Power and the capital gap: Lise Fulland on why 9 of 10 entrepreneurs are men

Published: 04 March 2024

Text: Anne-Marie Korseberg Stokke

Photo: Angelique Culvin-Riccot

One wouldn't think that one's gender impacts your choice to start a company. Nevertheless, according to 2020 data, 89% of all Norwegian companies are started by men, and 99% of all funding goes to male teams*. Despite grim statistics, Investment Partner at Startuplab, Lise Fulland, sees positive trends. But nothing happens on its own.

"Historically, it's been men—white men—who have had capital and decision-making power and the largest network. We haven't had enough women with capital or in the room when capital is allocated. Changing this requires an active attitude and effort. To ensure diversity, you must go beyond the first circle of acquaintances and actively seek different backgrounds and perspectives," says Fulland.

She believes the responsibility lies with everyone, especially with successful men.

"They must stop perpetuating inherited patterns and become aware of the capital gap. Men still have the most significant power, and therefore, the opportunity to do something about it," she says.

After over seven years at Startuplab, she has encountered numerous companies and read countless applications. She understands that gender equality may not necessarily be at the top of a budding entrepreneur's priority list when trying to keep their heads above water.

"Starting a company is challenging enough, and it's both human and understandable that you want to team up with someone you know and trust. So, in the early stages, it's challenging to make gender equality a requirement. Still, in later recruitment, it should be a priority," she adds.

She challenges entrepreneurship schools at Norwegian universities and colleges to demand more diversity.

"In a 'fictional' company started as part of education, it should be possible to require diversity in teams from day one. They are often interdisciplinary, but still extremely homogeneous."

Different backgrounds are crucial

But why should gender be a factor at all? Aren't qualifications, knowledge, and ambitions enough to build a successful business? Fulland partially agrees but points out that differences in a team are necessary for progress and innovation.

"This is, of course, about gender and ethnicity, but also about a variety of backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences. It creates a necessary friction. Moreover, if you are going to build products to be bought by the whole world, it's pointless not to have a team that represents the breadth of the potential customer group," she says.

AI comes into play on this topic too, and Fulland is worried that technological developments may reverse the positive trends in diversity and gender balance we have seen in recent years.

"If the data everyone will rely on to make decisions in the future only uses historical data, including incomplete, uniform, and homogeneous sources, to train the model, history will repeat itself and provide answers from only one perspective. To ensure that we don't polarize even more, it is crucial to have diversity in all parts of product development and innovation," she adds.

Gendered risk assessment

We do see some gender differences in risk perception, and Fulland can confirm that some men tend to overestimate the potential for earnings, while women are generally more cautious. Such factors need to be considered when evaluating applications, she suggests.

"There is a tendency for women to be more cautious with capital, which has proven to be a good entrepreneurial trait and has been a significant advantage in recent years. At the same time, the notion that women are risk-averse is only partially true. It may be just as much about men having greater access to capital, a larger support system, and a larger team—making it more comfortable to take risks. I don't want to chalk it up to 'risk-averse women.' Most men aren't entrepreneurs either!" she emphasizes.

"Men must stop perpetuating inherited patterns and become aware of the capital gap. Men still have the most significant power, and therefore, the opportunity to do something about it."

Lise Fulland

Actual ownership

Fulland believes gender balance and diversity can't be just for show. It should involve actual ownership, enabling women to become future serial entrepreneurs and investors after an exit.

"Hopefully, with more female role models and successful female entrepreneurs who take exits, we can reinforce diversity going forward."

She highlights women such as Agnethe Fredriksen (Vaccibody/Nykode), Anne Lise Waal (Attensi, Aiba), Silje Landevåg (Get Inspired), Grethe Viksaas (Basefarm), Karen Dolva (No Isolation), and Marie Mostad (Inzpire Me) who have achieved great success with their companies and are now important role models.

“We need women to show that it's possible and that there's no reason why women shouldn't achieve the same as men. Just look at how we communicate with small children and how we treat girls and boys differently. There are still many entrenched stereotypes and significant differences in what we raise them to believe they can become," she says.

At Startuplab, the entire team is focused on promoting female role models and creating an inclusive and diverse environment.

"We are conscious of this in everything from how the premises are arranged to how we communicate. But we can always improve, and we are not finished. There is no reason why 100% of our future portfolio shouldn't consist of diverse teams," Lise Fulland concludes