you know, you don’t make the training mandatory. Because that automatically puts up a wall when people are on the defensive and are just not interested. So it’s really building the case and seeing how, like you mentioned before, companies are more successful with a diverse team. 

There’s more innovation of thought. There are so many things that are valuable when you have a diverse team and not just you checking a box and saying you have this number and that number. Because nobody wants to be told they have to do something.

So it really is, again, having those conversations and making the connections between equity and inclusion with your return on investment and with the bottom line. We would love for people to do things because it’s the right thing to do, but unless we can attach a business case to it, it’s really not going to stick.

And I think that’s why we’re seeing that we’ve been having this DEI conversation for years and   there’s more of an appetite, right, with things that are happening in the world. Which, you know,  I’m glad that it’s at the forefront again, and people are really digging deep and really trying to make a difference. So, yeah, this is all good stuff. 

So, you are leading right now, also the Angel Capital Association, which is exciting. Can’t wait to learn more about that. And how do you encourage inclusive membership and encourage members to become angel investors? Especially like, you know, the people that have never even considered that this could be a part of their world. How are you doing that within the association right now? 

Marcia Dawood: Yeah, so the Angel Capital Association is basically, the professional society for angel investors across the U.S., North America, and even globally. We have global members as well. I’m on the board of directors. I’ve been on the board for six years. In July, I’ll take over as the chair of the board. And there are about 15 to 17 board members at any given time. We’re very involved in the organization and helping to build up everything from education, public policy, membership, really anything that can help to bring angels together, to give them the tools that they need in order to be successful.

And then of course, to get the entrepreneurs that they’re supporting to be successful. So how are we as an organization working on DEI? Well, there’s a couple, couple of ways. First of all, we have put together a group, a task force, to work on specifically DEI. And again, we were talking just a minute ago about metrics. How do we get the right metrics to the right groups or organizations so that it makes sense? And everybody’s metrics might be a little bit different depending on, you know, where they are, or how big their group is.

But I think that that needs to be talked about more, and that’s part of our mission and what we’re going to be working on in the next year. 

Shelley Willingham: Okay.  

Marcia Dawood: Also publishing articles. Just allowing people to know about what is going on. There are so many people who are interested in this asset class. They would like to be part of angel investing. They want to learn more, who are people of color, women, all of the underrepresented groups. But how do they learn about it? Where do they go for information? We want them to feel like the Angel Capital Association is the place to go for that. And then also syndication. You know, it’s so difficult for entrepreneurs to go out and fundraise.

You know, we were talking about like, they have to pound the pavement. It’s, it’s just an uphill battle. You know, how can we, the Angel Capital Association as an organization, make it easier?  So one of our board of director members, Pat LaPointe, he has done an amazing job putting together a whole syndication program that will allow all of the angels within the association to be able to syndicate deals, talk about the different companies that they’re investing in. And now, it’s so crazy how COVID has just catapulted the virtual world to be–

Shelley Willingham: Yes.

Marcia Dawood: To be able to be so much better at really being able to share information. And this is our opportunity to grab and go. And so often, you know, I feel like entrepreneurs look at angel investors and they think old, stuffy, dinner meetings, you know. Like, people would meet in person and then–

Shelley Willingham: Yeah.

Marcia Dawood: They’d all at the end of it be like, “Yeah, I’ll vote– you know, I’d vote for that company or whatever,” you know? But at the end of the day, we’re becoming a lot younger, a lot more tech savvy and, and want entrepreneurs to be a part of that and to feel like they really have a place to go to be able to get the funding, the help, the mentorship that they need. You know, if I was an entrepreneur and I was like, “Geez, this seems like, so overwhelming.”

Shelley Willingham: Yeah.

Marcia Dawood:  “I don’t even know where to start.” I think what I would do is I would just sit down and, like, Google, ” Angel investors in…” and then whatever their area is. It could be something as big as New York City. It could be something as small as the middle of Montana. They’re all over the place. So find the people that are local to you and then go out and, and build a connection with them. Try to see if you can find out if they have office hours. Golden Seats has office hours and office hours is simply like, “Come and talk to us and we just have a conversation.” 

Shelley Willingham: Right. I love that. And you know, like I mentioned before, the thought of an angel investor, what you described is what I probably thought when I was first starting out. Like, it was just this, you know, elusive group of people. And how do you connect with them? So that’s amazing that you’re doing this work. When you think about where we are right now, Marcia. And just the, the startup community landscape, are you excited? Inspired? Are you– how do you feel about where we’re moving as a whole and how diversity, equity, and inclusion fits into that?

Marcia Dawood: Oh, I am so excited about the things that are happening for so many reasons. One, is because of this whole, like, “Let’s all go virtual” thing, we are so much more connected. We can get, you know, so many more entrepreneurs funded. There’s also so many more ways to fund entrepreneurs nowadays. For example, I’m in group called, “SheEO” and it’s a nonprofit.

But what they do, is they loan money to entrepreneurs and allow them to pay back the loan at a 0% interest. That’s a really cool, interesting way to get with entrepreneurs. Another group I’m with is called, “Portfolia,” and they have funds that are designed for women, mainly, but everybody’s included. And they are tobacco companies where people want to see change.

And this is a really low barrier to entry for an investor who’s accredited and just has no idea how to get involved. And it’s a really interesting way that you can learn, you can kind of sit next to some of the lead investors, and kind of watch what they’re doing without necessarily having to get involved yourself right away. And really interesting ways to just figure out, how can we get more funding to the companies where we want to see change in the world? 

Shelley Willingham: Awesome. I’m excited too. It’s good stuff going on. So Marsha, you’ve invested in over 200 companies. Can you tell us about any instances where  you had– you’ve invested in companies where DEI was at the foundation and it really turned out well? And then in the same tone, where you may have invested in companies where they didn’t make the eye a priority and it didn’t turn out so great?

Marcia Dawood: Yeah. And I think it goes back to a little bit of the theme of what we’ve been talking about all day here, which is that if you have a mandate and it’s something that is part of the fabric of your company, you will be able to do well with it.. Where I’ve seen companies really thrive is when they have a plan, they execute that plan.

And I’ll just give you an example. There was a company that really, within the first week or two of us going into lockdown for COVID, was just really right there on it, figuring out what they had to do in order to pivot, change their sales strategy, cut their burn rate, cut their expenses, so that they could really thrive and survive through what we had no idea what was about to come.

And part of what they really attributed a lot of their success to was the diversity on the team, because it couldn’t really be done by just having the founder or the CEO say, “We’re going to do this.” You know, kind of basically tell people, this is how we’re going to have it done.

Because part of what the CEO had to do was she had to go to each one of her staff and say, “Look, we’re going to have to take some temporary pay cuts. So I want to have a conversation before I say you have to take a pay cut.”

Shelley Willingham:  Right. 

Marcia Dawood: And she said that she was so impressed with how much they came back then and said, “Look, I’ll be able to do X.” And she really thought that was even more than what she would have normally done. So, that type of diversity of thought and inclusion. When we say inclusion, it’s not just, you know, “Oh, we’re going to let you be a part of the team.” No, really including them in what is happening in the company. The direction, the– everything that’s going to go on in order to make it a successful company and to be able to work through the hard times.

I mean, COVID has been really hard on many, many, many people. And how, how do you survive and thrive? You do it because you have a really strong team and with a strong team comes diversity. 

Shelley Willingham: Yeah. I love that. Do you have any examples of companies that didn’t get it right? 

Marcia Dawood: I guess it’s more of, uh, of, you know, they just didn’t, they didn’t stick to the plan or they were, they were just kind of pounding down on the employees a little bit too much. 

Shelley Willingham: Yeah. Wow. Well, thanks for sharing that. So, is there anything you’d like to add for our audience before we wrap up? Anything I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about? Or any tips you’d like to leave or just golden nuggets you’re going to drop, of course, before we, before we close?

Marcia Dawood: Sure. So, I really do believe that in order to get funding to all of these different underrepresented groups, we have to get more people to be angels. All people to be angels of all shapes, sizes, colors. And the only way that we can really do that is to educate on what does it mean?

You know, there’s so many people that I meet who could be angels, or I tell them a little bit about what I do, and they’re like, “Wow, that’s pretty neat, but I don’t have a private jet.” And I don’t really know–

Shelley Willingham: You don’t, Marcia? 

Marcia Dawood: And they look at– they look at Shark Tank. And, you know, Shark Tank is something that, a lot of people know what it is, but it does look like you have to be a billionaire in order to help early stage companies and you absolutely do not. I’m here to tell you, no private jet here. You do not need that. But what you do need is you need to have an open mind and you need to really believe that these companies that you’re helping are going to make, make change. And they do. They’re, they’re doing it every single day.

And there’s a lot of different ways that people can invest. So we started a podcast at Angel Capital Association called, “Angels Live.”

Shelley Willingham:  Okay. 

Marcia Dawood: It’s basically helping people to learn, “What does it mean to be an angel?” And we interview people and ask them questions. Like, “Why did you become an angel? How? Why would you do this? What are some of the stories? Tell us a little bit about the companies that you’ve seen that have done well. How about some that didn’t do so well?”

You know? So, trying to get a little bit about, what are the behind the scenes of the angel world? And let’s take that veil off and let’s stop thinking that it’s a stuffy old group with your grandpa and everything. And like, let’s go ahead and figure out that this is fun, there’s a lot of opportunity in it, and there’s a lot of things we can do to help everybody. 

Shelley Willingham: I love that. And you know, I think part of the DEI discussion and where the disconnect is, is not being able to provide access and with your podcasts, you’re telling people, “Okay, this is how you do it step by step.” And like you said, you’re taking the veil off. And it just, you know, again gives– kind of levels the playing field and gives everyone an opportunity to be a part of that. I can’t wait to listen to your podcast and I was looking forward to flying on your jet. But since you don’t have a jet… 

No, this is awesome. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate you so much for taking your time out to talk about this very important topic and like you, I’m encouraged. I’m encouraged about what’s going on. I, you know, I have tons of people as you were talking that I need to get them involved in your association. 

Because, you know, I think to your point, I think when people think about investing, “I’ve got to have all this money. I’ve got to have this, and have that.” But, learning from you and your association and your podcasts, I’m sure there are ways that so many more people can get involved and we know that the more diverse and inclusive investors are, then that will also contribute to us being able to invest in more diverse entrepreneurs. So, it’s like the cycle of life, right? We just gotta keep it moving. 

Marcia Dawood: Yeah, we also interview entrepreneurs so that we can find out a little bit about how they connected to the first angel or how they, how they kind of got angel funding, or why? Or any of those types of things. And a couple of people that we’ve interviewed have been both. They are an entrepreneur now, but they had been an angel or vice versa. So you know, all these kinds of different ways and everybody’s story is different. So.

Shelley Willingham: I love that. So, there’s more to the world than Shark Tank.

Marcia Dawood: Absolutely. 

Shelley Willingham: Shark Tank is the only way to get funded. We’re going to make sure that our audience has all the information so they can learn more about the association, definitely learn more about your fund, and learn more about your podcast. So again, thank you so much, Marcia, for taking the time with me this afternoon. This is great to speak with you. And, just wish you continued success. 

Marcia Dawood: Thanks. Thanks for having me. 

Full Episode Transcript

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Winning with Diversity is brought to you by The Diversity Movement, hosted by VP of Business Strategy Shelley Willingham, and is a production of Earfluence.

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