When Joanne Wilson was in college, she rented a summer room in a fraternity from one of the brothers, Fred.Now the two are married and they’re a couple of New York’s most involved, savvy startup investors.
Fred is a partner at Union Square Ventures; his investments include Zynga, Twitter and Foursquare. None of the companies in his portfolio are women-founded.
Joanne’s investments are much different. Thirteen of her seventeen investments are tech companies. Of those thirteen tech companies, 10 are women-founded including DailyWorth, Lover.ly, Nestio and Red Stamp.
She invests in anything she enjoys across all industries, from food, to gyms, to real estate. She has invested in publications, tech companies and brick and mortar businesses.
We spoke with Joanne about her career, her investment strategy, and why 2012 is the year of women.
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For a long time, Joanne Wilson was her family’s breadwinner. At age 22 she was responsible for Macy’s second largest cosmetics department, overseeing 100 other employees. She was the youngest product manager by 20 years.
It wasn’t easy for women professionals to be taken seriously though, even at a department store.
“The things they did to women were really gross,” Wilson recalls. “One of the men would try to put his hand up your leg, and all the guys would laugh — so would a lot of the women,” she says.
Wilson recalls a particular interview with Bloomingdales where she was sexually harassed. “It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realised what had happened — I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God.'”
Wilson found women were cruel to each other too. Her next boss was a woman who Wilson calls one of the meanest human beings she’s ever encountered. “Literally, she gave me acne,” says Wilson.
The abuse she faced as a young professional may be why Wilson is so supportive of women today.
Aside from abusive coworkers, Wilson faced another common career struggle. After joining a few small businesses and helping them grow leaps and bounds, she had the opportunity to start a company. But Wilson found herself torn between family and professional success.
“I thought, ‘If I do this then I’ll be a 24/7 lunatic and I won’t be present in my children’s lives,'” says Wilson.
Ultimately Wilson chose her children instead of a startup. She and Fred moved to the suburbs; Joanne stopped working to raise the kids.
But Wilson struggled as a stay-at-home mum. One play day was the final straw. “I said to Fred, ‘I see these people talking at me but I’m not listing. I’m watching their mouths move and I’m thinking, I am going to kill all of them and then myself.’ I realised I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Wilson took up blogging as a creative outlet. She liked that it was something she could own and control. Gotham Gal, Wilson’s blog, kept her connected to the professional world she left behind; she still maintains the site today.
Blogging opened a lot of doors for Wilson, and her readership grew. Startups began to seek her out as an advisor; Lockhart Steele’s startup Curbed caught her eye. His startup was her first investment.
One opportunity led to many others. Soon founders were emailing her to inquire about angel funding, and many of those founders happened to be women. Now, most of Wilson’s portfolio is women founded, almost by happenstance.
Wilson says she finds the startups she financially backs in her inbox. “I really do look at every single email someone sends me and I’m honest,” says Wilson. “I’ll either say, ‘This makes no sense to me,’ or ‘Wow, I’d be happy to meet with you.'”
Although she and her husband invest differently, Fred and Joanne ask each other for startup advice from time to time. “We’ve been asking each other for advice since we were 19 years old!” says Wilson.
Even though she supports women founders, Wilson doesn’t think the ratio of men to women in tech is as skewed as most people think.
“How do you define a ‘tech business?'” Wilson asks. “Is Catchafire a tech business? Yah, it is! It uses the Internet as a platform for its business. But do we consider it or just companies like Codecademy when we talk about the ratio?”
That said, she would like to see more women take risks. If women aren’t making their way up the ladder, Wilson thinks then they should get off and create their own ladder.
Wilson believes 2012 is the year of women. She says the excitement around e-commerce and social media are areas women really understand. She’s also seeing more women starting companies, getting later-stage funding and getting asked to sit on more panels.
And for those who wrestle between having children and having a career, Wilson offers this advice:
“Use common sense. prioritise your time. There is never a right time to have kids so don’t wait. Have them, have your life, have those things that are important to you and you will figure out how to make time for everything. And when you’re an entrepreneur running your own company, you can do what works for you more easily.”