Interview with Emma Osborne, co-founder, board member and “Inspiring Women” lead
Please tell us about the inspiring women initiative
We launched our “Inspiring Women” initiative at the end of 2018 with the aim of showcasing women in senior deal making roles to inspire younger women to build their careers in private equity. There are around 30 interviews on the website so far which means the series has become a useful reference resource providing a wealth of great advice.
We’ve had very positive feedback from our members and, personally, I find the profiles really inspiring. I love how different they all are, demonstrating the variety of routes into senior roles as well as the diversity of styles and personalities – which is, of course, what Level 20 is all about!
What motivated you to start the initiative?
We wanted to increase the visibility of senior women for our members because we knew the importance of role models – the idea that you can only be what you can see.
This really resonated with my experience of joining the industry in the mid 1990s when I came across almost no senior women and was the only female investment professional in my firm. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, with hindsight I can see that this was a factor in me deciding in 2002 to shift from being a GP to an LP. When I looked around at the senior men I was working for I couldn’t picture myself in that role so decided to leave but had I seen a woman doing things a little differently I might have been inspired to stay. As it happened, the shift worked out well for me, but other women in a similar situation might choose to leave the industry altogether.
Why focus only on deal doing roles?
Senior deal roles are where women are most under-represented – our latest data report with the BVCA showed that only 10% of senior investment roles are held by women compared with 31% of senior non-investment roles. Also deal making is at the core of private equity, it is where the industry leaders come from and where the most critical decisions get made so it is at investment committees that diverse points of view are most necessary.
We have recently started also to spotlight women in portfolio value creation roles. These people are a vital part of the investment process and there are some impressive women in these roles. It is also interesting that in these roles it seems to be easier to move into PE at a later career stage, often from senior roles in industry. In contrast, investment roles remain an apprenticeship.
What is the thinking behind extending the initiative to mid-level professionals recently?
For women starting out in their careers, very senior women can sometimes appear to be too far removed and unattainable to be motivating. Junior professionals tend to be focused on getting to the next rung of the ladder and may not be sure if they even want to go all the way to the top. Through all of Level 20’s activities we have come across many impressive women who are carving out successful careers in PE but are not yet partners. I’m excited to share their insights which may be more relatable to those of our members who are at an earlier stage of their career journey.
Do you have any other plans for the initiative?
Firstly, I hope that we can persuade more women to participate. One of the challenges has been persuading some women to share their stories. This may be partly because working on deals is extremely intense and doesn’t leave much spare time. But I think it’s also because research shows that women generally feel less comfortable than men do with being seen as self-promoting, so I think some women can be a bit reticent to talk about themselves publicly. But the initiative is all about giving back and helping other women rather than self-promotion, so we hope that more women will agree to share their insights on that basis.
Secondly, I would like to see more profiles from across Europe and from the VC world – there are a few already but at the moment the profiles are a little UK buyout centric, possibly because that’s where my network is strongest. There are a few more in the works so watch this space!
Finally, over time I would like to see the initiative extended beyond investment roles. While the lack of diversity is less acute in non-investment roles – such as investor relations, finance and ESG – having more women in senior positions, irrespective of role, helps to shape the culture of a firm – so it is important we also celebrate these women. There are many ways to have a rewarding career in our industry beyond deal doing and if we can promote some of those through this initiative I believe that would be positive for the industry.
Anything else you’d like to say about the initiative?
Only a huge thank you to the amazing women who have participated so far. Role models are so important and we really appreciate you taking the time to help inspire future cohorts of private equity leaders.