A woman sitting at a desk with a laptop.


Supporting female founders: how reaching out helps the best startups to thrive

23 July 2020

How can corporations better support female founders? We spoke to Mariquit Corcoran, Head of Barclays Ventures US, and Ben Davey, CEO of Barclays Ventures and Group Head of Innovation, about why a lack of gender diversity is holding back innovation – and why the bank is reaching out to new talent to allow the best startups to thrive.

The data around investment into female-founded start-ups paints a bleak picture. In the UK just 11.4% of total equity investment goes to these companies, and in the US only 3% of venture capital funding goes to all-female founder teams.

This is not because female founders lack confidence, hustle, or great ideas. In the past, biases have been the issue, which in turn have caused women to lose confidence in large organisations, including Barclays.

“We realised that most of the graduates of the Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars – which supports promising fintech startups – were male founders in the past because women were not applying to the programme in the first place,” says Mariquit Corcoran, Head of Barclays Ventures US and the Global Rise Fintech Platform.

I make it my personal commitment to connect with as many female founders as possible, to understand their story and how I can support them

Mariquit Corcoran

Head of Barclays Ventures US

Two women talking to each other at a Barclays Female Founders Forum event.

As a progressive, future-looking organisation, we need to be reflective of the society in which we live,” adds Ben Davey, CEO of Barclays Ventures and Group Head of Innovation. “We are working hard to address all different types of inequality and the ‘gender gap’ is one of the key areas we’re focused on.”

Networking is key

How can corporations work towards resolving these issues? “One way we are addressing this is by reaching out to female founders, and being transparent about the opportunities we can offer,” says Corcoran.

As women can be excluded from the social networks of business leaders, she says a more dynamic approach is needed to ensure that all founders, regardless of gender, can make the connections they need to succeed.

“As a female leader in a large global corporation I make it my personal commitment to connect with as many female founders as possible, to understand their story and how I can support them,” she explains. “This could mean helping them join an established network or build an informal one, by introducing them to people I know – whether they are other industry leaders, potential investors or other accomplished female founders.”

Reaching out

Once a network is established, it’s much easier for female founders to have a sense of the different options available.

Barclays is well versed in providing opportunities for small businesses to grow. As well as the Rise community, aimed at fintech companies, the bank also has a nationwide network of Eagle Labs, which supports businesses across many different sectors. These networks have continued to operate during the coronavirus pandemic and established virtual channels which have seen significant engagement.

Participants at a Barclays Female Founders Forum roundtable event.

We’re making a clear statement of intent that truly resonates with female founders

Ben Davey

CEO of Barclays Ventures and Group Head of Innovation

“Through both these networks, residents have access to wide-ranging opportunities,” says Davey. “We offer learning, training, mentoring, and access to events aimed at giving founders visibility with industry leaders who can help them on their journey. My advice is to take advantage of these as much as possible.”

“But we know creating the opportunities is sometimes only half of the job,” adds Corcoran. “We realise that in a male-dominated environment, women can sometimes be reluctant to put themselves out there. When we identify female-led companies that could be a good fit for our programmes, we recruit them and engage early.”

When choosing which start-ups to work with, Corcoran says the Barclays team considers a number of factors – from the business proposition to the passion and expertise of the founder. “But the most important factor,” she says, “is their readiness to listen and take feedback on board. We often find female leaders are especially strong in this regard.”

Her driven approach is paying off. In the past year the accelerator programmes have had their highest ever numbers of female participants.

Taking action to support female founders

Barclays’ experts not only give these entrepreneurs the guidance they need to secure investment, but also offer financial backing for their businesses.

Corcoran says the bank is proud to have invested in a number of female-led companies that graduated from the Barclays Accelerator. But, crucially, it doesn’t want to restrict its focus to established startups. “Our focus is also shifting to those women who have great ideas – but don’t have yet the means to bring them to fruition,” says Davey.

Last year, in New York, the bank launched the Female Innovators Lab, in partnership with venture investment platform Anthemis, to reach this group of founders.

The Lab helps bridge the gender funding gap by giving participants the resources, capital, networks and mentorship required to develop a financial services company and bring it to its first round of fundraising.

“We have scouted for women to apply and have been very clear around how we can help them get ready for the journey ahead,” says Corcoran, who is Executive Sponsor for the Lab. And, despite only launching in late 2019, the Lab helped its first business secure pre-seed investment at the start of 2020.

A similar initiative is in store in the UK too, through a partnership with Barclays’ Female Founders Forum – a network which brings together the women behind inspiring and innovative businesses.

What next?

Although the pace of change across the sector remains too slow, says Corcoran, programmes that support female-led businesses will be a crucial way of ensuring that women are given an equal chance of succeeding as men ­– and that the best founders and startups are given the opportunity to thrive.

“This is the right thing to do ethically, and is also key to our innovation goals,” says Davey, who is also the Co-Founder of the Barclays Gender Task Force. “Our programmes are having an impact, and so are Barclays’ wider efforts. We’re making a clear statement of intent that truly resonates with female founders.”