For over 20 years now, Cecilia Lenk has been a leading woman in the field of STEM – having worked as a senior executive, angel investor, and entrepreneur. Today, she is working to ensure that more women turn investors and take stronger financial decisions.
“I finished my engineering from Johns Hopkins University, and studied biology from Harvard University. But during my college years, I became sure that I didn’t want to take the academic route. I was always interested in technology and had an understanding of computing. I decided to work on a large technological development project around the late 90s,” Cecilia tells HerStory.
She went on to become the Vice President at Decision Resources until 2009, before becoming the town councillor for Watertown, Massachusetts. Cecilia recollects these to be the early days of technology, and working hands-on during that time was instrumental in shaping her career.
“I have managed teams in multiple locations, looked at budgets, and I simply loved the experience,” recollects Cecilia. She adds that having worked for two decades, she has started companies, worked to see them scale and grow, and understand how the businesses functioned.
It was during this time that she was even part of a company that saw a small exit. With the proceeds of this exit, Cecilia built a small tech company, “The company had built a patented platform for research. I have always felt some immense joy in building things from scratch and seeing products come to life,” says Cecilia.
The world of investing
Afterwards, she decided to take a small break but continued to invest in companies as an angel investor. It was during this time that she set up ValueSetters (now NetCapital). “As an angel investor while I was very interested in companies that were solving real-world issues, I would find the process tough,” recollects Cecilia.
The US laws allowed for investor exceptions and the development of online portals for funding, which meant that there was a strong potential to have an impact on both investors and entrepreneurs.
“ValueSetters was looking to bring in that impact to investors and entrepreneurs, and I wanted to see a diversity of companies and entrepreneurs. I also believe that there should be more people being able to participate in what is being produced and made. And investment should be more open,” says Cecilia.
Cecilia was one of the early investors at NetCapital. The company’s mission is to empower innovators and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds to be successful in their endeavours to provide solutions. Cecilia and her team want to help facilitate this by levelling the playing field for access to capital and strategic resources to create more inclusive capitalism.
Levelling the playing field
“I had seen many small businesses leverage private markets but they all had an unmet need for advice and assistance in the fundraising processes,” says Cecilia.
This led to the establishing of ValueSetters. By 2017, ValueSetters became a part of NetCapital, and Cecilia now is the CEO of NetCapital.
“The idea is to open up access to capital to all entrepreneurs, for all kinds of companies, and for investors at any level. You can put in $100 to $1 million. Startups and entrepreneurship are really important pieces of the world’s economy, people’s stories, and people growing businesses.
“And I want them to be successful, and benefit from supporting those companies. Access to capital is very difficult, and it shouldn’t be limited to a small group, inner circle of people,” says Cecilia.
This, she says, includes women as both investors and entrepreneurs, and extends to women-led startups and companies that are historically known to have a lack of access to capital. Cecilia explains the idea is to bring democratisation of investment and financing for all. “It is about breaking barriers,” she says.
Bringing in more women
“Under 10 percent of all investments are made by or to women. What we have started to do is create a series of webinars to bring women together. We are building a network of all women who have their own venture capital firm, and are hoping to work with women entrepreneurs, and bring them together,” says Cecilia.
She adds while looking for funding for companies, they also voluntarily reach out to a lot of women investors, and also pitch women entrepreneurs led deals. NetCapital is an online platform where companies can apply online for funds, but internally, NetCapital runs through the checks of looking at the financial business models. They are vetted by the compliance officers. It allows any investor to invest in a company.
“On the platform, there is a range of complex problems that need to be solved – from biotech and retail to AI. The companies raise $300,000 to $30 million. The investor gets a detailed description of the company, see the financials, and pose questions or comments to the company in order to decide to make an investment,” adds Cecilia.
Cecilia says while the work didn’t stop during the pandemic, what was challenging was getting everyone to work effectively.
“It is a new way and type of investing, and the focus has been on breaking down barriers. The idea is to find entrepreneurs who are strong at what they do, irrespective of their gender,” says Cecilia.