Stronger through diversity: Openspace on International Women’s Day 2022

Jaclyn Seow
March 8, 2022

Stronger through diversity: Openspace on International Women’s Day 2022

At Openspace, we see diversity as both a social and business imperative. It’s because we believe that by valuing diversity, we will encourage more diverse idea exchange–a fundamental element of our firm’s Active Intelligence philosophy.

And as we seek to live up to that belief, we can point to significant gains in the diversity of our team: we have 45% female representation - including at the highest levels , 12 nationalities and 11 languages are spoken.

For us, International Women’s Day represents the perfect opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come, and consider what more we can and need to do.

The current state of affairs

Let’s consider just a few of the systemic barriers we know that women face as they seek out access to venture capital funding:

  • Limited networks: an All Raise report found 64% of VC firms with funds over $25M have no female partners at all, and that means less access to informal networks. Whilst cold calling is a viable option, existing relationships are especially important in early stage fundraising.
  • The ‘problem’ problem: without effective gender diversity, there’s a risk that investors overlook the significance of a solution to an unfamiliar problem. Take Flo, a fertility tracking app valued at $800M. It’s no surprise that the lead investors for their $50M Series B round have females on their investment teams.
  • Evaluation biases: there is tendency to pursue different lines of questioning for female founders. Issues reported include an over-indexing of personal questions and a focus on “preventative” questions around potential losses and risk mitigation, rather than “promotion” questions that highlight growth and potential gains. Indeed, a study into subconscious biases indicated investors preferred a pitch narrated by a male voice, regardless of the gender of the investor.
  • Self-projection: characteristically, women tend to naturally downplay their achievements and minimize self-promotion. Accomplishments are often attributed to “we”, not “me.” With the myth of the “special founder” remaining pervasive, framing success as a collective can dilute its impact.  

However, the issue is deeper rooted than fundraising alone. It’s important to acknowledge the  ongoing challenges women face in advancing their careers, especially when it comes to situations where affinity biases and women’s disinclination towards self-promotion are most evident, such as salary negotiations and promotion consideration processes.

Where we stand today

Openspace now has 45% women in our total team and 38% on the investment side. And whilst we are proud of the progress that represents, we are committed to remaining open and transparent as we continue to make steps towards better representation in our own firm.

And as an investor, we also seek out portfolio companies that are aligned with our beliefs and are making their own efforts to address any imbalances or biases. By the end of 2020, about 50% of our portfolio companies, across a variety of sectors and Southeast Asian countries, had >50% of women employees. However, the issue remains that only 20% had >50% women at senior management level, and had noted a further drop in numbers in their board composition.

The recent promotion of Jessica Huang Pouleur to Partner is recognition of the added capabilities and unique insights she brings to the team but equally an acknowledgment of the need to improve representation at the very highest levels. Jessica’s promotion makes her one of a very small number of full-time women investment partners in Southeast Asia venture capital. In addition, we’re happy to announce that our Vice President, Amy Zhao, has now been appointed as the lead for the firm’s crypto strategy, Ocular whilst Nichapat Ark has taken on the role of Director, Thailand.

Our portfolio companies are also making notable strides. SCB Abacus, the Thai digital lending platform, provides 60% of their loans to women and over 50% of the creators on Filipino live streaming app, Kumu, are female. Across our ed-tech brands, there are 40-50% female educators.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels. Greater diversity and representation will not happen absent conscious efforts and initiatives – and we all have a responsibility to deliver them. In 2021, we launched OpenHours, a mentorship program designed to encourage broader participation by women in venture capital in Southeast Asia. We were thrilled to have a first cohort of 44 mentees from over 100 applicants. To ensure those taking part received fullest attention, we provided 23 mentors across 6 Southeast Asian countries.

Inspired by the experience last year, we are pleased to announce that we will be running our OpenHours program again in 2022–helping drive more female participation and opportunity in the sector.

In addition, we are shaping a work environment and culture that encourages diversity and representation. We offer flexible working arrangements for men and women alike, which includes flexible hours, flexible structures (e.g. part time), paid maternity and paternity leave, remote work as a default and now a work-from-anywhere policy. Team members have also been actively contributing to female-focused initiatives - such as Cocoon Capital’s female founders hours and SheLovesTech.

What are we doing next?

We recognize that we still have work to do, and to that end are considering a number of initiatives in the pipeline. As a start, here are some of the actionable steps we continue to take:

  • We are holding an internal workshop on IWD22 which will address the presence of unconscious biases in VC fundraising and ways to overcome them – and we look forward to sharing the lessons.
  • We are continuing to highlight and recommend female professionals for board and senior positions in our portfolio companies.
  • We now require our portfolio companies to report on gender diversity, as well as put in place processes like grievance mechanisms and employee engagement surveys.
  • We will keep leading the drive for increased disclosure in our sector in order to expose existing shortfalls and monitor progress. That means on-going reporting of the percentage of female employees and founders in our portfolio.

A closing thought

At Openspace, we won’t rest until women’s undeniable value in the venture capital sector is made clear and obvious, and we see all our portfolio companies embracing the requisite progressiveness in their people, as much as their product, strategies.

Each of us remains committed, as an individual and a collective, to the important journey that remains ahead of us, but on today of all days, let’s all take a moment to recognise the incredible women in our lives, both at home and work, as well as the important gains we’ve made together.