Unilever vows 50% of the startups it works with will be female-led by 2023

Unilever Foundry commits to working with more female-founded startups

Unilever has committed to increasing the number of female-founded startups it invests in. Right now, just 23% of its investment goes to female-led businesses; by 2023 it wants that to be 50%.

Unilever VP of marketing Aline Santos used a keynote speech at Mobile World Congress today (27 February) to announce its intention to shift the dial.

Much of the FMCG company’s investment into startups comes via its incubator programme Unilever Foundry, which was set up four years ago. Since then it has worked with almost 10,000 startups.

Though Unilever is ahead of the curve in comparison to global statistics, which suggest just 17% of startups are founded by women, Santos is “not happy” with the current ratio.

Speaking to The Drum after her presentation, Santos described the gender disparity in the startup community as an “epidemic problem”.

“I thought at least in this new industry of startups and entrepreneurs, where there are more young people, we would have less of a problem,” she said.

“It was a big shock [that wasn’t the case] and made me want to have a look at what we were doing ourselves and understand what’s going on.”

Unilever commissioned a study into startups in the US, UK, India and Singapore. It highlighted that 46% of founders believe there is a gender bias problem in the industry.

Looking at the experience of women in the community, 61% said there are not enough role models while 42% of female founders said that access to funding has been their biggest barrier; anecdotal evidence suggested they will get a male colleague to present to investors in their place to improve chances of access to capital.

39% of female founders frequently encountered sexism while running their startup, including what they interpreted as inappropriate invitations to late-night meetings.

More than four in 10 believe that no matter how successful their business becomes, gender discrimination will stay the same.

In response, Unilever has partnered with UN Women and 22 other companies on what it has dubbed the ‘Global Innovation Coalition for Change’. First and foremost, this group is pushing for simple acknowledgement that there is an issue and then for companies to be transparent by publishing their own statistics.

The group wants to revisit and redefine discrimination and in time provide accessible role models by establishing mentoring programmes.

It will also create programmes across disciplines and sectors to help women feel confident across all areas of a business and create training schemes for younger people.

On the role Unilever specifically will play, Santos hopes the power of the brand will be enough to incite change.

“A company like Unilever – a big investor in startups and that really uses their services and is able to scale them – saying we are interested in having more women-led business in our portfolio is going to trigger lots of actions,” she said.

“It will trigger action from accounting companies to incentivise young women... and scouring companies to bring us a more balanced slate. It will affect the whole supply chain of startups. Every time a big company like Unilever says something like that it has lots of positive effects.”

Unilever will not be upping its startup investment budget. It will redirect the ‘pretty good’ fund it has already towards female-led businesses though Santos stressed that “meritocracy is a fundamental element”.

“We’re doing a disservice if we give funding to business just because they’re run by women. It need to be deserving,” she said.

It’s set a five-year goal for a gender-balanced portfolio, with no incremental targets.

"We have a responsibility with society and such an important voice in the market that we will be paving the way as much as we can," she said.

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