Listening to the 1%: women entrepreneurs succeeding in a man’s world

For every £1 of UK venture capital funding, all-women founder teams get less than 1p. Seven inspirational female entrepreneurs explain why – and say what needs to change


Lyn Tomlinson

Lyn Tomlinson

Head of Impact and Philanthropy

Hero image

Women are creating many successful businesses – no question. But in many cases they’re finding funding from outside the traditional venture capital industry.

Who gets what from traditional UK venture capital finance?

Source: British Business Bank – UK VC & Female Founders Report 2018

Seven inspirational female entrepreneurs – whose businesses operate in diverse sectors including food, technology, medicine and fashion – shared their experiences at a unique event hosted by Cazenove Capital.

Their comments and advice are valuable to everyone in the entrepreneur community, especially those business founders and investors involved in social impact investing.

But their insights on gender – everything from fund-raising to staffing, social media and other forms of customer engagement – were what really captured the audience’s attention.

What follows is a flavour of what was said:

What’s it like pitching for funding – to men?

Women make up just 13% of senior staff in UK venture capital teams, and half of the teams comprise no women at all*. So what’s it like when it comes to a pitch?

“We just need more female investors. It’s easier to explain a product that resonates with women to women. Until then I’d suggest we hammer home the problem that we’ve set out to fix, and be as visionary as we possibly can.”
Saasha Celestial-One, co-founder of OLIO, the food sharing app which now has over a million users

“It’s hard to say whether the responses you get are to do with being a woman. At the beginning we definitely got a lot of negative comments. We were told our idea was too niche and too hippy, and that it would never work.”
Alicia Lawson, co-founder of Rubies in the Rubble, a food waste-reduction business whose products are sold through Waitrose, Sainsbury's and elsewhere


Saasha Celestial-One of OLIO (centre) and (right) Alicia Lawson of Rubies in the Rubble

“The issues faced by mums can be alien to young male investors who don’t understand the huge emotional transition that comes with motherhood.”
Sarah Hesz, co-founder of Mush, an app providing local social networks for mums, now the UK’s number one social app

“One of the first things to learn in retail is to understand your customer. Your customer is probably not going to be a hyper-privileged, male London venture capitalist.”
Laura Lambert, founder of Fenton & Co, a jewellery retailer using technology to improve gem traceability

“I was talking to women seeking finance to grow their lingerie business, and they were going to a lot of men for funding. They couldn’t get across why it was so important to have perfectly fitting bras.”
Holly Branson, Virgin Group, co-author of bestseller “WEconomy: you can find meaning, make a living and change the world”

“When we’ve gone to meetings it’s been men in Armani suits. People don’t want to think about urinary tract infections. It’s ‘girl stuff’ down there – it’s taboo. I’m sure every man in the audience has an elderly relative who’s suffering from this, or perhaps their partner will in future. You’ve got to make them understand that.”
Jennifer Rohn, cell biologist at UCL and scientist with AtoCap, a UCLB spinout developing drug delivery applications with a current focus on urinary tract infection

“When I look at VC firms and see that whitewash of male faces I tell them it’s embarrassing. They should be embarrassed. I think most are pretty embarrassed themselves.” – Sarah Hesz

Crowdfunding: “If 80% of our social media followers are women, why are 80% of our investors men?”

“We’re a female-led business and 80-90% of our social media followers are women, so we assumed our crowdfunding backers would reflect this. But as soon as our campaign started it was completely reversed: it was something like 80% of investors were men and 90% of funds invested were from male investors.” – Alicia Lawson

“There’s a shame in asking for money – but we’re not asking for money, we’re giving people the opportunity to invest in an incredible business. It bothers me that we feel so worried to talk about money: if it was a male panel up here would it be a different conversation?” – Sarah Hesz

“With crowdfunding it’s a very public fail if you don’t raise what you are looking for. But it’s so important for creating momentum around wider fundraising activity. It forces you to be vocal. I just didn’t feel shy about asking for backing from anyone and everyone I’d ever met.” – Alicia Lawson

“We are worth something and we should be finding investors to back us. Getting more women to invest could be a gateway to that – and crowdfunding is easy and accessible.” – Sarah Hesz

Business with a social impact: first steps and subsequent growth

“When I was on maternity leave I had a typical female experience. I thought: ‘If I’m going to be spending time away from my child, I want to be doing something that’s going to be meaningful – and make me feel it’s a trade-off I can justify’.” – Saasha Celestial-One

“Consumers want to feel connections and communities. Purpose-driven purchases have never been greater. For a while we’ve been saying we care – but now we’re finding it’s picking up momentum with actual behaviour.”
Nicki Lynch, chief commercial officer of Beulah, the fashion brand providing employment to formerly trafficked women


Nicki Lynch of Beulah

“You need to be financially prepared, identify demonstrable customer demand, and have a blueprint. And luck. Not long ago food waste was not an issue. Now it is. You have to have luck to catch that wave.”
Madalena Hoye, chief operating officer of Winnow, which delivers food waste reduction solutions to businesses in 40 countries


Winnow's Madalena Hoye (centre) with Holly Branson of the Virgin Group (left)

“I challenge the idea that social purpose might grow more slowly than other businesses. I think the opposite might be true. We have a very strong environmental proposition – which means we can attract talent at a discount. The Press wants to write about us a lot for free. You can turn your mission into a strategic advantage.” – Saasha Celestial-One

Staff, customers, and questions of gender

“You talk about the boys’ club, and how if there are only men at the top women will have no role models, but we have a business where – perhaps because we’re two women running it – 90% of job applicants are from women. We’ve created an environment which is not attractive for men to join. I’m more excited if I see a male cv, because I feel we need to fill our male diversity quota.” – Alicia Lawson

“We’ve found it hard to find female developers. Because two-thirds of our users are female we think it’s important to have a gender-diverse development team. We were honest with everyone, but we offered a higher commission to recruiters if they could find us really talented female developers.” – Saasha Celestial-One

“If you’re lucky enough to have a store, make the most of it. Run events, get people in there and build communities. We staff with mainly women who are passionate about the things we are.” – Nicki Lynch

“Shout your brand and mission from the rooftops. We’re about subverting the existing bridal industry which is very whitewashed, heteronormative and misogynistic. We want to discuss these values and encourage customers to really ask where their products come from.” – Laura Lambert


Sarah Hesz (left), co-founder of Mush; with Fenton & Co founder Laura Lambert (centre) and biologist Jennifer Rohn (right) of AtoCap

Cazenove Capital hosted the panel discussion at its London offices in September 2019, organised jointly with specialist venture capital firm Mustard Seed. The event was chaired by Holly Branson of the Virgin Group and the panel consisted of: Alicia Lawson, co-founder of Rubies in the Rubble; Jennifer Ruhn, lead scientist at AtoCap; Laura Lambert, founder of Fenton & Co; Madalena Hoye, chief operating officer of Winnow; Nicki Lynch, chief commercial officer of Beulah; Saasha Celestial-One, co-founder of OLIO, and Sarah Hesz, co-founder of Mush.

Cazenove Capital and impact investing

Cazenove Capital is experienced in managing investments for individuals and charities in ways that align portfolios closely with investors’ values. Our approach uses active investment ownership to promote change, favouring companies with strong environmental, social and governance practices. But we can go further and invest in specific impact themes, targeting areas clients feel most passionately about.

If you would like to know more, or attend events such as the one above, please email

*Source: UK VC & Female Founders, a report by the British Business Bank, with data provided by PitchBook & UK VC firms


Lyn Tomlinson

Lyn Tomlinson

Head of Impact and Philanthropy

Lyn is a Wealth Planning Director and provides investment structuring, retirement and estate planning advice. Lyn has specific expertise in Philanthropy and Social Investment and is vice chair of the ethical asset class committee.  She is a Chartered Financial Planner and a Chartered Wealth Manager holding the CISI Masters in Wealth Management qualification.

This article is issued by Cazenove Capital which is part of the Schroders Group and a trading name of Schroder & Co. Limited, 1 London Wall Place, London EC2Y 5AU. Authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. 

Nothing in this document should be deemed to constitute the provision of financial, investment or other professional advice in any way. Past performance is not a guide to future performance. The value of an investment and the income from it may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amount originally invested.

This document may include forward-looking statements that are based upon our current opinions, expectations and projections. We undertake no obligation to update or revise any forward-looking statements. Actual results could differ materially from those anticipated in the forward-looking statements.

All data contained within this document is sourced from Cazenove Capital unless otherwise stated.