Interview with Anouk Robillard, angel investor and Sarah Jenna, CoFounder and CEO of MIMS
Women Who Dare
As part of its new Women Who Dare initiative, whose goal is to increase male-female diversity within its membership, Anges Québec is unveiling a series of interviews with inspiring female entrepreneurs and angel investors who have made their mark in a male-dominated field.
The #WomenWhoDare initiative is aimed at increasing male-female diversity within the Anges Québec membership. More about the initiative.
Discover our first two sources of inspiration, Anouk Robillard, angel investor member of Anges Québec and Sarah Jenna, Cofounder and CEO of MIMS.
Ambition is not a dirty word
Good morning ladies. Thank you for accepting our invitation! Can you tell us a little about your career paths?
Sarah: Before cofounding MIMS, I was a career scientist, having worked for over 20 years in research in the field of systems biology. I did my doctorate studies in Europe and became a university professor in Canada.
Four and a half years ago, I discovered that I was an entrepreneur! (Laughs). I probably always have been, but didn’t know it. I fell completely in love with it and decided to make the big leap. In less than 4 years, my business has grown from 3 to 34 employees, of which 50% are women, which I am extremely proud of. So far, we have signed for over $5M in contracts with different companies in the pharmaceutical and agricultural fields.
Anouk: In my case, I am a financier above all. I studied in finance and spent the first 10 years of my career in investment banking in the field of technology. I participated in numerous IPOs, financings and acquisitions in Montréal, before moving to London to continue my career.
When I came back, I was eager to take on new challenges! Knowing that I was an intrapreneur and not an entrepreneur, I joined what was a medium-sized business at the time, where I held various positions. I participated in its growth until it was sold. I loved life in a business, where I had the opportunity to discover several fields, and where I discovered my passion for data intelligence.
Quite interesting paths! What prompted you to become an entrepreneur (Sarah) and an angel investor (Anouk)?
Sarah: Over 5 years ago, I felt that I had reached the end of my academic career. The promotions or opportunities for advancement that were offered to me were not what I was looking for. I felt that I needed new challenges!
That’s when I met one of my cofounders, who showed me that my dream was possible: to do very high-level research and development, in an industrial context, with much greater means.
I therefore took a one-year sabbatical during which we founded MIMS, telling myself that I would go back to my academic life at the end of my leave. Actually, the idea of taking the reins of MIMS had not even crossed my mind at that time. My plan was to hire a CEO at the end of my sabbatical! Strange, don’t you think?
It was while I was working with other entrepreneurs that I realized that I had ‘found my calling’ as an entrepreneur. In the academic world, I felt that some of my skills were being pushed aside, whereas in my role as CEO, they could develop fully. I immediately felt that I had found my tribe.
In a nutshell, I was an entrepreneur without knowing it. It was a great personal and professional revelation for me.
Did you have moments of doubt about your career turnaround?
Sarah: Not long after it launched, MIMS went through a rough period. A round of financing fell through at the last minute and we found ourselves strapped for cash. I barely slept that night. Ironically, the thing that made me fall asleep is that I promised myself that I would never go back to the university and that there was no escape hatch, that entrepreneurship was going to be my life starting now. It was this certainty that I was where I should be and that I believed in what I was doing that calmed me.
As for you Anouk, what prompted you to become an angel investor?
Two things pushed me to become an angel investor.
First, since strategy and innovation in technology is my profession and my passion as well, I read almost everything that is written on new trends in technology. Over time, I realized that everything I was reading and all the trainings I followed were not enough, since there was always an element of depth and understanding how these technologies applied in reality.
Being an angel investor gave me a front-row seat to technological innovation and allowed me to learn things that I would not have access to through an article or training.
Second, I have always invested traditionally to protect my future, by entrusting a portion of my assets to a portfolio manager. Even though I can specify my investment criteria, I do not have complete control over the decisions and this passive role is not very simulating.
I consider myself to be a fundamentalist, i.e., an angel investor who likes to understand and analyze an opportunity from all aspects, rather simply look at curves and numbers.
Therefore, being an angel investor is far more stimulating at this level than traditional investing.
According to a study by Highline Beta and Female Funders, just 15.2% of partners in Canadian investment firms are women, whereas managing partners represent just 11.8%. In your opinion, why do so few women hold decision-making positions in the Canadian venture capital industry?
Anouk: I think we have to take into account that basically, more women study accounting and more men study finance. Also, according to my experience, more women choose to work in a business than in an investment firm, where work-family balance is a challenge. I am the perfect example of that, since in my case, I left the life of an investment firm after I had my first daughter so that I could devote more time to my family.
That said, I don’t want to downplay the situation. Socially, I believe that women are educated very early to become prudent and responsible, and they may not have risk-taking role models. Therefore, there are improvements to make in terms of educating women to face risk. We must promote women entrepreneurs and investors more strongly in order to share great success stories.
Sarah: The biologist in me is going to speak. Natural selection has made us protective creatures in order to ensure the survival of our offspring. Therefore, biologically, women are predisposed to be more conservative. That said, human beings adapt their biological tendencies and also have their own personality, which means that we are obviously not all designed from the same mold.
Let’s put it this way: on the risk tolerance spectrum, there are certainly women at both ends, but on average, there are certainly more women who manage risk in a fairly educated and calculated manner. That said, I think that for my part, I have a risk tolerance that is often higher than the men that surround me.
According to PitchBook, businesses founded solely by women received just 2.5% of the total venture capital invested in 2019, in the United States. Why do you think that so few female entrepreneurs access venture capital?
Anouk: Once again, I believe it should be noted that basically, there are also fewer women who are interested in technology or finance, which means that there are more women who launch businesses in traditional sectors versus technological sectors. Venture capital players are seeking large returns, so they have a more limited pool to pick from when it comes to businesses with strong growth potential led by women.
That said, I don’t want to downplay this situation, since relatively speaking, there are other factors that explain it. I think that when an entrepreneur and an investor are of the same sex, it simplifies the communication codes and accelerates the ease and confidence between the two individuals.
For example, women express confidence differently from men. I believe that a male angel investor measures a entrepreneur’s confidence based on their assurance, their non-verbal language, their way of expressing themselves, whereas a female angel investor measure sconfidence by going beyond the image.
Based on my experience, women are better predisposed to anticipate risk, while men tend to jump in and deal with a situation when it arises. In theory, through their attentive and thoughtful nature, it should be easier for women to raise financing, but the numbers show that this is not the case.
Sarah: I totally agree with Anouk. The communication codes are different, which makes it harder for individuals of different sexes to get acquainted rapidly.
I believe that ultimately, beyond metrics and numbers, male and female investors want to know if the male or female entrepreneur in whom he or she is thinking of investing will take proper care of his/her money. Depending if the investor is a man or a woman, the ultimate test of confidence that he or she will have the entrepreneur pass to answer this question will be different and certainly more instinctive or unconscious when it is between individuals of the same sex.
Since there are still few female role models who are entrepreneurs in the innovation sector, I believe that male investors do not yet have an accurate reference framework to assess their level of confidence in a female entrepreneur.
How should a female entrepreneur perceive risk?
Sarah: In my opinion, a good entrepreneur is not necessarily the one who jumps into risky situations with both feet, but rather the one who knows how to manage it very well.
Anouk: I totally agree!
Anouk: Sarah, I would like to ask you a question. If you had jumped into entrepreneurship earlier in life, do you think you would have been as successful?
The fact that I made the leap after age 45 allowed me to have more confidence in myself. Some women possess this confidence very early, but that was not my case. I needed experience to assume my leadership and acquire this confidence that is essential for launching a business. Today I’m the boss, and I’m rising to the challenge! (Laughs)
In your opinion, what are the potential solutions to increase the number of female entrepreneurs who access venture capital?
Sarah: For my part, I believe that there is a worrying lack of role models, both among female entrepreneurs and within decision-making circles in the venture capital industry. That isn’t because there aren’t any, but because they are less visible.
There were no models for me when I went into business. I was one of the only ones in my field, which I admit was a bit disquieting. I asked myself: if I do things differently from others, is that because I’m doing them right or wrong?
When we reach a critical mass of powerful and visible women role models, I believe that it will further encourage women to feel safe and therefore take the plunge.
Anouk: I think that we have to change the way that we talk about risk to young girls. Risk is an integral part of life and, like Sarah said earlier, we have to learn to manage and be at ease with this reality. You shouldn’t run away or be afraid.
In your opinion, how do women relate with the concept of perfection?
Sarah: If you participate in pitch competitions, which I do regularly, you will notice a big difference between the way a female entrepreneur pitches versus a male.
Generally speaking, female entrepreneurs know their presentation inside and out. They present in a very structured and repeated manner. Whereas a man improvises more or goes off his initial script.
I believe we have to pay attention to the desire to be perfect. It puts us in a bubble where we focus on the fine details, making us miss the point, which is to connect with our audience.
I became a good presenter once I understood that my main task was to connect with the investor in front of me. Over time, I understood that if I did not establish a human connection with the investor, regardless of the metrics that I was presenting, it was a lost cause!
Anouk: For my part, I appreciate listening to a structured presentation which has a lot of depth. I won’t be led on by ill-conceived proposals.
So, the way to connect with me is not with what seems to be a spectacular presentation, but a presentation that is well thought out with strong content. To me, perfection is not important, but rigor, authenticity and transparency are essential characteristics.
Quick fire questions
What essential characteristic that you look for in an entrepreneur, Anouk?
The ability to provide solid answers to tough questions. I have heard many pitches in my career with great stories, but whose business model did not hold water as soon as I started to dig a little deeper!
What essential characteristic do you look for in an angel investor, Sarah?
Alignment with the business vision. For me, it’s important to have investors who will not take us in a direction or don’t want to go, who are going to undermine the business.
A woman that you admire, famous or not?
Sarah: My grandmother. It’s true! (Laughs). My grandmother didn’t go to school and learned to read and write by helping her son (my father) with his homework. She sewed and cleaned her entire life to raise her children. She instilled in me the aspiration to be independent and to be a woman who will realize her full potential professionally. She was an extremely important part of my life.
Anouk: The emblematic Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She did a lot for male-female equality. She showed us that it is not easy to be accepted in a man’s world, but she had the courage and strength to succeed.
Can you suggest some interesting readings on female leadership?
Anouk: I hate theoretical books on leadership! (Laughs). I much prefer to read articles on emerging technologies.
Sarah: Me too! In the evening, I read scientific articles and revise my financial models.
A personal motto that inspires you?
Sarah: Trust your instincts, because your brain may not have understood yet, but your intuition knows.
Anouk: Don’t give in to the pressure to conform: continue to be daring and authentic!
If you have been inspired by this story, take the leap and become an angel investor today.