Smart Investing: Building a gender balanced portfolio

As we emerge from the throes of the pandemic, it’s essential that we help bridge the gender gaps in investments and opportunities. Here's how we're doing it.

Sanna Bedi, Innovation Fund Officer & Cecilia Chapiro, Investment Adviser, UNICEF Innovation
Smart Investing: Building a gender balanced portfolio
21 April 2021

In 2019, the UNICEF Innovation Fund launched its Smart Investing Initiative to build a diverse portfolio of startups, with an ambitious target of 50% female-led investments.

Supporting female-led companies is more important than ever

COVID-19 has had far-reaching effects on jobs, economies, and livelihoods. It has also brought to light the many vulnerabilities and dependencies that women, especially work-from-home professionals, have had to contend with. Measures to contain the pandemic such as shelter-in-place policies, and school and day-care closures have had a disproportionate impact on the lives of women. This has increased the responsibility for working mothers, who have had to balance childcare and remote-schooling while also managing the stress of their jobs and companies. 

Venture financing, on the other hand, has so far proven to be resilient to the economic impacts of the pandemic. Though it felt the initial strains of the COVID-induced slowdown, the global VC industry rebounded to close 2020 with $300 billion in startup investments, a 4% increase over the previous year. However, not everyone was able to capitalize on the VC investment boom. Global venture funding to startups run by female-founders - who trail men and face greater systemic hurdles in raising capital - fell to 2.3% in 2020 from 2.8% in 2019 (as a percentage of total venture capital financing).

As we emerge from the throes of the pandemic, it’s essential that we help to bridge the gender gaps in investments and opportunities. The UNICEF Innovation Fund is set up to invest in diverse early stage frontier technology solutions in emerging economies, and our goal to strengthen our portfolio of female-led companies remains a key priority.

Our progress to date

Since the launch of the Smart Investing Initiative, the Fund has been working to bring more diversity into the portfolio. Over the past year and a half, we have invested in 17 companies, 7 of which were female-led (41%), achieving a far superior percentage when compared to the industry average (2% - 9% globally).

UNICEF Innovation Fund female-led/founded investments
UNICEF Innovation
UNICEF Innovation Fund female-led/founded investments

As of March 2021, 36% of the Fund’s overall portfolio, or 18 companies, is composed of female founders. We’re still far from our goal, but we're committed to doing more to make it happen. 

Here's what we've done so far:

Over the past two years, we’ve tested a number of strategies to build a more diverse pipeline:  

  • Built a network with regional and grassroots organizations focused on women entrepreneurs
  • Invited women to become outreach ambassadors in their communities
  • Created marketing materials using diverse language and imagery that incentivise women to apply to our calls for applications
  • Conducted online Master Classes focused on tackling challenges faced by female startup founders while also celebrating the experiences and expertise of accomplished women across geographies and industries

We are happy to report that as a result of these strategies, the share of female-led startup applications to the Fund grew from 15% to 35% in 2020.

Furthermore, our efforts don’t end at the sourcing and selection process. We’ve also tailored our mentorship program for portfolio companies with Diversity & Inclusion sessions. Through these sessions, startups explore the implications of not fostering diverse teams and are provided with tools to develop inclusive strategies. They’re also required to conduct user testing with a range of users from diverse socioeconomic, race, gender and age groups.

Renewed commitment towards 50% investments in female-led companies

In the coming year, the Fund will: 

  • Expand our diversity standard: while gender remains a priority, we aim to improve our diversity standard to include people with disabilities, and broader age groups
  • Further strengthen our network: identify and collaborate with more ecosystem players supporting female-founders; and partner with other investors and funders who want to provide co-investment or follow-on funding to our diverse portfolio
  • Produce and share resources: launch a campaign with our female-leaders on their learnings and lessons as female-founders; and work with our partners and stakeholders to provide female-founders with tailored mentorship to address challenges unique to them

Know any female founders out there who need seed funding? Nominate them to us at 

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Read more about our portfolio of female-led startups and latest funding opportunities at