Hong Kong’s start-up scene is still a man’s world even if city tops the global ranks for gender diversity, women investors say

Louise Moon

Emily Lam-Ho started backing female entrepreneurs after meeting too many not getting their deserved funding because of a lack of women on investment boards.

“I’ve met a lot of brilliant women all over the world creating, building, leading important businesses, but unfortunately not receiving the funding they should. This is why I wanted to level the playing field,” said Lam-Ho, the chief executive officer of Empact28, which specialises in funding women-led projects globally, and others with a social or environmental impact. “I’ve heard from a lot of female counterparts they have pitched to a room full of men that are investors. There is a big lack of diversity in the investment world.”

“I always question why there are less women in the investment world. Women take up most of our consumer base and are often the main decision makers,” said Lam-Ho, who worked at CLSA for more than five years before venturing out. “Having a room full of men deciding what is better consumed just doesn’t make sense. If you take everything away and look at the numbers, we are half of the consumer.”

Lam-Ho’s experience goes against HSBC Private Banking’s findings on Wednesday that showed Hong Kong with the best gender balance when it comes to having gender diversity in investment panels.

Emily Lam-Ho, chief executive of Empact28, which focuses on funding women-led projects.

Women entrepreneurs said 81 per cent of the city’s investment panels had men and women, beating all other surveyed markets and way higher than the global average of 67 per cent, according to HSBC’s online survey of 1,202 entrepreneurs, including 604 women, conducted in June and July.

Karen Contet Farzem, founder and CEO of AngelHub, Hong Kong’s first licensed start-up investment platform, estimated about 5 to 10 per cent of investors she comes across are female, calling the space “a male’s world”.

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Though she hasn’t found attitudes to be discriminatory against her, “of course you always have questions men wouldn’t have: family, kids, balance.”

Karen Contet Farzam, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Angelhub, a startup investment platform on 29 October 2018. SCMP: Edmond So

The lack of role models and top female advisors could explain why female entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, lacking in confidence and guidance, invest more of their own funds into businesses than other markets. They use HK$1.2 million (US$153,000) on average, less than the HK$1.5 million in mainland China, but more than those in the US and the UK.

Meanwhile, the report found that those in Hong Kong are the most likely to seek advice from a business adviser, family and friends and networks.

“There are a lack of females at the top which makes it hard to find role models and learn from them. We need to help break this cycle,” said Lam-Ho. “You have to have some sort of confidence to step out of your comfort zone, build a business and walk into a room to males, females and stand up to pitch.”

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Women, she said, would benefit from more mentorship support, knowing which investors want to invest, and more networking events.

“I know when I walk into a room full of investors I am a minority,” said Emma Sherrard Matthew, a Hong-Kong based angel investor with a portfolio of 20 companies who focuses on supporting female entrepreneurs. She highlighted “Hong Kong definitely has room for improvement, but anywhere in the world does. There need to be more women champions.”

Emma Sherrard Matthew, CEO Asia Pacific, Quintessentially Group in Sheung Wan on 12 August 2015. Photo: SCMP

“I’m keen for women to view deal flow and participate in those opportunities, but if you are not coming from the world of being an entrepreneur it can be difficult. I have come up through being a career woman, building a business from scratch, I know what it takes,” she said.

In 2005, Matthew launched Quintessentially – a UK-based luxury lifestyle group – in Asia-Pacific, before becoming global chief executive officer from 2011 to 2015.

Much of the disparity in Hong Kong stems from start-up investing being a young sector, according to Matthew and AngelHub’s Farzem, and can depend on which industries companies raising money are in.

“I do know there are companies actively wanting to get more women involved in companies and parting with money,” said Matthew. “There are people who are very much trying to create that conversation – it can only move in the right direction and create more awareness.”

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