Sarah Noeckel has only been in venture capital for one year, but has already achieved a great deal during her time working in the industry. Previously at Backed VC, and Early Metrics before that, Noeckel recently started working as an investment associate at one of Europe's largest B2B startups investment funds, Dawn Capital.
What's more, in 2017 Noeckel launched Femstreet, her own community for women in tech and VC, which seeks to bring together female founders and VCs across different industries and from around the world. The platform, which started as a weekly newsletter, has now expanded to support women working in tech, enterprise and VC industries.
Read next: Meet the changing face of UK venture capital
Techworld was eager to find out more about the growing community. Below is a lightly edited transcript from our discussion with the CEO and founder last week.
Hannah Williams, staff writer at Techworld: I noticed that you recently joined Dawn Capital, so could you give me a brief background of what you used to do and your experience in venture capital?
Sarah Noeckel, investment associate at Dawn Capital and founder of Femstreet: I'm originally from Germany, spent the last six years in London studying in business school with general business assignments and then I spent one year in asset management. Then I joined a startup as the first employee, they're called Early Metrics, and they're analysing other startups through corporate.
That was my first step into venture - more like corporate VC or startup innovation because my job was basically to meet a lot of founders, analyse the business as presented to the corporate - and the analysis was always free for startups. It was a good way for the founders to get introduced to the right decision maker at a large corporate.
I was there for about three years and built up the German market for them as well, it was quite an interesting experience. I met about 200 founders in my first 18 months and only seven were female, and that was also in September 2017 when I started Femstreet actually because I realised that there was a big difference when I had meetings with founders and I'm the only woman.
I started to share a lot of content, and just wanted to help and support them a bit more when they were talking to other investors. So, while I was doing Femstreet I started to meet with a lot of investors in London, and also one of the early subscribers was actually Joyce [Liu] from Dawn Capital, she's one of our principals.
About one year ago I met Joyce for the first time and at that time they were hiring but I wasn't actually looking to move into VC, but during last summer I think Femstreet was growing quite a bit and I also started to feature a number of other VCs. I joined Backed VC which is a seed fund in London.
By the end of last year I was basically speaking to a lot of VCs to focus more on their Series A stage, and I also wanted to focus more on the Nordics and Germany. So at Dawn, I'm actually now on the investment team and I focus on Pre-Series A or Series A investment in Germany, and that's software only.
Do you work with UK companies or is it just Nordics and Germany?
We work with a lot of Series A software companies around Nordics, then around UK as well, which is usually how a lot of VCs work. So if you have a larger fund that dominates around Europe then you need to have different people on the team, so you need to be connected to the local ecosystem, otherwise you wouldn't be on top of the mind of the founders, or you're not going to be essentially a Series A business or working very closely with seed investors.
It's my job to be out there in Sweden or in Stockholm, or in Munich, Berlin and the ecosystem, as I cover that region. Since we don't invest in the UK only we have to have people on the ground, of course I'm seeing a lot of UK businesses but it would be different if you covered a specific region, you wouldn't have to be on the ground.
How exactly did you come up with the idea for Femstreet, what was your experience and what did you notice in the industry that gave you the passion to start?
I met about 200 founders in 18 months, and only seven, I actually have an Excel document with all my contacts, or less than 10 I'd say were female. This was about late 2017 where we're seeing an increasing number of women actually opening up about their experience of working in tech.
So it was a lot about things like the #MeToo movement which reached its peak in Silicon Valley, but I didn't want it to be about #MeToo at all. For me, it was more about the visibility of the number of women that are in the corporate or VC world already, and I wanted to connect those roles a bit more because what I see as a big problem is the accessibility of founders in the early days to investors.
Let's say you're a female founder that doesn't have any record of working in the startup world, you might not have a strong network of investors, so it's really hard for you to get the first touch points with an investor. There can be different ways to engage with them prior to when you actually start meeting.
I just wanted to build something that focused a bit more on content discovery, and then I think the second part about Femstreet was focusing on connecting people. The first year really was about discovery of content, and then the second year was when we really started to do a number of events offline as a way to connect people.
The third component is more the Slack channel, which is now a community to connect people working in the tech space, or female founders and investors that can make connections - so it's kind of removing the friction you quite often have in the early days, and investors can ask questions and founders can just reach out to them, with people connecting across Europe and even in the US.
It's kind of like having access to experts, that's the whole idea. I just want to support women in the early, very confusing days and connect them with people that may have gone through it and done it. We're seeing a lot more role models in Europe on the investor side and there are a lot of platforms that focus on women in tech and connecting female founders, but what I think is important about Femstreet is we have a VC angle, we actually have the investors who are part of it and a lot of male VCs are reading Femstreet.
They want to be part of it, and it's kind of like this huge barrier is lifted where we're seeing a second phase of talent now happening in Europe, where even female operators are coming out of successful European tech, women that are starting to set up new businesses and what we're seeing now is growth but obviously it takes time to be able to make a change.
That's really great. On your point about the Slack community of females, I'm part of that myself and it's been really insightful. You mentioned that there are women across the EU and US, so how exactly do you come across these women? How do you source the types of women that you add into the channel?
They actually find me. I've never done any marketing as it's always been my side hustle project, so it was more word of mouth. Actually, recently someone from the New York VC community reached out because she heard about Femstreet from another investor, and the Slack channel is only for the most engaged subscribers, they need to be a subscriber for some time, they need to have high opening rates as I can't just let anyone in and I also haven't let anyone in for about two weeks now because I think with 410 people, we already have a good number of people in there at this point at least.
I think with most of the people in the US, it was word of mouth. The VC community is relatively small, maybe there's about 1,000-1,500 of women investors from associated partner level currently I think in the global movement and VC community.
So I think it's a very small community and usually it's word of mouth half the time, and I think it only takes about 50 to reach a large number of investors.
That's interesting. I know I found out about it from the newsletter, so is there a way you particularly find the types of people to reach out to with the newsletter, and the type of content that you put on there that reach out to particular industries? I know you mentioned you've got people from the tech industry and VC industry, so how exactly do you gather the types of women that will need it?
I have the subscriber survey now, which means that I understand the audience a bit more. So I know that the majority of subscribers are female founders or operators working at a startup and maybe a bit over one third is VCs as well.
Also, about 50 percent of my audience are actually in the US, with maybe 45 percent in Europe and the others in Asia and Australia, so based on that I also have to curate the content to really focus on what people want to see.
Usually, it's very targeted to certain business challenges. So, people would send me their content, it could be an investor sharing insights about the current thesis they're having or it could be a founder talking about their family's experience. It could also be a specific business challenge about when they built their first customer insight team or when they first hired.
So, for me it's not just talking about general diversity topics or general challenges but I like to talk about experiences, successes or failures. I think how I've picked it is that different people send their things and I can select from there, and also I use Twitter and Medium as well, and if you follow the right people the algorithm actually shows a lot of the content that is out there, but I've reached a point that most of the content is sent by people while they're publishing it.
I've been focusing a lot on community and basically letting people create what Femstreet is today, which is very important. So it was not just about me creating a product and then finding people that I hope will like it, it was actually having subscribers and readers and then speaking to them and listening to what they want.
For instance, people said they want a community, access to experts and offline events so I've tried to do events and bring people together and now there are subscribers that say they would love to do something and in different geographies such as the US, or different regions where people would like to meet, so we're hosting a meet up in New York City in mid-May which will include maybe 20 to 30 people so that's already a good start in moving to different geographies.
What would you say is the main purpose, and what do you hope to achieve from the community, not just the Slack channel but also the newsletter and events?
For me, it's just so people have a support platform. It's like having a support group, because I think it's about having access to the right people. If you build a company I think it's proven that you need to have a good network, so I think it's very important from a founder perspective to connect with fellow founders and industry experts, and that's the whole idea behind Femstreet.
Obviously, for investors it's to have access to female-founded, diverse businesses. That's how I like to see it - founders can learn from others and share advice. For me, the goal is that it would be great if founders actually met up with investors following features in the newsletter.
So it actually works out because investors are reading Femstreet for the discovery of companies and founders are using Femstreet for the discovery of investor leads. My ultimate goal would be to actually see that investment has been happening thanks to Femstreet - that would be great.
Ultimately, since I work at Dawn Capital it's a good platform for me as well to stay close to the community and founders, and to build a support platform on the enterprise side as well. For instance, last week I hosted a women enterprise tech event with Crane Venture's seed fund in London and we brought together female founders and startup operators from women in the enterprise world, talking a lot about how to build a successful software company in EU, how to be an authentic leader, how to build a sales team and more.
So, I think it's great to bring people together and share knowledge and that's the whole idea of Femstreet, bringing greater visibility to the women that are founders or VCs, because I think they're quite connected. If you look at the German venture ecosystem for example, there's not a single female partner in a VC fund, not a single one and that obviously influences decision-making processes of the number of companies you invest in or what type of businesses you invest in.
What have you noticed since Femstreet has started, especially in the VC industry as well from your point of view? Have you noticed any changes, any improvements along the line?
I think in terms of the number of female founders the statistics say it has more or less stagnated, but I still say it's an improvement because it's not something you can change in a year or two; it's more of a 10- to 15-year problem.
However, I think the number of initiatives now by investors in the European venture ecosystem, what you see is that people are so much more engaged with diversity and people are working more closely to help them track the companies they're meeting, and better understand whether they're female founders.
VCs are usually more aware of the types of companies they need to invest in. Atomico, for example, has a rule that every company they invest in needs to have a diversity policy in place and from very early days, they need to be focused on hiring a diverse workforce.
I think there are a growing number of initiatives, Femstreet and Atomico hosted a breakfast together and Atomico and Diversity VC hosted a breakfast together in February with male and female founders, because it's often a problem for males as well when hiring diverse talent or being inclusive.
So, the breakfast was all about sharing some knowledge about how you tackle the problem of inclusivity and hiring diverse teams from the very early days, because if you start with 10 or 20 people in your team being all white male, it's really hard to make a change and you then have to change the mindset of people to be less biased.
There are also other initiatives by larger VC funds. Atomico is another example, they have launched an Angel Programme, it's a programme of six months I think where 12 angels receive funding and 75 percent are actually women, so they're trying to tackle this from an angel investor point of view.
They're trying to help more women be angel invested, because that is a problem, that there aren't enough angel investors in the UK.
I definitely think we're seeing increasingly more initiatives from VCs, I think we're seeing what more can be done but a lot has been happening in the last year not because of trends, but because people realise that they need to do something.
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