Joanne Wilson: The Gotham Gal who invests in women entrepreneurship

By Liyan Chen , written on April 16, 2013

From The News Desk

Joanne Wilson is widely known as the wife of Union Square Ventures founder, Fred Wilson, but is an angel investor in her own right, using her own fortune and that of her husband to invest in early-stage startups. Thus far she has a near-perfect track record. As of the publication of this article, none of the startups in her 35-company portfolio have failed, although two may, she says. Some of the successes are Taxi Treats, a startup that sells vending machine for taxis; the Blue Bottle Coffee Company, a well-known San Francisco coffee maker; DailyWorth, the personal finance portal for women; and Nestio, a real estate site that helps users more easily find housing.

But what distinguishes her within the overwhelmingly male angel investor cuture is her devotion to companies started and run by women. Wilson’s portfolio is 70 percent invested in female-founded companies. She told the 300 attendees at the recent Women Entrepreneurs Festival in New York, which she helped found: “As an investor, I am a cheerleader for women. But it is all of you, who are the entrepreneurs, who are the real deal to me.” That’s because she was once one of them, and knows all about working insane hours, switching among different roles, and struggling for life-work balance.

Her career as an investor stemmed from her well-known blog, the Gotham Gal, in which Wilson writes about things she feels passionate about – investment, food, among many other things. When Wilson started blogging in 2003, and her readership grew, women entrepreneurs approached her to talk about their companies.

“These women are creating businesses that I believe in and that I understand,” Wilson says. “But they are not getting necessarily the kind of look that they are getting from the men who are investing, and happen to be the majority of money out there.”

It dawned on her that she wanted to be an investor, who could help women entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

“The most challenging aspect [for women entrepreneurs] is to find high-level investors who can wrap their arms up around their companies and support them,” Wilson says. Women, she claims, often undercut themselves when it comes to money-raising, they “tend to cross their ‘T’s and dot their ‘I’s." Instead, they should “just jump in the water.”

Caren Maio, CEO and co-founder of Nestio, a real estate bookmarking site that Wilson invested in, says that description accurately describes her. “I tend to have 20 data points before I say something, and Joanne really urges me personally to feel great about what I am doing,” she says. “She’s such an advocate for the entrepreneur, and I am just lucky to have her in our corner.”

For a long time, Wilson was a breadwinner of her family. After starting as a sales manager at Macy’s, her first job after college, she quickly climbed up the corporate ladder. By the time she was 25, she was already managing a few hundred people as an assistant store manager. After rising to the position of a buyer at Macy’s, she was again looking for her next opportunity.

She says, “Our vice-president, who was a man, said to me: ‘Women don’t move as quickly as men do here. You will probably have to be in the job for four years.’ And I was like: are you kidding me?”

Wilson soon quit and took a series of different jobs. At one, she grew a business from $1 million to $15 million within two years, to the extent that she was making more money than the owner of the business. At another, her boss pulled her aside and told her that she should be his boss. But the demands of her career made it hard to balance work and family. She turned down several opportunities to start her own business, deciding to stay home and raise her children. Wilson says she never regretted that decision, because it taught her a lot about what she wanted to do going forward.

When she returned to the workforce in the late 1990s, she plunged into New York’s burgeoning tech startup world. She spearheaded sales for the Silicon Alley Reporter, an online publication that covered the local tech scene. She also sat on board on MOUSE, a non-profit organization that focused on technology education in inner New York City. In 2006, she observed the development of many Web 2.0 start-ups. Then she started to invest.

Between 2006 and 2013, Wilson’s portfolio grew to 35 companies. Business Insider ranked her as one of the New York Angel 100 in 2012.

While the public often associates Wilson with her venture capitalist husband, the behind-the-scene stories of the power couple – one of the savviest in the New York tech start-up scene – are rarely discussed.

“We are equal partners in everything.” Wilson says.

She has known her husband since she was 19 years old. In their early 20s, Wilson made three times as much income as her husband did. When she was working 80 to 90 hours a week, Fred did the grocery shopping and the laundry before they had kids.

“When I was at home, I was involved in his business behind the scenes, just as much as what he has done for me behind the scenes. It would be funny when one day someone [might] say Fred Wilson is 'Joanne Wilson’s husband,'” she says.