Most venture money still goes to startups that have no women on their founding teams. According to PitchBook’s 2019 report, in the United States, only 2.8% of venture capital investment was directed to female-only founding teams, and just 11.5% was invested into founding teams with men and women.
Amra Naidoo, co-founder of Accelerating Asia, aims to change that. With Accelerating Asia, a network of startup programs and an early stage investment fund, she wants to ensure equal access to capital for female-led ventures. The organization actively invests in startups that are improving the lives of women.
In 2013, Naidoo left her job as an employment consultant in Australia for a three-month internship at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in Singapore. That turned into a three-year role that helped her find her passion, Naidoo said.
KrASIA recently interviewed Naidoo to learn about her drive, what drew her to the venture capital industry, and the challenges that she has faced as a woman in the industry.
KrASIA (Kr): Tell us a little bit about your background. What did you do before you established Accelerating Asia? And what made you start the accelerator?
Amra Naidoo (AN): My co-founder Craig Bristol Dixon and I started Accelerating Asia in 2018 to fill the gap in the region for a startup accelerator that works with pre-Series A startups with existing traction and a sound business model. There are many startup programs in the region, but most of them are very early stage—idea stage or with a minimum viable product.
Before I founded Accelerating Asia, I worked for Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator with Craig, where I looked after community and operations for our work in Southeast Asia. I realized there were great entrepreneurs in our region with businesses creating massive impact in their local ecosystems that were scalable and sustainable. Yet, they didn’t know much about the social impact ecosystem. Supporting the investment into the startups as well as their portfolio management gave me great insight into how we could create a model that was both profit- and impact-driven.
Before that, I was at UN Women Singapore, leading Project Inspire, a global social entrepreneurship program in partnership with Mastercard. We looked for entrepreneurs from around the world who were creating impact for women and girls, then brought them to Singapore for an intense bootcamp, which culminated in a pitch day where the winners received grant funding from our partners.
I was also looking after corporate partnerships, working with multinationals based in Singapore on their corporate social responsibility and diversity initiatives. It was an insightful time for me as I was able to see how multinationals were looking at impact from a top-down perspective, while at the same time working with entrepreneurs tackling it from a grassroots, bottom-up perspective.
Kr: What is your role at Accelerating Asia? And what responsibilities do you have in the organization?
AN: I am the co-founder, general partner, and operations and partnerships director. I lead engagement with our diverse range of government and investment partners, which include Enterprise Singapore and Amazon Web Services. I also oversee our operations and marketing teams.
I am also a general partner in the Accelerating Asia venture capital fund. Through this, I work with our venture partner to raise and manage funds, monitor and evaluate investment decisions, and help our portfolio companies with fundraising.
Kr: What have you personally done to foster a gender-inclusive workplace and investments at Accelerating Asia?
AN: As a co-founder and general partner of Accelerating Asia, I have oversight over our gender initiatives. I also encourage team members to take the lead as we have a collaborative environment.
On the investment front, 40% of our portfolio companies are led or co-founded by women. In addition to supporting female-founded enterprises, we’ve also invested in multiple startups that focus on improving the lives of women—for example, Hellotask, which upskills domestic workers in Bangladesh and connects them with safe employment opportunities.
In our first year of operation, I think we’ve done pretty well in creating a more gender-inclusive workplace and investments. We have an incredibly diverse team and are one of the few venture capital funds in the region (and globally) with a female general partner. The team is also split 50/50. In terms of creating a gender-inclusive workplace, we offer flexibility for all our staff to work from home, have flexible hours, and make sure our events are accessible.
This flexibility and approach also extends to the startups in our accelerator. Our program schedule is family-friendly. We record all the masterclasses and have them available via webinar, and we also created a child-friendly workplace where it’s ok to bring your kids to the office. Actually, it’s often the dads who have their kids in tow.
Kr: What are the challenges that you have encountered in the VC industry, and how did you overcome them?
AN: Often, when I walk into an investor event whether it be focused on angel investing, venture capital, or private equity, I am the only woman representative from a VC fund in the room. I think it is easy to talk about how being one of the only young Asian woman in the room is a challenge, and it can be. But what I have realized is that the biggest challenge in this industry is acquiring access. As with most industries that are difficult to get into for various reasons, getting into the VC industry and succeeding in it generally comes down to two things—your network and education.
When I first started, I had no idea what people were talking about as the industry was filled with buzzwords and acronyms. It was not because I didn’t understand the concepts—they are logical—but the words that are used make the industry exclusive. It was also a little intimidating to participate in if you couldn’t speak the same lingo.
I worked hard to upskill myself and learned the lingo of the industry. Having gone through this process, I also realized that your difference is your strength.
Kr: What do you think are the challenges for women in the tech and VC industry? And how can we address them?
AN: The number of women who are investors is pretty small, but things are changing. More women are setting up their funds, becoming angel investors, and founding their own companies. There are also education programs teaching women how to angel invest.
There are early studies to suggest that founding teams with women on them tend to do better than those with just men. This is not surprising if you consider this from a diversity perspective—not only from a gender lens—because when you have diverse teams, you are better equipped to deal with various issues that come up during the startup journey. When the ultimate business of an investor is to make money, you want to make sure that the companies you invest in have the best chance of succeeding. So diversity then doesn’t just become something that’s a “nice-to-have,” but a “need-to-have” to derisk an investment.
It is an issue of visibility. If you can’t see it, then you can’t be it. The internet, social media, and media interviews are essential in showcasing that there are women out there starting companies and investing. And with that, hopefully a new generation of female founders and investors will think about this as a viable opportunity for their careers.
Kr: What other initiatives are you involved in outside of work that promote gender diversity in tech?
AN: Honestly, I dedicate the majority of my time during and outside of work hours to Accelerating Asia. Outside of work, I am the Southeast Asia lead for Shaper Impact Capital, which is a project led by Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum. Shaper Impact Capital works to connect social impact investors, angels, and funds with social impact startups and social enterprises. I also created the Doing Good Podcast, which interviews movers and shakers in the business and impact sectors to learn more about their work in creating a better world. I see both of these initiatives as complementary to the work that I do at Accelerating Asia to promote a diverse ecosystem from all angles.
This article is part of “Profiles in Tech,” a series by KrASIA that highlights the achievements of people who are the driving force behind South and Southeast Asia’s tech startups.