Fewer women work in private equity than in any other area of the financial sector. Level 20, a non-profit organisation, was set up to encourage more women into the industry and to achieve a target of 20% female participation at a senior level. One of the founders, Helen Steers, Manager of Pantheon International, reveals the progress made over the past five years.
In November 2016 hundreds of people packed into a ballroom at the Royal Automobile Club to celebrate the first anniversary of Level 20.
The event was oversubscribed, clearly demonstrating the interest that the organisation had aroused in promoting the private equity sector to women. And it wasn’t all women: senior men also attended.
It was a particularly memorable experience for the 12 founders who had to pinch themselves as it sunk in what they’d achieved in just 12 months.
The group, including Helen Steers, who heads the European Investment team at Pantheon Ventures and is the manager of Pantheon International, had started as an informal gathering. They all worked for different organisations, some of which were competitors to each other. For several years, the women got together to talk about work and juggling family life.
“We didn’t discuss anything controversial,” Steers explains. “It was how we coped with having children, how to manage things like business trips and promotions, presenting to investment committees and making sure your voice is heard. You could think of us as a group of co-mentors.”
Target of 20% senior women
Because private equity firms tend to be small – some have only 20-30 employees – in general, there is a lack of mentoring programmes in the industry. This fact, together with more and more women asking to join the group, encouraged them to set up Level 20 in 2015. The name reflects the aim of reaching a level of 20% of senior women in private equity.
In the first year, the 12 founders funded the organisation themselves and charged members a small annual subscription. But then they decided to go bigger, hire a permanent team and seek sponsorship. Level 20 is a non-profit organisation and now has 58 private equity firms as sponsors. They range from small venture firms to big buyout organisations.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t only get money to help fund our activities but that somebody very senior, ideally the managing partner of a firm, would sign up to be the ambassador or point person,” says Steers. “As a result, we’ve got some really big names in the private equity industry.”
There are four key aims: mentoring, education, research and networking.
The mentoring programme started with 23 pairs – 23 mentors and 23 mentees. Over the last five years the numbers have increased, currently standing at 65 pairs in the UK alone, and across Europe, including the UK, 145 pairs.
“It’s done in a very professional way,” Steers points out. “We’ve got a couple of head-hunters that help with it and two volunteers, plus we are looped in with the HR network in the industry. It’s important to get the pairings right. You have to make sure that the mentor and mentee are not from competitors and that the chemistry is right. The mentees and mentors have to sign up, not to a charter exactly, but a set of rules for both.”
There are events – currently held virtually – to enable the mentors and mentees to get together and share what they’ve learned.
The mentoring programme is going from strength to strength, with chapters in many European countries.
Diversity is better for business
Education is all about supporting the over 2,000 members in areas such as , managing their careers, handling negotiations, making a more powerful impact and returning to work after having children.
Level 20 has been educating the powers that be in the industry on the importance of diversity, and in selling the idea to potential sponsors. As Steers argues: “You’ve got to be good to succeed in this industry. Unless you get great performance in your funds, you’re not going to raise more money in future. And one way to get good performance is to have more diversity.
“When investment professionals meet portfolio companies, the management teams are very diverse. They come from different socio-economic, racial and cultural backgrounds. It would be best if you interfaced with a broad range of people. The private equity firms now realise they need to have a diverse set of people in investment teams so they can connect better with their portfolio companies and make better investment decisions.”
The research thread at Level 20 is about tackling the lack of studies about women in private equity. Several projects have been completed , some in collaboration with industry bodies and universities such as Cambridge. .
An important factor about Level 20 is that it’s not confined to women but is open to anybody working in the sector. While all the mentees are women, the mentors are split between men and women.
Women on board
Steers’ employer Pantheon has bucked the trend in private equity. It was founded in 1982 by two men and a woman. Having a female at the top level made it easier to recruit more women, and the firm’s investment committee is made up of 40% women. Women are heading up the US and European investment teams, China, infrastructure and investment structuring. Plus, there are female partners in charge of key client relationships.
Having originally trained as an engineer, Steers has learned how to tough it out in a man’s world. However, employers have, on the whole, supported her aspirations, including encouraging her to do an MBA to enable her to move into management.
It was while working as head of mergers and acquisitions for a small business in Montreal that she saw a newspaper advert for a venture capitalist. An engineering degree, an MBA and mergers and acquisitions experience were the main requirements.
“I didn’t know what venture capital was because, in those days, they didn’t teach it at business school,” Steers recalls. “Nowadays, venture capital, private equity and entrepreneurship are on every business school agenda.”
In all the firms she’s worked for, she has been fortunate enough to receive mentoring/sponsorship.
In it for the long term
What makes private equity so attractive? “It’s a brilliant career for a woman,” Steers enthuses. “It combines so many different skills. It’s helpful to have a STEM background, but it’s also a relationship business. You’ve got to like people and numbers and juggle lots of different things. It’s like doing a whole bunch of projects all at the same time.
“It’s absolutely a career that women ought to think about and be good at. We do a lot of outreach into universities and business schools, and I’ve signed up to Speakers for Schools to speak to sixth form kids about investment as a career.”
In the meantime, Level 20 continues to attract sponsors as firms increasingly recognise that the lack of women is an issue.
Steers sums up: “We would love to do more. Have more research, more pairs being mentored, run more events. We’ve gone through succession at the Level 20 Board and executive level so we’re doing everything we can to set this up for the long term.”