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Joanne Wilson puts a distinctly feminine spin on angel investing. A majority of her investments are in female-founded companies, and she picks businesses that appeal to a female market.
Joanne and her husband, Fred, a partner at Union Square Ventures, are known forces in the technology world, particularly the New York startup scene. Wilson’s portfolio is currently 24 companies strong, and she has made a name for herself as an advocate for female entrepreneurs, a woman about town, and a savvy investor.
Early in her career, Wilson faced obstacles and discrimination as young, female professional. She got out of the technology industry to raise her children and published a popular blog called Gotham Gal that resonated strongly with women around the country. She realized that many women she worked with in the 1990s were not participating in the next generation of the web, and she jumped back in the game to promote female entrepreneurship.
“I want to help people execute on their dreams,” she said. “It is important to support women because they are not getting funded as often. There are great ideas and great companies, and I want to support them to the point where people in the investment world see the opportunity that these women have created and the strength of their businesses.”
Wilson’s investment strategy is to focus on the entrepreneurs. She said her number one priority is to believe in the founders and their ability to grow a business. Once she has added a company to her portfolio, she gets deeply involved and offers more than just financial support.
“At the end of the day, I have to like the person I am investing in. I have to want to spend time with them,” she said. “I want someone who can execute on their vision and move an idea forward, someone who is willing to evolve and pivot their idea and be flexible. I have to believe in the idea they have, but the number one thing is the person.”
One of Wilson’s goals is to nurture startups to the point where institutional investors can have the “aha moment.” Many female entrepreneurs struggle to make the male-dominated world of venture capitalism understand their ideas, and so helping them prove their model is key.
“Social and commerce is something women understand more than anyone,” said said. “Women tend to build businesses that fill voids in their lives. If you are another women, you get it. Sometimes it is harder for investors to understand what their businesses are.”
Her portfolio is diverse, although food and fashion are common themes (in addition to females). It includes investments in Blue Bottle coffee, fashion data analytics, hydroponic window gardens, a platform that matches professionals with nonprofits, a scooter rental service, multiple online publications, wedding planning tools, and even an all-natural, sustainably sourced pickle company.
Her most recent investment is in a social e-commerce startup called Have to Have, billed as a “registry for your lifestyle.” Users create shareable wish lists with products they desire from around the web. The technology works like a virtual shopping assistant, tracking items, offering organizational tools, and notifying you when something goes on sale.
Publishers and advertisers can implement Have to Have’s tools and widgets to engage their consumers and gather data. Well-respected publishers like Conde Nast, Marie Claire, and the Huffington Post are clients, and the platform can help companies drive sales.
Founders Carla Holtze and Kimberly Skelton have impressive backgrounds. Both women earned MBAs from Columbia Business School and have years of experience in finance, technology, and fashion. When they first approached Wilson with their idea, she turned them down. They considered her feedback and made significant changes to their model, which impressed Wilson to the point of investing.
“These women spent six months literally re-doing the entire business, came back and pitched me again,” Wilson said. “I had to give them a huge amount of credit for making the shift and loved the angle they are going at it. It has both a consumer engagement and an business-to-business enterprise solution.”
Wilson encourages female entrepreneurship across the spectrum, emphasizing the importance of women serving as mentors, investors, and executives, as well as founders. She is trying to build an ecosystem where women support each other and succeed.
“To be a mentor and to help someone through their learning and career is really important,” she said. “I’d like to see women set up to the plate, and I hope that more women who have deep pockets could invest and provide their own knowledge and experience.”
To this effect, Wilson is one of the driving forces behind the Women Entrepreneurs Festival, put on by NYU. She not only provides advice to female founders in her portfolio, but to women everywhere balancing work life and home life, operating in a male-dominated environment, or simply looking for food recommendations in Brooklyn.
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