Based in Washington DC, Sarah Chen is Co-Founder of Beyond The Billion (previously known as The Billion Dollar Fund for Women), a global consortium of over 90 venture funds and limited partner investors that have pledged to invest beyond $1 billion towards women-founded companies. To date, the consortium boasts 6 female-founded unicorns. Previously, she was on the pioneer team of a corporate venture capital unit within $13Bn publicly traded Asian conglomerate, investing in later-stage biotechnology companies. Determined to see more women at the helm, she sits on multiple boards, including 131 & Counting, a bipartisan effort to fete the unprecedented number of women serving in the House and Senate, encouraging more women to run for office in the US; and Lean In Malaysia, which she co-founded, a platform accelerating women into leadership in Muslim- majority Malaysia. Named Forbes Under 30 VC and Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, Chen is a recognized speaker, commentator and advisor on venture capital, innovation and women, having been featured on Forbes, Fortune, Bloomberg, Der Spiegel and at the United Nations, and is a celebrated host on the show and podcast #BillionDollarMoves. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Laws, LL.B (Hons.) from King’s College London.
In 2015, I became an “accidental feminist” – thanks to these women pictured, who showed me what was possible, if we all took a little bit of risk, dreamed a little bit bigger and worked together.
The grief of my late father’s passing was still very raw, and I was knee-deep in climbing the corporate ladder – crunching late, late nights negotiating on term sheets, determined to get our venture deals through, determined to prove myself as a strategic investor. On the many late nights, I realized a trend – that I was always the only woman left in our office: first, it was male-dominated to begin with, but the real reason was I was the only single woman in the team, and the other wiser women were expected to be home for their families (this was not the same for the married men!) I then realized another trend: that while we would have many decision-making tables I’d chose to sit at, these brilliant women who were engineers and scientists I had depended on, “would often prefer the “spectator seats” behind – and we knew that meant the keys to the corner office were farther away from their reach.
This became the focus of my conversation one fine night in KL with my friend Abir, who was, similarly fired up, even more so as a Muslim- hijab-wearing woman where the common comment to her from colleagues would be “eh, bila nak kahwin ni?” (when are you getting married?).
While this seems like an innocent question, it begs the thought that a successful woman is still, incomplete without a ring on her finger; and in Malaysia, this is still very much the reality.
We had enough of the double standards and what we soon found a new term for “leaning in” was what we wanted to do. We were on a mission: to find more role models and fuel more women in leadership. What started with just RM500 ($100) grew to become a movement of over 7,000 men and women in Malaysia that today, continues to do important work in advancing women in leadership. Beyond getting high-caliber women to positions of power, which includes getting career-breakers back into the workforce, Lean In Malaysia now extends our work to address the youth in their formative years; because guess what – empowering women, empowers men too – to fulfill their own potential unbound by societal’s expectations.
Today, fast forward 5 years after a series of serendipitous events, I find myself merging my two passions (venture capital and women in leadership) into what has become my life’s work.
The trends I saw of women at the short end of the stick extended to the world of venture I did more work in.
Even pre-crisis, the gender venture investment gap was worrying: less than 3% in 2019 of global venture funding to all-women teams, and 10% to gender-diverse teams. I care about this deeply- the venture-backed technology industry is already a key driver of the innovation economy in the U.S.
Specifically, 43% of U.S. public companies, comprising 57% of the market capitalization, are VC-backed; and this is increasingly true across the globe. What does this mean if we exclude women? What does this mean now, in a time of crisis?
I believe that by redefining where capital is invested, by sharing knowledge and expertise – we can change the dynamics of the world we live in.
I’m convinced that more than ever, we must invest in women. When we exclude 50% of the population, we exclude 50% of the innovation we could be benefiting from.