Gender Differences in Entrepreneurship

Voices of Founders and Funders

Download the complete survey findings or read the summary below:


The level of diversity in venture-backed companies remains extremely low, with less than less than 5% led by a woman and only 15% with a woman co-founder in 2017. In a survey of high-tech founders and ventures capital investors conducted by Illuminate Ventures, a series of questions were posed to try to identify barriers that may be suppressing the growth of these numbers. High-tech founders were asked about their motivations as well as their perceptions regarding key success attributes and barriers to entrepreneurial success. Venture capital investors responded to the same questions and were also asked to rate the likelihood of the success attributes being displayed and the probability of the barriers having an impact, based on the gender of an entrepreneur.

While the survey data showed that men and women startup founders think quite similarly about their entrepreneurial motivations and the personal attributes that impact success, it also revealed some very important differences regarding the barriers they believe they face and how VCs think about each group. The investors, both male and female, had quite different views of how gender impacts entrepreneurship than the founders – rating men more likely to display many of the success attributes and assuming that women are more impacted by the barriers.

Select Findings

Old Stereotypes Are Disproved:

  • The belief that entrepreneurs launch companies chiefly for financial gain is a myth. Only 15% of male and 2% of female founders consider this to be their primary motivation.
  • Common wisdom that you must have a STEM degree or be a prior entrepreneur to be a successful tech founder was dismissed nearly unanimously by current founders and VCs alike.
  • Traditional thinking that women founders are more risk-averse than men or are unable to balance work/family is dated. More than twice the percentage of male founders indicated that “Balancing family and work” was a strong barrier (31% versus 17%) and they also rated the “Need for financial security” as a strong barrier in slightly higher numbers (49% versus 42%) than women.

Investor Thinking Needs a Refresh

  • Male and female VCs think alike on many things, with both making assumptions about how gender impacts entrepreneurs in ways that are frequently inconsistent with how founders perceive themselves.
  • More than half of VCs assume men are much more likely to have attributes like “Prior start up experience” and the “Desire to scale a business massively” when the founder responses refute this.
  • VCs don’t seem to understand the importance of family in the entrepreneurial equation. Not a single VC selected “Gaining the support of family” among the top 5 barriers to entrepreneurial success, when it was chosen by nearly a quarter of male and female founders. Similarly, less than 5% of VCs ranked “Balancing work with family commitments” in their top 5 potential barriers, when male and female founders selected it at 6X and 3X of that ratio respectively.

It is Not a Level Playing Field

  • Male VCs ranked male founders as likely to be stronger than women in 4 of the 10 success attributes that were measured – with not even 10% finding women to be stronger on any. Similarly, women VCs found only one attribute where they saw women founders as strong than men, being “Smart risk-takers”.
  • In large percentages both male and female VCs saw all but one of the 16 potential barriers to entrepreneurial success that were measured as likely to impact women founders more than men.

A Vast Disparity of Access and Investment for Women

  • Pitchbook indicates that 4.5% of VC investments were in woman-led companies in 2017 and TechCrunch measures women as 8% of VC investing partners.
  • The survey data shows that male VCs, on average, see less than half the number of woman co-founded opportunities as female VCs. The ratio plays out in in terms of actual investments – with women VCs making 2X as many investments in companies with a woman founder as their male peers.
  • Over 40% of women entrepreneurs consider the limited number of women VCs to be a significant barrier to their success.

Full paper available here.