Joanne Wilson is a startup investor and adviser based in New York who blogs under the name ‘Gotham Gal’. Joanne has had many careers. At 22, she led Macy’s second largest cosmetics department. Following on from that, Joanne ran a fashion company and spearheaded sales of a start-up publishing and events company in Silicon Alley, New York. Now having raised a family, she continues to be involved with start-ups by investing money and time. Joanne is founder and co-chair of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Festival with New York University and a mentor for the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Start Up of the Year’ documentary series.
“…People have different skillsets. Knowing your skillsets is the best asset you can have…”
Please tell us about Gotham Gal Ventures.
Gotham Gal Ventures evolved. I started a blog called ‘Gotham Gal’ in October 2003 with a desire to stay connected to the tech industry. Two years later I started to see new companies launch in the web 2.0 generation. There was one particular, Curbed Media, that I really believed in. The entrepreneur behind the company was starting to raise money and I jumped in. Fast forward and ‘Gotham Gal’ the blog also became ‘Gotham Gal Ventures’.
You work primarily with female led ventures. What made you decide to focus on supporting female entrepreneurs?
I began to meet with female entrepreneurs from my blog. I understood what they were building and in turn they felt a connection to me when we spoke about their businesses. I understood their businesses. Data shows that less women get funded then men and so I made a conscious decision to fund women entrepreneurs. I fund men too, but I really want to make sure that at least 70% of the investments I have made are in women.
How do men and women differ in their approach when they are setting up in business?
Women are not as concerned with valuation. They are more concerned with success at any cost. They are willing to do whatever it takes, no matter how long, to achieve success for their companies. They are also very team focused in a different way than men are. Truth is it is important for companies to have a good balance of genders. Different approaches to business makes for a better team.
Do men and women have different skillsets?
People have different skillsets. Knowing your skillsets is the best asset you can have.
Is this due to nature or nurture?
This is the million dollar question. I work with some women who did not grow up in the US and others who are the first generation of Americans. Their approach is definitely different. There have been endless sociology books written on young girls who go from the front of the class to the back of the class once they hit a certain age. It is important that their parents nurture their girls and push them to achieve at the highest level, particularly in math and science. Remember women were told only 50 years ago that they could only be a nurse or a teacher. We are evolving.
Please tell us about your upbringing. Did this affect your attitude to business?
I came out of the womb with a business head. Both of my parents came from entrepreneurial parents. My parents got divorced when I was in high school and that absolutely had a huge impact on me. I made a commitment to myself to succeed financially. I had three jobs in high school to put money in my pocket. I always worked. My parents’ attitude was that you are an independent person with a brain and are responsible for your own outcome. Nurturing was not part of their focus.
You’ve got a fascinating career history. Is there anything you would do differently if you could start all over again?
I wasn’t really given any career advice, but just started in retail because my Mom’s best friend told me I’d be great at it. I have been extremely lucky to have had so many careers. It works for me. I am not a big believer in regrets.
How has motherhood affected your outlook?
Motherhood is amazing. I tell women all the time, do not put your personal life on hold for your business life. I am so glad we had our first kid before we were 30. We can connect to them as young adults and still have energy for the empty nester segment of our life.
Many women become entrepreneurs after motherhood to take charge of their own destinies. Are corporate organisations getting better at understanding what is required to retain female talent in the workplace?
Being an entrepreneur after motherhood makes sense because you own your own destiny. Corporate organisations need to be proactive in keeping talented women. I believe that people in general are committed to getting the job done. Trusting your employees to get the work done around their families would be a step in the right direction.
Businesses are beginning to appreciate the commercial benefits of embracing diversity. What would you say the main benefits are?
Diversity is important in everything. Spending your life with the same people from the same background is boring. The best way to learn is by working with people who come from a totally different walk of life.
For women who do choose to go it alone and establish their own business, what are the attractions?
There is so much talk about becoming an entrepreneur. I actually believe that entrepreneurism comes from within. It cannot be taught. The benefits of building something that you can call your own is an incredible feeling.
And the downsides…?
The downsides are always that you do not succeed and the business never takes off. Yet failure is not a bad thing. We learn from our mistakes.
What drives entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs cannot work for other people. I moderated a panel a while back with four women. I asked the question that if their businesses failed what would they do next. They all thought about it and answered the exact same thing… I’d start another business. Then they all laughed.
What are the top three things a successful entrepreneur needs for their business to thrive?
Tenacity, a fire in their belly and the ability to listen (or at least pretend to).
The explosion of web based technology has undoubtedly shifted the goal posts for business. How can start-ups leverage the web and social media to compete with the huge resources of the established competition?
Technology is changing every business. We are living in a time where technology is going to shift how we live our lives, how we connect with our friends, how we travel from place to place, what we wear, how we live in our homes, how we use medicine, etc. The entrepreneurs with the vision to create those shifts in each industry will either build solo or find themselves a place to become part of a large established company that cannot change from within, but realises the benefits of the change that has been built.
What do you see as the next big influence on business?
Applied technologies around data that will connect big companies to the consumer.
How can women make use of blogs and social media to enhance their public profile and enhance their careers / grow their businesses?
Everything that is available to us now from social media to blogs is the key to acquiring customers and leveraging your brand.
Would you say women are more risk averse than their male counterparts when it comes to seeking investment?
I do think that women are more adverse. Women want to understand the pros and cons before jumping into anything. Perhaps it is our nature that we apologise too often. I’d love to see more women take the capital and knowledge that they have gained and give back to the next generation of women coming up the pipeline.
How has the emergence of crowdsourcing affected the role of angel investors?
Crowdsourcing is great way for people who want to invest in companies that they have a fundamental understanding about. Most people do not get to see the types of deals that come across my desk. If you are living somewhere with capital to put to work, crowd funding can provide that access. If you have been in the consumer products business your whole career and you get on CircleUp [crowdfunding website] and see a company that interests you then you can choose to invest, and if you want to you can talk to the entrepreneur and actually get more involved to help in the success. That is powerful.
What makes for a good relationship between an angel investor and the company (s)he invests in?
Transparency is key. Being honest about the great things happening including the bad things. Making certain investors part of the process can be a win/win for both sides of the table.
How do female angel investors differ in their approach from male angel investors?
Can’t answer this one.
What are the things you look for when you’re considering making an investment?
I look for someone who I believe can grow their vision into a meaningful company. It is about the person first and foremost.
How should an entrepreneur balance the need for an injection of finance and expertise with the decision to potentially give away an equity stake in their business?
Bottom line is if you take money, you give away equity. Remember zero of zero is zero. Sometimes you need money to move the business forward and everyone must be given something for that.
Please can you tell us about some of the businesses you have invested in?
I am a generalist. I am in consumer products, hard goods, technology businesses and even restaurants. They might all be different but fundamentally the foundation of building a business is generally the same.
Research suggests that women are more likely to become social entrepreneurs. How is the blurring of lines between for profit and not for profits affecting consumer’s buying decisions?
Giving back is always a good thing. You just have to balance the profits with the investors and of course if you are a non-profit that is a totally different business.
How do the next generation of entrepreneurs differ?
The next generation is technologically savvy. They are also interested in happiness first; finding a career path that speaks to them. I like that.
What advice would you give to women who are contemplating making a career change or starting their own business?
Be bold, follow your heart. Do something that makes you excited about getting up every morning. Life is long. Everything you do will be impactful as you move forward in your life and in your career. The dots always connect.