Suzanne Biegel believes in the power of people to bring about positive change. It’s what gets her out of bed in the morning and catapults her straight into a packed work schedule full of back-to-back meetings, speaking engagements, conferences and events. It’s whirlwind of activity that she admits is done with a sense of urgency. “I know so many extraordinary people and yet we’re falling backwards on so many things I care about,” she says with a twinge of frustration. Yet Suzanne describes herself as an optimist with a dose of realism mixed in.
This optimism is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the entrepreneur and investor founded Catalyst at Large, which has the goal of flowing capital to gender-smart investments and initiatives. These could be companies with women at the helm, or something that benefits women and girls. It's an area that Suzanne started specialising in about 10 years ago, at a time when people were asking questions about why there weren’t more females in positions of power, or at the table as investors.
“Building the field”
Some of those asking the questions were the likes of Jackie VanderBrug, an author and leader in the gender-lens field; and Joy Anderson, president and founder of the Criterion Institute, a think tank working with social changemakers to demystify finance. “We were finding bright spots of people doing great things,” Suzanne recalls. “Some people have been doing this without labelling it [gender lens] for quite a long time, but we really said, ‘this isn't named and framed as an arena.’” It was then that these pioneering women (and a few men) embarked on bringing together the actors, capital, products, stories and data that they believed would act as a catalyst for rapid change. It was, as Suzanne describes it, “building the field”.
A decade on, she admits that change isn’t happening fast enough, despite huge progress on products, relationships, platforms and awareness. Why? “It’s still too niche,” she tells Invest for Good. One problem, the investor believes, is that the financial products and services aren’t being incorporated into mainstream thinking and don’t sell fast enough because they aren’t marketed well: “The people in the system don’t know how to sell it, they don’t know how to talk to clients about this opportunity."
A bigger problem, Suzanne adds, is taking bold decisions and leadership: “There aren’t enough women in senior positions of leadership in the finance industry, or in the pension funds, the big allocators, but also in the family offices, private capital, that are saying, ‘yes, [gender-smart investing] is something material to us and we really believe this is it.’”
There aren’t enough women in senior positions of leadership in the finance industry, or in the pension funds, the big allocators
However, she does believe we will get to a point where investing in women is “normalised” and no longer has to be labelled gender smart. “How long do I think that will take? Longer than any of us wish and way longer than I would have imagined when I started all those years ago. I thought this would all be solved in five or 10 years.”
We’re sitting in an office in London as we have this conversation, one of the cities that Suzanne, an American, now calls home. Fittingly, the office space is designed for a community of disruptors and innovators, people looking to create start-ups to solve persistent challenges. Back in the 90s, Suzanne was one of these entrepreneurs. Together with a business partner, she founded IEC, an education technology firm that was extremely successful. In her eyes, it remains one of her biggest achievements.
When she exited the business in 2000, she found herself with capital to invest. It was then that she started looking to back businesses that could bring about social or environmental change, but she soon saw that women were often missing from the picture.
A few years ago, Suzanne became one of the first investors in Apolitical, a platform started by two “brilliant” women who had the vision to give public servants access to a range of free resources and content that would help them better influence public policy and do their jobs. “We just had an investor meeting last week and I cannot be more excited about the trajectory around the impact they’re having,” Suzanne tells Invest for Good. With a deep interest in gender equality, climate change and economic justice, the investor explains that much of what she campaigns for is influenced by public policy. “My backing a company like this is partly how I think we can change the world. I believe that their leadership, as women, is part of what is making them successful.”
But there’s no doubt that others see backing women-run businesses as risky. “Women are statistically under-capitalised and that’s a real challenge,” she says. Recent statistics show that companies founded solely by women only attracted 2.3% of the total capital invested in venture-backed startups in the U.S. last year. On a positive note, it appears that the trajectory is swinging upwards, with women-led funds becoming more common, for instance.
Suzanne thinks we need to use data to “bust the myth” that businesses run by women are not a safe investment. “If you look at the loan balance sheets of banks, women borrowers are not riskier, in many cases they’re much stronger,” she points out. According to research quoted in the Harvard Business Review, “startups founded and cofounded by women actually performed better over time, generating 10% higher cumulative revenue over a five-year period: $730,000 for women compared with $662,000 for men”.
If you look at the loan balance sheets of banks, women borrowers are not riskier, in many cases they’re much stronger
Then there are those who use investing in women to simply tick a box, inviting criticism that it’s tokenistic. Suzanne has come across people who claim to be promoting women because they added one to a committee, their portfolio or to a board. This is not enough, she insists: “No, we have to shift culture and systems. It’s about inclusivity, not just diversity.”
She sees many women who come into finance and quickly leave. “They come into a system that then spits them out, or it’s just not a place where they want to be.” For that reason, she adds, a shift must happen at the most senior levels, affecting culture, policy and practices, and we should be more willing to tell stories about “extraordinary women who are changemakers”.
There can be little doubt that Suzanne is a changemaker who has influenced young women, having worked with high-calibre universities such as Wharton, Oxford and Duke. At Wharton, her alma mater, she has acted as a senior adviser to the Social Impact Initiative and helped to bring Women Effect, one of her programmes, to the university in 2017. She’s also part of the Intentional Endowments Network, a peer learning network of universities, colleges and institutional investors. “What’s great is that all these past students I’ve interacted with are now doing great things in the field, it just makes me so happy.”
Suzanne says that she was herself influenced by Anita Roddick, whom she met in the last few years before she passed away. “She really believed you could shift an industry, and didn’t take no for an answer. She brought her whole self to the party and thought about the whole 360-degree view of what she was affecting ... She really inspired me.” Suzanne sees her role today as part “super-connector, catalyst and cheerleader”, one in which she gets to partner with people with her same appetite for action.
What worries her is that this action might not come soon enough for the planet. “I'm enormously worried. I think that both climate and economic inequality could be the things that bring us down. I think it's a sober time and I'm concerned. Amazingly, I'm still an incredible optimist, even in the face of that, it's just my DNA.” In her mind, something big has to shift in our economic system but, as an avowed “socialist capitalist”, she believes that it must come by working within the system and finding a way to disrupt it. “I don’t think it's going to happen by accident. There's no such thing as trickle down [economics], I just don’t believe it.”
Her drive is formidable and you feel that if there were dozens of Suzanne clones running around, it might just happen sooner rather than later. From an early age, she admits to essentially running before she could walk: “Yes, I was in a mad rush and I feel like it’s good to be determined, energetic, inquisitive and opportunistic, but you have the opportunity to have a long trajectory. It doesn’t all have to happen at once.” The advice she would give her younger self is to “play the role that you can play. Learn from as many people as you can. Say yes … Also know when to say no.”
And is she still learning how to say no? There’s a little nod of the head and with that she dashes off to her next meeting, for which she is already six minutes late. After that she is due to give a speech. In other words, it’s just another day in Suzanne’s quest to change the world.
Suzanne Biegel is an entrepreneur, investor and founder of Catalyst at Large. Visit her website for more information on her current projects and work. You can also follow her on Twitter as @zanne2.