Episode 18

StrongHer Ventures’ Ankita Vashistha Is On A Mission To Back Women Entrepreneurs

With funding for female founders still dismally low, female investors aim to make a difference.
Ankita Vashistha

Shereen Abdulla

Podcast Host

Published

01.09.22

The Importance of Women Entrepreneurs

When Ankita Vashistha began making angel investments in Singapore, India, and the U.S. more than a decade ago, she was struck by the dearth of female founders–a problem that still persists today. In the U.S., female-founded startups still garner only 2% of venture capital funding.

That led her to launch her first fund in 2015 and StrongHer Ventures two years ago, focusing on early-stage startups that are either founded by women or cater to female consumers–the first such funds in India, according to Ankita. StrongHer invests in founders primarily in the U.S., U.K., and India who are building companies in fintech, healthcare, future of work, consumer, and Web3. 

Along the way, Ankita sharpened her investment skills by participating in 500 Global’s venture education program. You can listen to her journey into venture capital and how she hopes to make a difference in this episode of the Rise of the Next.

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TRANSCRIPT

Shereen Abdulla  

Ankita, welcome to Rise of the Next, it’s so wonderful to have you on and I’d love to start by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself. You seem like you’re on a mission to empower women founders.

Ankita Vashistha

Yes, I am, and thank you so much, Shereen, for having me here today. Super excited to be able to share my story, talk about my journey, and about the impact we’re creating at StrongHer Ventures. So very quickly, I’m an engineer who turned financial investor. I’ve been in the private equity venture tech innovation space for the past 15 years. Having lived and worked across US, UK, India, Singapore, I spent my initial career in private equity in London, focused on the emerging markets, worked at a $2 billion fund — loved it. After a few years, the engineer in me and the tech geek came out, and I said let me work with early-stage venture funds, working on new frontier tech, especially in the emerging markets and cross border between India, and US, and Singapore.

I moved regions, made a bunch of investments. I set up a venture lab, as well, called Wavemaker Labs and also co-invested in a bunch of startups at that time, which, today, two of them are unicorns, as well. So started my journey, investing in both B2B and B2C startups in Singapore, Philippines, India, Singapore, and US and just being part of the ecosystem as someone who was a finance professional then to being an angel investor and micro-fund myself. And that’s when I realized that there weren’t enough women entrepreneurs in the ecosystem, and it just so happened that from our venture lab at Wakemaker one of our notable investments was a company called Luxola, they went on to become acquired by Sephora. And Alexis, was an amazing woman founder who went on to head Sephora for Southeast Asia, and that’s when the whole thing came to me, and I said, “Why don’t we have more role models, more successful women entrepreneurs leading startups and building scalable businesses?”  And I looked around myself and I said, “There aren’t enough women entrepreneurs and there aren’t enough women investors as well, on the decision-making side leading these investments. So let’s change this, let’s address this gap, let’s make a difference.” And so, almost seven-eight years ago, around 2014/15, I said, “Let me set up a fund to invest in women entrepreneurs.” And that’s when I set up Saha Fund, which, at that time, was the first fund in the region and definitely one of the first globally, as well, to invest in early-stage women-led, women-focused tech companies.

I set up a $10 million fund investing in US and India and the idea was through our capital and platform we’re able to empower more women as entrepreneurs, employees, and as powerful consumers. So that did really well. Fast forward now, we’re on to fund two, and fund two is called Stronger Ventures, and it’s a much bigger corpus, it’s a more global reach. So we’re now a $100 million fund focused on US and India, but also certain global locations across the UK, Europe, MENA, etc., and Southeast Asia. But, again, the thesis is investing in women-led women-focused businesses but also investing in sectors that we believe empower and engage more women to get back into the workforce and to be independent, successful consumers, and creators.

We’re investing across FinTech, Future of Work, Health, Consumer, and Web 3.0 because we believe it’s really powerful for women to have access to health care solutions, tools/ financial tools. Future of Work is something which we’re talking about now, but we’ve been talking about it for years that where women should have access to work and upskill their careers from anywhere. And, of course, women have always been amazing consumers and with the emergence of Web 3.0 it’s a whole new ecosystem that can be built by women. 

I’ve been very passionate about funding female founders, but in this whole journey of being part of the women entrepreneurship ecosystem, I realized that there’s so many roles that women can play. We’ve also launched an accelerator program for female founders, which does exactly that, where we’re able to bring more women involved in the ecosystem as mentors, advisors, investors, board members, along with entrepreneurs to complete the entire ecosystem.

A Mission To Back Women Entrepreneurs 

Shereen Abdulla

Ankita, you mentioned that you actually started off your career as an engineer. How did you become a venture capitalist and why did you choose this path?

Ankita Vashistha

I was very fascinated by the intersection of math, science, and economics, always. And, so, you know, I did do my engineering and then went on to work in the software side for a year. But then, the economists, or the finance person in me, came out and I realized I love learning and I love being able to work with businesses or work on ideas and see how they can be scaled. So I like the business application side of engineering and the fact that through financial metrics we could invest and we could scale businesses — and I think that’s what really intrigued me about the whole venture and investing space.

Shereen Abdulla 

And can you tell us about your connection to 500 Global? You’re an alumni of 500 Global’s Venture Education Program, VC Unlocked.

Ankita Vashistha

Yeah, it was an amazing program. Something that I think — just being invested in US, in India, but also having a very global upbringing and network, I realized that it would be really amazing if I could really expand that network, but also learn from peers around the world because I was majorly between US and India, in terms of my investments, but there’s so much more happening out there. And also, to be very honest, when I launched my first fund — now, of course, everyone’s talking about diversity, but 7/ 8  years ago, it was a very, very new topic. So I didn’t have many peers in my ecosystem, in that sense, to talk to, or share ideas with, or collaborate, or co-invest with in that sense. Of course, the ecosystem is very big and connected in the VC space, but especially in the diversity space, there are very few. So I thought it would be a great opportunity to also meet similar peers globally around the world and learn from them.

And it turned out to be an amazing program because I also thought that, “Oh, I’ve set up a fund already. I’ve made so many investments as an angel investor and a fund manager, would this program apply to me?” But actually, it did and it was a group of amazing corporate venture partners, partners who had second and third-time funds. So, a lot of experienced people, a lot of global experience, a lot of networking. And it really added a lot of value, —   I loved the structure and format, so it just so happened, that it also — I think it was the first time the program went virtual. even though it was virtual, we didn’t feel like we didn’t get access to something that we still would have gotten if we were in person. It was a great mix of knowledge sessions, reading materials, but also assignments and peer group/ breakout group, etc. So it felt very real in that sense.

Shereen Abdulla

What stages do you invest in?

Ankita Vashistha

So we come in Pre-seed to early-stage; so, majority of our first tickets are in Pre-seed and Seed. Very selectively, we also do certain Series A investments and, of course, we follow on our funding until the company has raised a few rounds of funding or exited to a strategic, to a third party — we follow on. Like I said, we were, of course, a fund, but as of this year, we also launched an accelerator program for female founders, where we pick up 10 startups that we invest in, but we also accelerate a few other startups that we think are promising or are ready to scale, and we bring them through a cohort, a 12-week program. And this is all for our Pre-seed startup, they go through an accelerator process.

Shereen Abdulla

And how many investments have you made across the board?

Ankita Vashistha

A lot as an angel investor, and then having now — because this is my second woman-fund with my third fund, so we’ve made more than 100 investments, and I think you can very proudly say that almost half of them are women-led. And, of course, ever since I launched the funds, they’re all women-led and women-focused — that’s my main focus of what I invest in.

Shereen Abdulla

Is that 100 across the spectrum of your career as an investor; so, from when you were an angel in addition to the funds? 

Ankita Vashistha

Yes. 

Shereen Abdulla

All right. And you mentioned that half of them are female-led, can you talk to me about the other half?

Ankita Vashistha

Yes, so I mean, we’ve always invested in technology-focused and led startups, both on the B2B and B2C side. For example, in my first initial fund that I launched in Singapore, we made investments in two companies that became unicorns last year. One is a company called Uniphor, which is led by two male founders in the conversational AI space. They just raised a huge round so that they’re valued at two and a half billion. We also invested in a company in India called Licious, which became India’s first D2C brand to become a unicorn. That is also male-led, in that sense; but, of course, because it’s a D2C brand focused on packaged meats and marinates, etc., a lot of the consumers and users are women because there’s enough data out there and also the fact that, women do make family and consumer choices. So they’re mostly the ones shopping on all these apps and grocery apps, etc. But, yeah, so I mean, I think our focus, whether, I mean, you’re keeping the gender aside, has always been technology-focused startups, especially in the space of B2B SaaS, mobile, cloud, AI, etc., and then, of course, now we’ve brought in the whole focus of investing in women-led, women-focused startups and across these sectors; but, again, technology has always been a focus.

Shereen Abdulla

You mentioned earlier that you invest in the FinTech sector, Healthcare, as well as Future of Work — I’m curious, Ankita, are there any trends — or rather, what are some of the trends within the sectors that you invest in that excites you the most?

The Future Of Women Entrepreneurs

Ankita Vashistha

There are so many, but I think what’s really exciting from the perspective of women, especially in the female economy. I think, what I love about Fintech is financial literacy for a woman. We’ve invested in a few companies across payments and community, but I love the intersection of that — you know, tools, and there are so many of these companies that have come up with peer-to-peer lending or SME financing, and so I think that the access to capital or microfinance for women — the access to platforms that educate women on financial literacy and then also give them tools to apply that, and also be able to create their own assets and savings, really excite me from that perspective.

In healthcare, of course, I think there are a lot of cutting-edge, leading AI-led companies in the healthcare space that women are creating and forming. But also, on the woman-focused side, there hasn’t been much that has been done. FemTech is a very new term, but given the fact that we are half of the population, it’s astonishing to see the fact that there wasn’t so much focus given on women’s health and stuff around menstrual hygiene, or postnatal issues, and mental health wellness. And now we’re seeing so much about that. But, yeah, I’m very passionate about addressing those parts of it.

And, I think, on the consumer side, I think what’s interesting is the fact that given women are such powerful consumers, having women lead the innovation of products and services, led by women for women — led by women for everyone — I think it leads to us creating a very inclusive product and service from a very different perspective. So I think that’s very exciting, as well.

Shereen Abdulla

Ankita, you invest in female founders outside of India — how come?

Ankita Vashistha

So we’ve always had a very global outlook on our investments, and because I have worked and lived across these regions and we have teams based in both places. So we have a great network of venture partners, mentors, scouts across the regions. We’ve had a lot of strategic investors come in from both these regions, and just so happened that when I launched my first fund I was based in India and we also got funding from the government of India and there was a real need for this. To be very honest, diversity is a real need globally, and that’s when — I kind of realized that I’ve proven this model out in one region, and now it’s time to take this concept global because I think impacting and investing in entrepreneurship, and especially women entrepreneurship and diversity, is a global opportunity. So why not take our platform global?

Shereen Abdulla

And when you say both regions, that would be India and where else? 

Ankita Vashistha

The US.

Shereen Abdulla

And, Ankita, it’s been reported that you plan to launch a billion-dollar fund — can you tell us a bit about those plans?

Ankita Vashistha

the idea is that we’ve launched fund two now, but in the next five years, or so, we’re able to take our AUM up to a billion and really be kind of the global go-to fund for diversity.

Shereen Abdulla

That’s super! Ankita, thank you for your time, it was so wonderful to meet you, and it’s really inspirational that you believe in investing in empowering women all over the world.

Ankita Vashistha

Thank you so much! I guess I’m just really grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to really make an impact, have had the great support from the ecosystem to take my idea forward. And the overwhelming need, and positivity and the response from the ecosystem, and especially female founders, for what I’m doing has just been really heartwarming, in that sense. And, I think, it just really keeps motivating me to take this forward and grow bigger and better.

Shereen Abdulla

Awesome!

Shereen Abdulla

Podcast Host

Shereen Abdulla has more than 12 years of experience in innovation management and entrepreneurship in the financial and tech industries. She has helped foster startup ecosystems across the Middle East to bring together founders, investors, corporations and government entities, and consulted on corporate innovation. Shereen holds a BSc from the London School of Economics and an Executive MSc from Columbia University.

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