What’s it like to be a minority within a minority? Solai Valliappan knows a thing or two about this. The young tech investor turned a page in her life when she realised the gross shortage of women in the tech investment space– particularly those of colour– and knew that funding female ventures required more funding from female founders.
“When I would go to these angel syndicate meetings, I would often be the only woman, I would often be one of the youngest people, and I would very often be the only person of colour and especially woman of colour,” the Sydney-based former actuary told Jacqui Ooi in the latest episode of What She Did Next Podcast.
After spending the first 10 years of her career in risk, analytics and strategy in the insurance industry, Valliappan worked for Stilmark, a startup in the infrastructure sector. Soon after moving into this area, she noticed a gap in investment in the early stage of capital investment sectors.
“Sometimes I would go to these events where I would have older men come up to me and ask me if I was a founder or how much money I needed,” she explained to Ooi. “And at first, I thought, that’s a bit funny, but it happened more than once. And so then that penny dropped I think. If I were a founder and wanted to go for funding, is there anyone who looks like me on the other side?”
Valliappan has since made an extraordinary leap into bringing about positive changes in the space, championing female founders to inspire more women to start their own companies and get the backing they need to bring their big ideas to the world.
“Having more women on the investing side and allocating capital will potentially change where that capital is allocated and also to whom that capital is allocated. I think you have to look at it from both sides. You can’t just say, oh, there aren’t enough female founders and we need to grow the pipeline. There also needs to be female investors on the other side.”
In the last few years, she has been featured as a #ChooseMaths ambassador with AMSI (The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute) to encourage more young women into STEM careers.
“I was always interested in maths, but it was actually maybe year nine, 10, that was the turning point for me,” Valliappan said. “It just started becoming a little bit harder and more complex and much more interesting.”
“In Year 11 and 12, I really looked into it more and really applied myself. I just really enjoyed the problem-solving and how you could come at a problem from a different point of view or different angles. Sometimes there just wasn’t one way to solve the maths problems, which I just thought, there was a sort of elegance about it.”
Moving onto the University of NSW, Valliappan completed a Bachelor of Commerce (Actuarial Studies), before going on to work as an actuary in the insurance industry, describing herself as being a “ninja at assessing risk”.
After a few years, the young mathematician became restless and motivated by a spate of friends who were launching start-ups.
“We were all still relatively young and we thought, well, now’s the time to start something or do something different,” she said.
“I was chatting to one friend who I actually went to university with and he said, ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing.’ And we were just chatting over a drink. And then halfway through the conversation, he said, ‘Actually, I’m looking for someone to help me on the finance side as we’re building up this company. Would you be interested?'”
It was only shortly after starting that Valliappan noticed an alarming trend within the field that she identified needed to be remedied.
“I could see and feel that having more women on the investing side and allocating capital will potentially change where that capital is allocated and also to whom that capital is allocated,” she said. “I think you have to look at it from both sides. You can’t just say, oh, there aren’t enough female founders and we need to grow the pipeline. There also needs to be female investors on the other side.”
“At the beginning of a start-up, the culture is probably the most important and the principles that you’re going to build that company on, so that when it becomes a big company, it’s closer to what you had in mind, principles wise and culture wise. I guess people will come and go. But I think it’s really important that your vision is really thought out at the beginning.”
“Increasing capital allocation to women does not mean that it is not being given to men. It’s about thinking about growing the pie.”
Valliappan believes women should stick to their guns and be true to their own goals.
“The things that I’m starting to look in, in founders are definitely resilience and whether they’re iterative learners,” she said.
“As investors, we don’t expect you to know everything but to be able to learn and change when required and be self-aware. But most importantly to the founders, and also especially the female founders, is we need your ideas and your vitality and your inspiration and yes, and your voice, I think that’s most important.”