Women-Owned? If only…

By James Mitchell

As a man who has built a company which is 50% women-owned, 75% women-led and greater than 60% women overall, you can safely assume that I’m bought in to the benefits of hiring and working alongside women. Yet, as we grow, this critical dimension is under threat.

Earlier this year we launched BuildX’s first external equity round since my wife and I founded the company in 2016. Raising funds is never easy, especially as a growing startup in an industry – buildings and construction – that has largely been overlooked by the climate change focused impact investment funds whose values we affiliate with most closely.

So far so good, though, with around one third of our target already pledged and a reasonable pipeline of interested investors still weighing their thoughts. Yet, it struck me early on that none – that’s right, absolutely zero – of the funds we’ve been able to identify are women-owned or women investors.

Only around 5% of investors in the US are women, and a slightly higher but still low 14% in the UK. In Kenya, where such data is hard to find, it is likely far less still. As one colleague recently put it to me: “You’ll be hard-pressed to find many women-owned funds full stop, let alone in real estate and construction”. She has a point.

There are supposedly many reasons for the lack of women investing, including continued gender pay gap issues, distrust of the male-dominated finance industry, and lack of opportunities, as detailed recently in this Forbes article. However, whilst these complex barriers must be overcome I am left wondering what more companies like mine can do to be a part of the change too.

Being at least 50% women-owned means something at BuildX. It means a lot to me personally. The importance lies not in matters of box-ticking equality metrics but in the simple fact that women have had such a profound impact on our work and we believe their inclusion in our mission is so critical that this should reflect in our ownership too.

It makes good business sense too for women to be a major part of our leadership, as evidenced in studies worldwide such as this report by the Anita Borg Institute. Yet, much of the esteem and belief that drives my support for our decisions to hire more women and hold out hope for women investors stems more from direct experience.

I’ll start by mentioning that I’ve met and hold dear many great men in my life, yet, far more women hold the highest levels of admiration among those I know best. My Mother taught me many of the lessons that I believe make up most of my strongest qualities as a leader: to honour prior commitments; to maintain a smile in the face of animosity; to empathise with and be good to others but never to worry too much about what they think of you. She led by example too, showing what courage can achieve as she set out in her mid-fifties in pursuit of a new career and the one she wished she’d sought earlier.

Another mother, this time my Mother-in-law, is a daily source of inspiration for both my wife and I as we seek to follow in her entrepreneurial footsteps. She built a greatly successful large business and even today, having moved on, continues to show a remarkable skill for creativity, innovation and customer needs.

At BuildX, from our graduated Buildher team members to my fellow Directors – all women – I witness first hand the resilience, empathy and drive with which each leads and supports our mission. 

Close women friends, relationships forged at university and in other circles, have thrived in an ever changing world. Confident, talented and brilliant people like Tania Habimana whose work to spotlight rising African entrepreneurs continues to deliver deep impact; Charlene Chen who epitomises the balance of grit and empathy required to run great company operations and is currently applying her skills via Lantum in service of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine roll-out; Sarika Bansal whose voice has shone a spotlight on crucial and often difficult issues both personal and global; or my co-founder at Buildher, Tatu Gatere, whose unique ability to grow a team and nurture raw talent has been at the heart of the organisation’s success.

There are many others too, all remarkable women who have helped and guided me or been a source of inspiration. Included too, my wife and co-founder, Carolina Larrazabal, whose own leadership journey alongside me over the past 5 years with BuildX has shown me the way more than she will ever know.

Most of all, though, I’ve learned that it is the diverse inclusion of both men and women, and others of all genders, colours, sexualities and so on, that make the greatest things possible. Not equality, equity and inclusion for the sake of it, but for the best of it.

So, today on International Women’s Day and on every day, I #ChooseTochallenge every business leader to intentionally and equitably hire women and every investor to invest in women. I also choose to make a loud call for women investors or women-owned funds to invest in BuildX, and to challenge other companies to proactively seek out women investors to join their journeys too.