Trailblazing women of UK tech: Sarah Turner

Angela Logan, March 8, 2020 6 min read

Sarah Turner is an entrepreneur and angel investor in female-founded companies. Already we stan.

She is the founder and CEO of Angel Academe, an angel network made up of majority women, who invest in companies with at least one female founder. Since starting the network in 2014, Angel Academe now has more than 400 investors, 70% of whom are women. Passionate about fixing the lack of diversity in the tech and investment space, Sarah serves on the board at UK Business Angels Association.

“I was quite often the only woman in the room”

I’ve worked in tech for my whole career. I was often introducing startups I’d met to investors and to corporates as part of their innovation strategy. I had contacts in venture capital firms and I knew a few angel investors. I loved working with startups and eventually got to the point in my life where I had some available capital so I could start investing myself. I knew that being on the other side of the table and learning how investors think about opportunities would make me a much better advisor too. 

It’s very different looking at a business through an investor lens, so even though I felt that I had good instincts, I knew there were a whole set of other skills I’d need. So I joined various Angel groups in London keen to learn all about it. However, it wasn’t the fun and collaborative experience that I was hoping it would be and I was quite often the only woman in the room. It gave me the idea to set up a group specifically for women like me, who already were or might be interested in doing some angel investing together.

“I noticed something different going on when women pitched”

I also wanted to be part of a group that provided a better experience for female founders raising funding because I noticed something different going on when women pitched. There’s a lot of research around how women get asked different questions by investors when they pitch; they are more likely to be asked “prevention” rather than “promotion” questions. Research has also shown that exactly the same pitch delivered by a man versus a woman is more likely to get investment. I saw that in practice with my own eyes, and the idea of women backing women was born.

The investment landscape has changed a lot since I started Angel Academe in 2014. It’s certainly much busier than it was in 2014. There are way more investment opportunities, more female-founded companies and a lot more of them are fast growing, scalable, tech startups and should be an obvious target for investors. I think the investor community has grown too, so there’s a lot more activity generally. However, what’s barely changed is the proportion of women who invest and the percentage of investment going to women.

Angel Academe’s purpose is to increase funding into female-founded companies. We’re doing that by introducing more women to angel investing.

“I’m also often told that women are more risk averse. I don’t think it’s true”

I’m frequently told that women are less confident than men. But for me confidence comes from being on a level playing field. It isn’t a level playing field when a female founder pitches to a room that’s almost entirely male, which is still the norm at many startup pitch events. 

At Angel Academe events, there are always more women than men in the room and it creates a dramatically different dynamic to have it skewed that way. Of course men are welcome and lots of great men invest with us, but we’ve always been a majority female network.

I’m also often told that women are more risk-averse, but I’ve always pushed back against that. I think women are often more thorough and considered as investors and a bit more modest about their businesses as founders. I prefer that honesty, but female founders can be penalised for it by investors who expect all the hype. That’s something we all need to be aware of.

I made mistakes when I started investing which I think could be easily avoided if I’d had the kind of diverse investor network I have now and the experience of others to call on. I don’t want other people making the mistakes I did. At Angel Academe, we help new investors gain confidence through education and working alongside experienced investors.

“It doesn’t take as much money as you might think”

Women are less likely to be aware of angel investing in the first place or, if they are, assume it isn’t for them. I met a female partner at a private equity firm recently. Many of her male colleagues were investing, but she hadn’t even considered it.

We might not know anyone who’s done it, or they don’t speak to us about it, or else women think you’ve got to be like one of the dragons on Dragon’s Den! So a lot of the work we do is around raising awareness: it doesn’t take as much money or as much time as you might think and you don’t have to know everything, especially if you’re investing as part of a network. Yes, it is a high-risk asset class, but there are ways to manage that risk. And it’s a lot of fun!

All women should be investing from an early age and there are investment products to suit every budget and life stage – from ISAs and pensions and property through to high-risk investments in startups. 

Once you’re financially secure, you might want to think about setting some money aside for something a little bit more risky and with the potential for higher returns. A lot of startups fail, so you need to invest in a few to improve your chances of a decent return and, even if you have a successful exit, it can take seven, ten, maybe 15 years to see that return. You’ve got to be in a position to have that money locked away for a significant period and resilient enough to bear the inevitable losses.

“Founders are extremely valuable angel investors”

Founders are extremely valuable angel investors as they’ve been there, done it and felt the pain. It’s not just the money angels bring, but advice, support and empathy. Founders are in the best position to do this once they’ve exited, so have some cash, or at least the business has scaled to the point where they can take a decent salary and it doesn’t require all their focus all of the time. In the first few years, founders need to be laser-focussed on their own business and pay themselves very little.

To make good investment decisions you need lots of different skill sets and cognitive diversity. So as well as founders, we have people with experience of large companies and selling to them, experts in tech, finance, marketing, hiring, legal and so on as well as subject matter experts to call on. You don’t have to have been an entrepreneur to be an angel investor, just entrepreneurial!

“Angel Academe’s portfolio has grown by nearly three times”

It’s still early days for us, but overall, the portfolio value has grown by nearly three times. The industry average is 29% growth over five years so we’re beating that considerably. 90% is the figure often quoted for startup failures, but while we’ve had some failures, it’s been fewer than one a year, so we’re beating that less positive statistic as well.

Our portfolio includes Provenance, a blockchain-based technology that provides supply chain transparency. If a product claims to be free trade for example or organic, Provenance validates that at every stage of the supply chain. They started off working in the food industry, but have recently moved into other consumer products. They’re currently collaborating with Cult Beauty

Fiskl is another in our portfolio, it automates invoicing and expenses tracking for small and micro businesses, so companies that don’t need big and complex accounting software. It’s a product I use in my own business.

We also invested in a company called Dynamx Medical, their biopsy triaging technology screens for healthy biopsies at the point-of-care, with high accuracy – in 15 seconds 50% of samples are eliminated, dramatically reducing the burden on overloaded pathology labs.

“Getting more women to invest”

I’m on the board of the UK Business Angels Association. It’s a small trade body that represents angel investors to the government, so when there’s legislation that’s being brought in relevant to investors, or a change around entrepreneurs’ relief for example, they’ll be lobbying furiously to make sure the interests of both angel investors and entrepreneurs are represented.

They also raise the profile of the industry, promoting angel investment more widely and getting more regional angel activity going. A large proportion of the investment that happens in the UK happens in London and the South East, so they are working to improve this. And of course, they campaign to get more women investing, too.

Female founders don’t need to change. The change needs to happen within the environment in which they operate. It’s not as supportive as it could be. Of course, there are loads of good men that can and do invest in women, but we need to include more women investors too because their advice and insights will be different; and of course it’s a pool of capital that’s yet to be fully tapped.

“A third of all new entrepreneurs are women”

I would love for us not to be talking about gender in a few years’ time, that we could attend tech startup events and see a good representation of all genders, ethnicities, social backgrounds and ages. But we aren’t there yet.

That said, think about how far we’ve come and how much has changed. A third of all new entrepreneurs are women. It’s not quite half but that’s massive progress.

The barriers to starting businesses have largely been removed, but we need more seed capital targeted at women-led businesses to help them up the ladder. In the UK, most of that seed capital comes from angels.

“Investing is something you learn how to do, it’s not a skill that people are magically born with”

Investing is something you learn how to do, it’s not a skill that people are magically born with. Understand what networks can do for you and invest alongside experienced investors. It’s completely normal to take your time to learn and understand how it all works before you make the leap yourself. Join a network.”

If you’re interested in getting involved with Angel Academe, get in touch via their website.

diversity, Inclusion, Investment, Women in tech , , , ,