How Wharton Alumnae Founders & Funders (WAFFA) Came to Be
These female entrepreneurs saw large gender-based gaps in the startup ecosystem — and set out to address them.
Alice Zhang and Jarah Euston shared a surprising, but all too common, experience while attending a large San Francisco angel investment conference in 2018. At that point, the startup world appeared to be on the cusp of change. Groups like All Raise and Women Who Tech had been carving out inroads for women and driving awareness around the need for systems of support for female-founded startups.
But at that conference, Alice, who was launching a wellness soup line, and Jarah, who was building a B2B data company, only saw a sea of smartly accoutered men in their best Trunk Club business casual. Dotting the scene, an occasional set of earrings would pop — a woman — maybe one out of a 100 people. Alice doubled back to the lobby to take a call, and observed sponsor booths showcasing an array of banking, tech, and legal services for the startup community, all represented by men. Looking to the stage, where a pitch competition was about to kick off, Alice watched five male founders pull up chairs. Meanwhile, at stage left a panel of male investors were setting up tables. The vestibule housed a group of 10 to 15 startups that had won “featured” status and erected their displays. All run by men.
As they compared notes, Jarah grew increasingly curious about the demographics at this conference, particularly as their experience stood in sharp relief against the backdrop of a social zeitgeist promoting women. Was this an anecdotal experience? Were there structural issues at play? Were women holding themselves back from entrepreneurial pursuits? Most importantly, what could be done to facilitate access to resources for women in the startup ecosystem?
Looking at the Numbers
Digging into PitchBook’s university reports for the University of Pennsylvania, Jarah found that in 2018, only 13% of founders from the university were women. Even more surprisingly, of the venture funding raised by Penn founders, only 6% went to women.
This disparity didn’t make sense. Education was supposed to be the great equalizer. So what could account for this lag in the financing of women?
The 2020 numbers weren’t much better. Both female founder representation and the amount of venture capital raised by women had only gone up one percentage point. Other universities, including Harvard and Stanford, revealed similar trends. It appeared that women who graduated from top schools boasting the world’s most powerful alumni networks were not benefitting from those networks to the same degree men were. There had to be a reason — and a solution.
Alice and Jarah set out to speak with other female founders, and sent out an email to a large group in their hometown of San Francisco. The response was overwhelming: every woman described similar challenges with access to capital. The women organized a brunch to discuss the problem, and the tea was spilled: Networks, resources, support, even the ability to walk into a pitch and be treated like a founder rather than a hobbyist — these were issues for everyone. “It’s surprisingly rewarding when you find out that it’s not just you,” Alice recalled.
Shannon Grant, a startup investor and now WAFFA’s co-president, had experienced a parallel trend. Shannon often interviewed early stage founders in her venture capital work. She would always close with the question, “What challenge keeps you up at night?”
“Male founders typically replied with concerns related to vertical growth and scaling,” Shannon said, “but nine out of 10 women expressed concerns around how they’d find the time to keep bootstrapping as their struggle to raise funding dragged on.” Time and again, Shannon saw women bootstrapping far past the traction point where their male counterparts were closing seed and A-series rounds of funding. “Men tend to receive funding based on their company’s potential, while women raise money based on traction.”
The challenges women faced were also not just external. Sometimes the pressure not to go for it comes from womens’ own social patterning. Shannon recalled a conversation where she asked to join a female investor friend in funding her portfolio of early stage startups. But her friend’s primary concern was about mixing business with friendship. “Why, though?” Shannon mused. “Men go into business with friends all the time! Even if they lose money on a deal, it’s not an issue.”
Jarah recalled hesitating to bring her daughter’s girl scout cookies to a female founders’ dinner, even though she was on deadline with her kid to sell the cookies. It was a small thing, yet felt self-promotional to her — a sentiment many women have echoed when it comes to asking peers for support.
There is no shortage of challenges –both external roadblocks and internal pressures — that have hindered women from excelling in the startup world. But now, a group of them wanted to do something different about it. Thus, the Wharton Alumnae Founders and Funders Association (WAFFA) was born.
WAFFA’s Reason for Being
Alice and Jarah started the effort to bring WAFFA to life to address issues like a lack of networks that facilitate access to critical resources, as well as the doubt and hesitation that often hinders women from exercising self-promotion in pursuing all available resources.
WAFFA sought to create a space to foster growth for female founders, accelerate their access to capital, and provide a pipeline of talent to female investors.
When they brought this effort to Wharton’s attention, the Office of Alumni Affairs immediately got on board. With the help of Kelly Lauersen, Senior Associate Director, Global Clubs at The Wharton School, and the rest of the administration team, WAFFA became official, and joined the alumni network family of organizations.
It was now time to build the team. Caroline Dahlöf, WAFFA co-president, said, “What got me interested in WAFFA was its mission to advance female founders and funders. But the reason I’ve stayed,” she continued, “is for the incredible women I work with on the leadership team and the impact we are making on our community.” All the women involved knew that WAFFA’s mission would require large-scale initiatives to provide mentorship, community, value-adding partnerships, and tactical support. It would require commitment.
WAFFA Going Forward
Today, WAFFA has grown into a community that seeks to help its members face both internal and external challenges.
Speakers including Andy Rachleff, the CEO of Wealthfront and co-founder of Benchmark Capital, Steve Blank, “father” of modern entrepreneurship and the Lean Startup Movement, and Judith Rodin, chair of the Rockefeller Foundation, represent a sampling of the professional caliber that WAFFA has attracted to offer guidance to members. Caroline observes that the startup ecosystem is primed for change. “WAFFA didn’t even need introductions to these speakers; they all responded to cold emails to support our mission.”
An ethos of giving and sessions like the “5-Minute Favor” have encouraged women to step up and ask the group for what they need, whether it’s a subject matter expert, a wholesale buyer, a brand partner, or an investor. The women are finding that they are consistently met with support, advice, and most importantly — solutions.
In the future, WAFFA hopes to offer a roadmap that other alumni organizations, venture funds, and women’s groups can replicate as they seek to create value within their own portfolios and communities.
The ultimate aim of WAFFA, within the organization and beyond, is to ensure that every female entrepreneur feels if she has the ambition and does the work, there’s no reason she can’t build and run a billion-dollar company.
“Unlike in the startup and fundraising community at large,” Jarah said, “we’re going to take the call and respond to that email. We won’t make a woman jump through a thousand hoops just to prove she’s worthy of being heard. At WAFFA, we default to the assumption that women can do it.”
Acknowledgments: A number of people within the Wharton administration and beyond provided critical support in helping us establish this organization. WAFFA wouldn’t be where it is without the support of Professor Karl Ulrich, Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship at Wharton; Trang Pham, the Director of the Penn Venture Lab; Claire Leinweber, then the Managing Director of Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship; Gerald Niesar, Wharton alumnus and Partner at Niesar & Vestal LLP; Taylor Durham, Associate Director of Communications at Wharton’s Venture Lab; and the tireless advocacy of Kelly Lauersen, Wharton’s Senior Associate Director, Global Clubs.