Danielle Graham is a Principal at Dream Maker Ventures, the first Canadian Venture Capital (VC) fund founded by people of color and women, focused on investing in diverse, underrepresented, underestimated entrepreneurs.
She has been active in the tech ecosystem, first as a founder herself of a water purification company called Crio Water, then founding the Fierce Founders programs, the first female-focused accelerator and Bootcamp series in Canada. Danielle has been an important part of the angel community network, as a board member, investment officer, and source of diverse deal flow to GTAN, the Angel Alliance and the Laurier Startup Fund. Previous to DreamMaker, Danielle oversaw the Market Readiness Fund, Ontario’s most active seed-stage fund.
In an exclusive chat with CanadianSME, Danielle shares her thoughts on entrepreneurship and more.
How would you describe the vision of Dream Maker Ventures? What is the main goal behind the organization?
Dream-Maker Ventures’ mission is to prove quantitatively through top-quartile returns that investing in and supporting underrepresented founders and diverse teams pay off.
Historically, VCs are predominantly white or light-skin, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men and the companies they fund are also frequently made up of those who look and think much like them. Founding teams that receive outside investment tend to be white and identify as men. Therefore, at Dream Maker Ventures we are focused on investing in startups whose founders reflect a range of backgrounds and lived experiences. We take a more holistic approach to ensure that we’re funding diverse founding teams because they have a competitive advantage, appealing to broader customers, values, and solutions, among a host of benefits that strengthen the fabric of our society.
We are investing in the community first and we’re working to understand the complexities of investing in diverse teams and engaging with marginalized communities. This approach requires significant study, sensitivity, and time; most VCs have not taken the time to engage these communities to listen and learn, that’s what our model hopes to bring to the table.
What is the biggest benefit that Dream Maker Ventures provides to women entrepreneurs?
We know that women-centric approaches are not enough because women are not all under the same conditions. Women often have multiple and intersecting identities that come together in unique ways that can at times, lead to even greater marginalization. Just focusing on gender tends to only benefit and focus on a subset of the population that is typically already advantaged.
Through our intersectional approach, we have partnered with specific programs for women, people of colour, people living with disabilities, newcomers, refugees, Indigenous peoples, and the LGBTQ+ community; to invest capital in initiatives and founders that will yield better returns dollar for dollar.
In your expert opinion, what are the biggest challenges that women entrepreneurs face and how can Dream Maker Ventures help them overcome these challenges?
There is a multitude of socio-cultural factors affecting women from the day they are born or transition which informs their perspective and how women are treated. The narratives we’ve been fed in North American culture and beyond about the solo white man entrepreneur has obfuscate the reality that it takes a village to build and run a successful business.
For example, “Indigenous women working in tech occupations earned less than their male counterparts. Out of the 300 enumerated Inuit tech workers in 2016, there were no women identified.” (Brookfield Institute, Who are Canada’s Tech Workers? January 2019)
At Dream Maker Ventures, we’ve focused on one of the major challenges which are a specific type of asset class investment. We are also working to remove barriers – such as bias, inequity, inaccessibility – for talented entrepreneurs to have access to the same opportunities.
All of our efforts are intersectional and deliberately focus on those not included. There are a lot of talented individuals with valuable perspectives who are never part of the conversation because of a focus on women often only directly benefits women of a certain socioeconomic status and demographics. The key to remember, if we can remove the obstacles for those who have been marginalized by systemic barriers in our society, then those in the middle get that uplift in access too.
What can you tell us about your role at Dream Maker Ventures?
My role at Dream Maker Ventures is very entrepreneurial – the experience of raising a fund for a VC is very similar to that of an entrepreneur. I won’t go into the tedious details, but it is one of those experiences you can only learn by doing, no matter how voraciously you read. As a Principal, I spend my time discovering the highest potential founders, and once we close the fund I will be focused on investing and working closely with our portfolio companies.
How important do you believe it is for Canada’s economy to invest in women entrepreneurs?
It is critical for our entire economy that women entrepreneurs in getting the funding necessary.
Also, in many cases, we are talking about women-led teams, not only women or only men teams. Diverse teams — those that reflect a diversity of lived experiences and backgrounds, well beyond gender identity — have been proven through evidence-based social science research to perform better. We need to capitalize on that performance and operationalize inclusive decision-making in every team. It is critical for our economy as a whole that women entrepreneurs are fully funded – this is where our economy has the most growth potential.
Do you believe that there is still a lack of resources in Canada when it comes to helping women entrepreneurs succeed?
Yes. There is always a need for more resources.
Venture Capital backed tech startups with women on the founding team are still hovering at approx. 2%.
Although $2B was provided through the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy funding to double the number of women-owned businesses by 2025 this type of funding is provided to other specific sectors of the industry every year, whereas women are over half of the population. There is so much potential talent and perspective to unlock greater value in our economy.
Research from BCG found if women entrepreneurs received as much support as men entrepreneurs, the global economy could experience up to a $5 trillion boost. Imagine what Canada would look like with even a small slice of that $5 trillion!
What can you tell us about any future projects that Dream Maker Ventures has planned?
With the launch of the Dream Legacy Foundation, our philanthropic non-profit arm, we are building the capacity for a truly intersectional approach. Expect to hear more about our funding models and partnerships as we build our Diversity Fund.
On a final note, what made you decide to go into this line of business?
What brought you on this career path? Many incredible mentors led me to pursue Venture Capital. I’ve always been passionate about entrepreneurship, ever since I was selling my paintings at 5 years old and learned the word entrepreneur. In VC, the multitude of ideas brought forward every day by founders and analyzing which direction they should take for optimal scale. I was fortunate in the amount of encouragement from other women in VC. They supported my work at Fierce Founders and took hours of coaching to strategize on how to pursue this career. In particular, Neha Khera and Nicole Leblanc have supported me through multiple my time at Communitech, joined my investment advisory committee at OCE, and pushed me to step into private sector VC. I would not be at this stage in my career without them.