July 24, 2023

Women and Entrepreneurship - Interview with Veronica Mariani

Veronica Mariani after creating several successful Digital projects as an entrepreneur, decided that the next step in her career path would be to support other companies with the skills and know-how she acquired.

In 2002, she founded and then headed an independent media company that launched several digital platforms, known to millions of users. Between 2017 and 2019, she finalized 3 exits and has since transformed her company into a holding company, devoting herself to Advisory and Business Angel activities. Veronica, in fact, in addition to sitting on the Board of Directors of various companies with different levels of involvement, is part of Italian Angels for Growth (IAG); is Champion of some startups; is a member in the screening committee and advisory board of several innovation players (including Angels4Women, BHeroes and Doorway) and occasionally takes part in the jury of startup competitions. She has a passion for female entrepreneurship, derived from her own personal experience, and is a mentor for the YoungWomenNetwork association. Let's get to know her better.

Over time you have managed to stand out in your life and career path. Can you tell us how you handled the key moments that made you the professional you are today?

There have been several key moments that I would call "forks in the road," and on these occasions I chose to invest in the positive or the innovative challenge that presented itself to me. For example, in the early 2000s, when I started the company from scratch (a startup for all intents and purposes in a boundless prairie such as digital was in Italy then) or when, after exits, I dedicated myself to angel investing to continue doing business in a different way than before; or on the new projects I am now working on. In these (and other) key moments I always tried to follow the intuition of positive I saw, weighing the risks and the unknown but not letting them prevail. More concretely, I would say that two factors have been indispensable: organization and continuing education. Organization to better manage the work-life balance (I have since had four children) and to clearly convey the strategic vision to the team; continuing education because one always humbly needs to learn (both in content and in managerial skills) first from one's team but also from external supports.

This is why, for example, I took a master’s degree at the Milan Polytechnic in General Management when I had already been starting the company for a decade or so or sought out a coach at a time of important growth in the company, or more recently I took a course at Oxford University on Sustainability to explore these issues in more depth. I must say that humility and organization are elements that I still look for in the entrepreneurs in whom I invest, and I find the founders forward-looking who pose toward angel investors with an active listening attitude.

Women's entrepreneurship is a key factor in both economic growth and social innovation. What difficulties have you encountered over the years and how have you dealt with them?

Doing business, absolutely, is an extraordinary lever of social innovation and wealth creation. Personally, having been born in an extremely rich context of businesses like Brianza, it was natural to take this path when the opportunity arose. The difficulties encountered as an entrepreneur have been those intrinsically connected to the business path thus the creation and maintenance of a team, market fluctuations, and increasingly stringent competition (especially in a sector like digital). Coming to your question, as an entrepreneur I have not encountered any difficulties related to gender bias as long as I have been running and managing my company.

I would like to emphasize that I have always valued the experience of motherhood, which (from my personal experience) I believe develops problem solving, delegation and efficiency skills. Motherhood or fatherhood (if experienced actively and in a participatory way) are a productivity leverage for companies. It is true that I found it difficult, on the other hand, to include female managerial figures (due to a scarcity of supply in the sector in those years) and that in M&A the approach found in the counterpart still tended to be rather "machismo," at least in Italy.

As an investor I think there is much to be done: the pool of investable startups with female founders or co-founders is still absolutely a minority: startups founded by women alone in Italy are 10.4 percent and those with mixed teams 16.7 percent. What is more, they receive only 0.8% and 4% of funding, respectively (Angels4Women data, 2023). I think the change has to start from those who hold the resources so precisely from angels and VC funds because "Female founders need money, not more mentoring," as I read some time ago in a provocative interview on Sifted.eu. For my part, therefore, I have gradually increased my focus on female founded startups and have made personal efforts to raise awareness and support them.

As you mentioned in the previous question, in line with trends observed worldwide, access to credit remains one of the key problems for Italian women's businesses as well. Women often start their businesses with a smaller volume of capital and even in the later stages of the business life cycle they tend to use smaller loans than male businesses. Considering your experience, how can the credit gap be reduced?

That's right. A recent EIF analysis (Female access to finance: a survey of literature, EIF Research and market analysis 2023/87) shows the difficulty of female entrepreneurs in accessing credit (or obtaining it to the same extent as male entrepreneurs) in terms of both bank loans and VC. This difficulty, as the analysis reports, is undoubtedly due to a weaker attitude of female entrepreneurs to apply for credit and a tendency to underestimate the amount of financial help required; but it is also (mostly) related to several biases found in the interlocutors holding the resources. There is evidence that investors are more likely to invest in theses that they know and in which they find themselves or identify with; in addition, there is a cultural bias whereby there is a tendency to perceive as less profitable those businesses and markets in which women entrepreneurs are more likely to operate (caring, edutech, femtech etc). These biases moreover contradict real data where there is evidence that companies with mixed teams (and boards) perform better, as shown in a BCG analysis a few years ago.

In my opinion, the credit gap is closed by adopting a more inclusive mindset and increasing the presence of women in decision-making positions within funds or credit institutions. Gender equality must first arise in the players who have the financial resources at their disposal, and in this sense the work that IAG has been doing for some time is estimable. It is useful to do education on these times and to propose role models.

As you mention, in IAG for several years we have activated a partnership with Angels4Women: networking is in fact important as well as giving voice to those who have already paved the way in this field. What concrete actions could encourage women to approach the world of angel investing?

Certainly, spontaneous communication through networking and education on the topics of angel investing are fundamental: many female entrepreneurs or c-levels do not know about this activity, which has precise connotations and requirements. I approached this world thanks to a personal invitation and only later did I get educated, even participating in a course organized by A4W ("How to become a business angel"). However, the data are encouraging: the percentage of female business angels has risen to 27 percent in 2022 as the European average, and in both A4w and IAG new members have grown in recent years. The partnership between IAG and A4W is certainly also important to increase the incisiveness of investments and thus the relevance of our holdings: the role of angels, as we know, is very valuable for early-stage founders and therefore joining forces is certainly appropriate.