PEOPLE: Solai’s journey as an angel investor

In Australia, the majority of VC funds are founded and led by men, and globally, only 2% of investment dollars go to women. Yet, there are more women joining the investor community each year, including angel investor, Solai Valliappan.

In this interview, Solai shares experiences with unconscious bias which she regularly experiences from other investors, while highlighting that some sectors demonstrate this more strongly than others. She’s also on the look-out for female-led companies and is always encouraging women to follow their gut and venture out on their own.

  • How did you become an angel investor? 

I was working at a friend’s startup and noticed there were no female investors on the cap table, so I started attending some events and pitch nights out of curiosity to understand why. I was also setting up the financial and board reporting so wanted to see from an investor perspective what they look for.

After joining some angel groups I became involved in due diligence on a few companies. I quickly realised my skill-set was well suited to this type of analysis and I also just really enjoyed it! That was over three years ago and I haven’t stopped.

  • What industries are you currently most interested in as an angel investor? Why? 

Currently I’m focused on CleanTech and the Circular Economy. They’re sectors that are experiencing an acceleration in growth with advancements in technology and an increased awareness of finite resources. They’re also industries that impact everyone both at home and work – eg. Energy, waste management. I like industries that aren’t necessarily sparkly and shiny, but are fundamental to our lives. On that train of thought I’ve started exploring the AgTech sector but I’m only at the beginning of that research journey.

  • The investment industry is renowned for being male-dominated and having a culture that isn’t always welcoming to women. Has this been your experience? 

I’m sometimes confused for being a founder, so that isn’t welcoming! It used to really annoy me, now I just find it amusing and it highlights their (unconscious) bias and how quick they may be to make assumptions. Generally, in those situations I focus on the output of my work and let that do the talking.

What I have repeatedly found is that I rarely feel this away amongst CleanTech investors. The common theme amongst them is that they’re open minded. Now I look to find and work with other investors who have that characteristic.

  • Many entrepreneurs relate the lack of funding for female-led startups to the lack of women in the VC industry. What are your views on this? 

There are more men in a decision-making investment partner position at the VC funds compared to women. The more self-aware VC funds report on their portfolio composition statistics and the initiatives they’re working on to address the gaps for future investment.

I haven’t worked at a VC fund so I’m not aware of the pipeline they see. What I do see at an angel investor level is that I’ve seen more male-led startups pitch compared to female-led startups, which then in turn reflects in the balance of my own portfolio that I have invested in. It’s really important to grow the pipeline so this is an area I’m looking at – both seeking out more pitches by female-led companies and also encouraging more women to start companies. Without a doubt, more women sitting on the investor side (at all investment stages) will also help cultivate the pipeline for more funding. 

  • How can the VC industry attract and retain more diverse talent?

Diversity at the general partnership level, then there is a tangible possibility of a potential pathway – that would be an important factor of consideration. Alternatively, the creation of VC funds that are diverse at the investing general partnership level from inception.  

At the angel investor level there are more women compared to when I started over three years ago. So if you’re curious, there’s no better time to start and learn and there’s no shortage of resources! Plus, since you’re investing your own money you get to have all of the control in who you invest in and how much. 

About the expert

Solai Valliappan is an Angel Investor focused on the areas of CleanTech and Data/Analytics. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries of Australia and a Chartered Enterprise Risk Actuary.

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