WoW Woman | Anya Navidski, Founding Partner at Voulez Capital

Interview by Marija Butkovic

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Anya Navidski is the Founding Partner at Voulez Capital – Europe’s First VC fund for female founders – providing Seed and Series A capital for high growth businesses with female founders. Having started her career with the likes of Goldman Sachs, PwC and NERA, she became an unrepentant entrepreneur, with almost twenty years of experience building businesses in multiple sectors and geographies, from running a £250m renewable energy venture and founding an incubator for social impact businesses, to turning around multiple tech ventures on behalf of investors. She has advised a European government on setting up and execution of an innovative “SME Champions” fund, acted as an advisor to JP Morgan in the area of renewable energy and innovative funding instruments and was a Director of the INSEAD Centre for Entrepreneurship. Anya is an Investor in Residence at Google for Startups, the winner of the Women in Finance “Specialist Investor of the Year 2019” award and has been featured in many publications, including the Financial Times, Techworld and by the BBC.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how and why you started Voulez Capital. 

I keep feeling like I am still pretending to be a venture capitalist and my investors keep reminding me that I actually am and that I have earned my stripes now. What I actually am and always will be is an entrepreneur. I love building businesses. It just took me twenty years to figure out that being a VC was my dream job. For the last twenty years, in whatever environment I was thrown into, I naturally took that role. And now I get to help build multiple businesses all at once.

Even the founding of Voulez Capital was an entrepreneurial act. In 2018 I was pregnant and looking for a breast pump. I struggled to find anything that wasn’t designed in the 50s, wasn’t noisy, clunky, painful and outdated. Tania has not launched Elvie’s version yet. I eventually came across one in the US. It was the iPhone of breast pumps. But with that, I also came across the story of its founder and how she faced awful indignities and struggles in raising VC cash. Reading about her story made me step back and realise that I have heard that story many times before. From a smart digital cervical cancer screening tool that we worked with when I was running a social impact incubator, to hundreds of women entrepreneurs in tech who simply refuse to deal with VCs as a result of the stories they have heard about the industry. 

Being pregnant, I could not go skiing that Christmas, so I had some time on my hands to do a bit of research. It showed that funds focused on women were doing very well in the US, that research from a range of reputable sources showed that balanced management teams and women-led companies do better than the rest of the market. And, it showed that in Europe, at that time, there wasn’t a VC focused on female founders. So it seemed like a perfect venture to pursue. The opportunity was vast and the timing was perfect. Hence Voulez Capital was born.

According to British Business Bank, only 1% of the UK venture capital is invested into all-female founding teams. What do we, society and government need to do to change these statistics for the better?

For me, this will take a generation to address. Mostly because this stems from the very fabric of our society. From how we raise girls and boys. How we expect girls to be nurturing and boys to be boisterous. How we define confidence (often mistaking it for BS or arrogance). How we, to this day, place the majority of the child care burden (and cost) on women. 

Until these things change, until there is universal, free childcare and equal parental leave, there will not be a fundamental shift and we will continue to live in a world designed by men for men and where a woman’s work and value are often unseen and undervalued. 

There is a beautiful book called Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez. It is eye opening and should be a compulsory read for everyone. It throws light on issues like this. Issues that many do not even think about but which dictate how our society, and businesses function. 

What is interesting is how these stereotypes dictate how we draw conclusions from the information we are given. There is another interesting statistic in the BBB report - that only 5% of decks that reach a VC in the UK are from a woman-led business. It then proceeds to conclude that ‘overall there are very few women that reach VCs’, suggesting that the issue is in their inability to do so. Yet again, the age old assumption that it is the women that need fixing to fit into the man’s world.

I meet hundreds of female founders in my work. The majority of them can but choose not to engage with VCs. The industry has such a masculine, aggressive reputation, where success seems to be defined by the amount of capital raised and by valuations and not by value created. It just does not match the culture of the businesses women are trying to create. 

This is exactly what we are challenging at Voulez Capital. We have gone back and reclaimed the heritage of Georges Doriot - the founding father of the VC industry - and his principles of how venture capital was supposed to work and we have put these together into #FairVenture Principles that we live and breath by and which we are about to launch into a #FairVenturePledge, together with a few other, like-minded, investors and that others can sign up to. Above all, these are principles that founders can keep them accountable to. 

This is how we change things. One transaction at a time. One relationship at a time. After all, investment is a long term relationship, especially in venture capital. You want to attract more women into it, you have to foster healthy, balanced relationships, built on trust and understanding.

What are Voulez Capital’s key industry interests? 

We are a generalist by nature so we look at a wide range of things. Fundamentally, we look for scalable, outstanding ventures which have the potential to truly transform the world around them. The quality of the founder is also super important and our relationship with the founding team is critical. We have walked away from ventures before where the idea was amazing but the relationship with the founding team would not have worked for us.

Above all, we love ventures that tackle some of the biggest challenges we face as a society and as a planet. We love health, sustainability and circular economy ventures, would love to find the right digital health venture, and are always open to ventures that change how we live and work. I am also keen on ventures that improve the lives of women and families.

How do you discover great brands you invest in and what would be your advice for female founders approaching VC firms? 

We focus a lot of our time and effort on developing and maintaining a very broad deal pipeline. That means actively reaching out to stakeholders and not just waiting for deals to roll in. Of course, we do get about 50% of our pitches from people applying directly to us and I am very pleased that we are now recognised as THE place to go to, if you are a female founder. We also run a monthly pitch clinic for female founders. This was originally designed as a giving back. As a safe environment for founders to try pitching and to get feedback from real investors. They have become incredibly successful events and, over time, led to some of our investments.

I always tell founders to focus on traction. No matter what biases you might be facing as a founder, based on your gender or ethnicity or social-economic background, as soon as investors see impressive traction, all that disappears. I also always suggest that instead of applying to hundreds of investors, one should find a dozen or so where your business would be a perfect fit. That means having to do research on investors, before approaching them. Make sure you fit their stage of investment, their industry focus and their portfolio. Plus, many VCs now have blogs and twitter accounts so it is easy to find out what their approach and focus areas are. Due diligence is not just for investors - do reverse due diligence on them also. After all, you want the right partner for your business, not just any cash.

What are you looking for in a founder you invest in? 

I look for credibility, passion, dedication, knowledge of what they are doing, a lot of common sense (which is not very common), ability and thirst for learning, and cultural fit with us and our values. I also like those that truly listen. I don’t expect my founders to always agree with me (after all, I don’t know everything and could never know everything) but I like a constructive, two-way dialogue with my companies.

Credibility can be demonstrated in many different ways. I like founders that are organised - it makes the due diligence process work much more smoothly. I like it when they truly know their industry and make strategic, smart choices. I once had someone approach me for investment and she did not know the three top competitors in her space. That was not a good start to the conversation. I like hustlers who leverage the resources they have available to them and not just wish to spend, spend, spend. After all, doing more with less is one of our core values.

Who are your three most inspirational female founders / female led businesses and why? 

Anne Boden, the Founder of Starling Bank - she is an impressive woman who spent five years building Starling before being able to raise any money at all. And then she raised a £35m seed round. What I said about traction beating all other hurdles? This is a great example of it. I love the culture of the organisation she is creating and her common sense, sensible but super ambitious approach to building Starling.

Tania Boler, the Founder of Elvie - another woman that is super impressive; I love Elvie as a product and really wish I had one of her breast pumps when I was trying to breastfeed my daughter. I admire how she is tackling some of the hardest issues in society and taking them out of the shadows and into the light. This alone will do a huge amount of good for the next generation of women. 

Anne Ravanona - Founder of Global Invest Her - she has been working in this space for over ten years, helping founders succeed. I now see a lot of people in this space who want to be seen as helping women but who don’t actually add any value. Anne is one of the people that truly adds value. She is warm and kind and super smart and dedicated and I am honoured to have her as a partner in crime in this industry.

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Website https://www.voulez.capital/

Social media: Facebook / Twitter

LinkedIn: Anya Navidski


This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic.