Top Women Investors Are Answering the VC Boys’ Club With One of Their Own

The female investors of venture capital are expanding their dinner party, so to speak.

Jess Lee, the former CEO of fashion shopping site Polyvore who was named Sequoia Capital’s first U.S. female investing partner last year, is on Monday unveiling a networking initiative for female company founders. Along with other female venture capital partners, Lee is launching Female Founder Office Hours—a series of events at which investors will talk with and advise women entrepreneurs in one-on-one sessions.

Lee told Fortune that she and the other female VCs see the project as one way to help more women enter the tech ecosystem.

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“We felt that part of the solution was trying to accelerate female-led companies,” Lee says.

The club Lee and her peers belong to is a small one: fewer than 6% of all decision-markers at U.S. venture capital firms were women last year, according to a Fortune analysis. At the same time, female founders received a mere $1.46 billion in funding last year, compared to the $58.2 billion haul of companies with all-male founders.

From left: Kara Nortman of Upfront, Megan Quinn of Spark, Emily Melton of DFJ, Jenny Lefcourt of Freestyle, Aileen Lee of Cowboy, Jess Lee of Sequoia, Rebecca Kaden of Union Square , Jennifer Carolan of Reach, Patricia Nakache of Trinity, Stephanie Palmeri of SoftTech, Jocelyn Goldfein of Zetta, Sarah Tavel of Benchmark
Eva Ho of Fika. Photo courtesy of Sequoia
Courtesy of Jess Lee

The idea for Female Founder Office Hours stemmed from dinner parties hosted by Aileen Lee, founder and partner of Cowboy Ventures, and attended by female VC partners, including Lee of Sequoia.

“We were part of a community ourselves,” Jess Lee told Fortune. “We want to extend our group and kickstart this virtuous cycle of women helping women,” she says.

The first Female Founder Office Hours event is scheduled for Nov. 30 in San Francisco. The event will kick off with a talk titled “How to Fundraise” by Lee of Sequoia and Jenny Lefcourt, a partner at seed stage fund Freestyle and founder of After, some attendees will split off to take part in individual sessions with participating female VCs, a slate that includes some especially big names: Sequoia’s Lee, Lefcourt of Freestyle, Aileen Lee of Cowboy, Eurie Kim of Forerunner, Jennifer Carolan of Reach, Kirsten Green of Forerunner, Maha Ibrahim of Canaan, Shauntel Poulson of Reach, Sarah Tavel of Benchmark, and Renata Quintini of Lux.

Jess Lee says the assembly of such female VC firepower is particularly notable.

“I think this is the first time we’ve had a group of female partners from more than 10 firms,” she says, noting that the VC landscape is competitive. “[W]e thought it’d be better to band together to help women running companies,” she says.

Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit
Jess Lee at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in 2015. Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Most Powerful Women
Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Most Powerful Women

Startup founders must apply online to attend the Nov. 30 event. During the application process, they can rank which VC partners they’d most like to talk to. Sequoia’s Lee says she’s seeking founders whose ideas and companies will have real “impact.”

The first Female Founder event will help hone the pitches of entrepreneurs whose companies are at the seed stage, with two more events focusing on firms at the Series A and growth stages scheduled for February and March, respectively. Seven more VC partners are set to take part in those events: Emily Melton of DFJ, Kara Nortman of Upfront, Patricia Nakache of Trinity, Rebecca Kaden of Union Square, Stacey Bishop of Scale, Anu Hariharan of YC Continuity, and Megan Quinn of Spark.

Lee says she hopes the founders attending the events will “walk away with a little bit of advice.” But “more importantly,” she wants the get-togethers to spark friendships.

Founding a startup “can be so incredibly lonely… and even lonelier if you look around and don’t see people like you,” she says. Founders “need support from other people who have been in [their] shoes.”

With that in mind, the event hosts will urge the attendees to engage in conversations about “real problems,” Lee says. If a founder is asked how she’s doing, there’s a temptation to say that everything’s just fine, she says. A more truthful response, according to Lee: “My hair’s on fire.”

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