Cynthia Ringo, Managing Director of DBL Investors, on Women-Led Firms and Solving Big Problems

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By Angie Chang (Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Women 2.0) Last week, we saw a flurry of activity around a news article stating that DBL Investors is the only women-led VC firm in the United States. We asked Cynthia Ringo, Managing Partner at DBL Investors about it.

Cynthia Ringo: We know there are more women-led VC firms, and, If we don't know them already, we love to know about them. Starvest, on the East Coast, also has significant assets under management, and a great track record. I'm not certain, but I believe the article was written on NVCA data, and we did not provide the headline. We know there are other women-led funds, but clearly still few enough to be notable.

Our objective as a fund is to deliver top tier financial results, coupled with significant social, economic and environmental impact -— and fortunately, that’s what we’ve done so far. We do have many more women CEOs, almost 10x the national average, but that’s not because we have a specific goal to invest in women CEOs. We believe we attract more of the best deal flow from the best women CEOs because we’re a women-led firm, however, we invest in the best companies. Nancy and I have both been in the investment world and entrepreneur world for more than 25 years. As a result, we have pretty strong networks amongst entrepreneurs, investors and the rest of the infrastructure -— we’re not coming out of the ether.

We see female entrepreneurs who are very experienced, who have known us from past endeavors or are referred to us. They come to us if they think that they’re doing something that is in our investment sphere. Our latest fund has 28% female leadership as opposed to the national average of 3%. We’re not investing in women-led business per se, we’re investing in the best businesses which we can find —- some of which are women-led.

We’re are a top quartile fund according to industry data, based on our returns. We also have a lot of very measurable social returns in terms of job creation, quality of the jobs, impact in the community, workforce development, environmental stewardship.

Women 2.0: Can you tell us about some of the women entrepreneurs in your portfolio?

Cynthia Ringo: One of the seed investments that we did in the first fund was in Revolution Foods. Two young women fresh out of Haas had a brilliant idea which could be proved out with a relatively modest amount of money —- it was incredibly disruptive within its market and they knew the market really well. If you look at Revolution Foods, they are providing healthy hot meals into schools where this may be the only healthy meal that those children get in a day. They started in the charter schools and have since gone into some school districts. the company has been growing at 100% per year. It was a big idea. It was not a small idea.

The biggest impediment that I see in women entrepreneurs in the early stage is that their idea is not big enough to be venture fundable. For example: “Let’s put together a social network for my school district to help coordinate our calendars.” That is useful, but not disruptive enough to be venture-fundable.

Women 2.0: Another thing women feel is that they are not prepared enough —- for example no MBA, no coding skills.

Cynthia Ringo: Look at our recent investments in Ecologic with CEO Julie Corbett. I don't know if Julie, the founder and CEO has an MBA. If she does, it has nothing to do with what she’s doing at Ecologic. She had an idea for an absolutely disruptive form of packaging. And then she carried through on it. But we didn’t invest in her based on her academic credentials —- we invested in her based on her innovative vision, the huge market, the traction in the business, and her ability to hire a great team.

Five Prime is another woman-led company in our portfolio —- an incredible biotech company, absolutely amazing —- led by CEO Julia Gregory.

Women 2.0: What was your background, before you become a VC?

Cynthia Ringo: I started my high tech career as an IP lawyer, then worked at startups. The first one was a relational database system that was aimed at decision-support as opposed to online transaction processing. And the second was to enable the carrying of voice over DSL lines. These were big ideas, and I think that’s the biggest challenge that we see on a routine basis, which doesn’t mean we don’t see women with big ideas -— we do, and we fund them! If we see a big idea, first we judge the idea, and then the fact it’s women-led to us is the cherry on the sundae.

Women 2.0: Given your non-technical background, how did you manage to be such a pivotal figure in solving hard technical problems?

Cynthia Ringo: I don't solve them but I understand where they are, and then I know how to hire people to solve them. So I've never "solved" a technical problem myself, but I know how to "hire" people who can and I know how to identify where the problems are and more importantly, where the opportunities are. These are very distinct skill sets. But, I admit, I can’t code anything!

I think it’s really important to understand where the value is, and the value is not necessarily in being able to code —- the value is in understanding what technology development yields. What is worth spending your most precious resource, time, on?

And I think women have a lot to contribute in that.

About the interviewee: Cynthia Ringo is a Managing Partner of DBL Investors, which she joined in April of 2008. She currently sits on the board of directors of Solexant and Soladigm and works with Livescribe. Formerly a Managing Director of VantagePoint Venture Partners, Cynthia served as a Board Member of the following VantagePoint portfolio companies: Entrisphere, Klipsh, Tymphany, Widevine, LiveScribe, Provina and Meriton. Prior to VantagePoint, she served as the CEO of Coppercom, a next-generation network switching company. Cynthia served on the board of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs from 2000 to 2004, and as Chair of the Board for 2001 through 2003. She is a mentor to Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. She also serves as an advisor to several organizations including: the SVForum, a Silicon Valley leadership forum, Astia, supporting women-led entrepreneurs, and the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (DeVenCI). Cynthia holds a BS in Legal Systems from Georgia State University and a JD from Emory University School of Law.