Nine women’s stories on making it in venture capital

Less than 15% of Canada’s venture capitalists are women. Here’s how the business needs to change, in their own words

Pangaea Ventures’ Sarah Applebaum

Pangaea Ventures’ Sarah Applebaum: “It boiled down to luck and good timing.” (Portrait by Carlo Ricci)

Jessica McDiarmid recently wrote a feature for Canadian Business on the shortage of women in venture capital, and how it limits opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors alike. There were more stories to tell than one article would hold. Here are some of the top female VCs in Canada, in their own words, on how they got into the business and how it needs to evolve.

On breaking in

Janelle Anderson
Managing Partner, CTI Life Sciences

“I went to Harvard and did my PhD in chemistry there. It crystallized for me that I didn’t want to be a professor. The people who were professors were very passionate, and I wasn’t at all. So I went into management consulting and spent three years at Boston Consulting Group. At that time, in Toronto, it was difficult to get enough work in what I wanted to do, which was biotech and pharma projects. So I travelled to New York and Boston every week. This went on for months, and I became exhausted. One day I came home from working at a big pharma company that had the same type of elevator as my condo building in Toronto. I walked into the building bleary-eyed, went into the elevator and pressed the wrong button. I couldn’t remember what floor I lived on. I thought, This is enough. I moved to New York with BCG, and things really opened up. This old friend from Winnipeg happened to know a guy who had a similar background to mine, and we got talking at a party. His job in venture capital sounded so good to me that I remember saying, “That sounds like my dream job.” And he said, “Well, we’re looking for one more person.” The next thing, I had an offer letter in my hand.”

Janet Bannister
General Partner, Real Ventures

“I started my career at Procter & Gamble as a brand manager. Then I joined McKinsey & Company as an engagement manager. I went to eBay in Silicon Valley with the responsibility to help grow eBay from a collectibles site to a more mainstream marketplace. I came back to Canada with eBay. Then I launched Kijiji, and within a couple of years, it was bigger than eBay. But I was travelling all over the world and I had a young son, so I left and started a consulting business. I’d always had an entrepreneurial bug, so I joined a startup company called The Coveteur, which is an online fashion, content and commerce site. I was the CEO there for two years. When I was there, I met Real Ventures partner Jean Sebastien Cournoyer, who was looking to hire a partner in Toronto. I had never really thought about going into VC—it just wasn’t on my radar—but I really liked the team. I realized that I love entrepreneurs and I love working with a bunch of different people: I love coaching, consulting, advising. Venture capital combined all those things.”

Sarah Applebaum
Associate, Pangaea Ventures

“It boiled down to luck and good timing. I was finishing up my MBA at Schulich School of Business at York University with a focus on sustainability and responsible business, and a background in environmental science, and that really just synched up with how Pangaea was looking to grow their team. I’d had some involvement in the energy sector and clean tech through the MBA program, and I was looking for opportunities in the energy field. So we started having conversations, and the more I learned about Pangaea and the types of companies they were looking at investing in and were already invested in, it just really seemed like a great fit.”

Shermaine Tilley
Managing Partner, CTI Life Sciences

“I started out as a scientist and was taking a fairly traditional academic path early in my career. When I finally left that world, I was an associate professor at New York University’s medical school. I had been thinking about going back to school and doing an MBA. I was a bit long in the tooth, but figured why the hell not? When I finished my MBA, I found a job in Toronto at Drug Royalty Corporation. I had been interested in venture capital for a long time, but there are very few venture positions, no matter what sex you are. And the same teams of people tend to work together over many, many years—there’s not a lot of turnover in those groups. It almost takes a new venture fund being formed before there’s significant opportunity for new people to break in. Through my connections, I learned there was a new venture fund forming in Montreal, and I hooked up with them.”

On being a woman working in venture capital

Kerri Golden
General Partner, JOLT Fund, and CFO, Information Venture Partners

“At one company where I worked, quite a bit of the management team was female. When we were pitching in Silicon Valley, we definitely felt objectified and not taken as seriously as we should have been. I haven’t found that so much here now, because I have a track record. But I do feel like there is a bit of a higher bar. An average guy can probably do fine, but you have to push and be above average for them to accept you as a woman.”


“I have never felt isolated or treated differently because I’m a female. But there probably is within all of us a natural bias to look for people like ourselves. And the other thing about venture capital is it’s very much about pattern recognition. You see hundreds and hundreds of companies in a year, and of those hundreds and hundreds you have to pick 20 you think are going to be successful. Are they consistent with what you’ve funded in the past that has been successful? There’s a natural, unconscious pattern recognition and bias.”


“It’s quite competitive and sometimes a bit rough-and-tumble. It’s no different than women playing hockey or basketball: It’s a team sport and there are a lot of men there, and you really have to have your game face on and not be easily insulted. Sometimes you have to be pretty aggressive. I’ve always been the only woman on the board of the first company I invested in. It’s not always easy to say what you think, especially if more than one guy is opposing you.”

Genevieve Morin
Chief Investment Officer, Fondaction

“My own experience has been quite good; it’s been quite positive. But still, there is an old boys’ network at work there. It is very important for women to create their own networks and find ways to integrate into these boys’ networks. VC funding is definitely something that’s done through networks.”


On success

Frances Kordyback
Managing Director, Northwater Capital

“The investment that makes me smile most is Verus Financial LLC, based in Connecticut. Verus is an auditing firm specializing in reuniting unclaimed property (for example, life insurance benefits) with its rightful owners. Hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed insurance benefits have been provided to beneficiaries over the past five years, due solely to their efforts. Venture investing is precarious, but we got this one right, and it’s gratifying to know we helped thousands of people receive the benefits they were owed.”

Ela Borenstein
Managing Partner, Healthcare Fund, BDC Venture Capital

“My career highlight is being able to bring my experience as a pharmaceutical executive to startup companies—just the whole notion of building management teams, helping grow a business as it develops through different stages of its life cycle. I’ve worked for small businesses, I’ve worked for startups, I’ve worked for venture-backed businesses, and I’ve worked in public companies and large private companies, so I have a breadth of experience that I can tap into, to hopefully provide some contribution.”

Michelle McBane
Investment Director, MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund

“Being close to the technology industry, I’m able to expose my curious nine-year-old to amazing innovations that will be the foundation for the future. He’s already learned to code, design in 3D and print his creations—a disrupter in the making.”

On getting more women into venture capital


“Change will never happen until people in the leadership roles are ready and willing to embrace it. And I think that is starting to happen. I’m often asked to speak on panels or to be a judge in business case competitions or entrepreneur competitions, and I know the people organizing those events proactively look to make sure there’s a woman on the panel. That’s a step, just so the women in the audience look up and say, “OK, this isn’t just a boys’ club.”


“It’s about education and entrepreneurs. The people who know about venture capital typically are entrepreneurs. When you’re starting out in your career, you’re not going to understand the role of venture capitalists unless you’re in a VC-backed business or want to be, or are trying to raise capital. So I think it has got to start with that kind of exposure. The number of women who are starting to become entrepreneurial is increasing. That wasn’t the case even as recently as 10 or 15 years ago.”


“Women can do a better job of helping other women. Quite often, it’s women, not men, who are the perpetrators of neglecting to help other women rise up. Other minority groups have, in some cases, done a better job of helping their group rise up than women have. We as women could do more there. And I really think that if men gave 60 seconds of thought on a frequent basis to this issue, that would be the most helpful thing. It’s really an awareness that I don’t think comes naturally when you’re not living with that identity. You have to put in the work.”