Female Founders Perform (reprinted with permission)

Isn’t it interesting that an industry that requires its founders to be data-driven, isn’t itself.

Venture Capital firms are ignoring evidence that a company is often more successful when it has at least one female founder or a female CEO. The evidence is significant.

Female Founders Perform

This is post #2 regarding raising capital as a Female Founder (you can read my first instalment here). We are targeting raising a million dollars, which will allow us to build out the company infrastructure, focus on customer acquisition, and get to our next key building stage. I noted in the previous post that female founders received about 2% of VC funding, despite owning 38% of businesses (HBR). Fortune says this also held true in 2017 with female founded companies receiving 2.2%. Unbelievably, just 8% of companies funded by VCs have female partners (HBR), while 17% of startups have a female founder (Techcrunch). Yet, in our small startup we have three female founders. Forbes, however, says there was a “silver lining” in 2017: With the exception of 2014, companies run by women received their largest share of VC dollars — 2.2% of the dollars and just under 5% of the deals done. Deep sigh. Not much of a silver lining.

VCs ignore the stats

The numbers are disappointing but not surprising. Data-driven VCs  seems to ignore statistics that show that investing in female founded companies leads to positive results. This week, I had a conversation with a man who is well-connected in the NY VC world who offered this insight, “Men won’t invest in what they don’t understand.” Oftentimes, companies with female founders are solving women’s problems. Think bra’s, styling, and companies like Thinx, the bold and unabashed period underwear, or Peanut for mama’s looking to meet their peers, or Thirdlove which sells underwear. Apparently, men turn off quickly if the solution being offered is female gender specific. This explanation makes sense to me, however, there is a deeper issue since the largest segment of female founded companies that received funding are in tech and are gender neutral. On the one hand, this validates the point that men are more likely to invest in something that is gender neutral or that they can understand. But on the other hand, this implies that there are many companies still not being funded if they are led by at least one female founder even in gender neutral businesses.


  • Companies with at least one female founder “out-performed their male counterparts by 63%” creating shareholder value (First Round)
  • As the chart below shows, “at four out of five high-growth revenue measures, female-founded companies showed stronger overall performance. (Tinypulse)
  • The fastest growing companies at 200%+ growth, are 75% more likely to have a female founder.” (Tinypulse)
  • “For profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30% representation is associated with a 15% increase in the net revenue margin.”(MCSI)

There is no explanation for why startups with female founders perform better but they often do. “Firms with a woman running the show perform far better than the market.”(Fortune). Perhaps this is due to diversity of thought. Perhaps this is due to the fact that women tend to be more realistic with their projections. Perhaps this is due to the fact that women balance data with intuitiveness or “gut.” Whatever the reasons, I hope that 2018 is the year that the tides begin to shift in favor of female founders.

iSPY is an image tech company, so aside from our founding team and a penchant for punchy, feminine hues of pink and purple, we’re pretty gender neutral in the service our product delivers. We are also part of a slowly growing wave of businesses that are set on disrupting a large industry. Positioned to take advantage of an emerging segment, we sit right between buyers and sellers to create a network effect. After my calls this week, I am convinced that investors like our business model. I am also convinced that most investors will be looking for reasons not to invest. Our team is evaluating everything from location, to tech platform, to business inflection points. Hopefully, these steps will help us become one of the small percent of funded companies run by women. Fingers crossed!

portrait image of leslie hughes

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Technologies, Inc. and iSPY Visuals, an intelligent search tool and workspace for visual content users. Hughes has over 20 years experience in digital media licensing, content production, and distribution, including having been President of Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, and President of the Markets and Products Group for Corbis Corp. She became an entrepreneur 10 years ago. Hughes has consulted or been part of 6 start-ups and 12 acquisitions.  She has an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, is the proud mother of two and lives and works in New York.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

The Search for Online Education

How iSPY Education came to be.

How did we come up with the idea to build a tool to search for online education? The idea behind the iSPY platform struck me far back in 2005. I had been hired as CEO in a turnaround situation by a UK/US stock photo and film business. They were a public company and had been on a buying spree. The business I inherited was a bit of a mess. The company had acquired 7 businesses and had no idea what to do next. Nothing had been integrated.  Each was in a different stage of moving to digital. They were being sued, had less than adequate tech,  no idea how to even begin to address the tens of millions of images that needed to be edited, digitized and made available online. So, I hired a small but incredibly talented group who came in, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Early into our journey, the Creative Director came to me asking for help. There was no easy way to search our competitors and compare what we had to what our competitors offered. So we created a rough search aggregation tool that allowed us to do just that. However, it did the trick. Our team could search and compare content, look at options  side by side and compare with the competition. The tool was useful, saving us time and money, and allowing us to curate content in a much more effective way.  A light bulb went off.  How cool would it be to make this kind of tool available to customers. They could search multiple image providers simultaneously saving a ton of time, and compare results.  But then, life went on.

Fast forward.

Fast forward to 2016, I had started a small market strategy and consulting business. That company, VisualSteam, conducts an annual survey of creative pros on stock image licensing. In 5 years of surveys, the most common complaint was about how difficult and time consuming it was to search for and find images. Clients told us the average search for an image takes 4.25 hours. They generally searched at least 3 agencies. A little over a decade after my original idea, it was time, actually long overdue for a tool like iSPY.

I incorporated iSPY in 2016.  In 2017, we launched our prototype. This was followed by our beta site, and then in 2018 we launched our SaaS platform solution for visual content called iSPY Visuals.

The pandemic accelerates online education.

Two years later, the pandemic hit.  Our team, like many others, struggled with the new Zoom schooling. The quality of online education varied and parents began looking for alternative options to keep their kids engaged.  Our teammate, Karen, asked why there wasn’t a tool like iSPY Visuals for education.  (To read Karen’s story, click here) We loved the idea. We started to explore what existed in the edtech space, and if there was a need for a search tool for online education programs. We were surprised that there are no real education aggregators, let alone with the tools that we are building.  So the idea of iSPY Education was conceived.

We are passionate about wanting to make the world of education accessible to all. The pandemic has not created online education. However, it has certainly accelerated it. There should be a tool that allows students, parents and teacher to search for and find great resources for education programming.

If you build it.

We are building just such a tool with iSPY Education.  Search for online education programs like 6th grade math or language classes for your middle schooler.  What ever the need, you will be able to come to iSPY, search, compare and share what you find. You will be able to use the tools to manage your options, get feedback, even share with a counselor or advisor. We hope and expect that teachers may also see iSPY Education as a resource to find online programs —  to help supplement their in school education or to help a student find online education. We see schools that have cut funding being able to point to or offer online education in areas like music and art, for example.  Last but not least, we also plan on partnering with companies or foundations to help underserved communities (but more on that in another post).

Next Steps.

We are building a prototype now and yes, we are looking for funding.  Our hope is to find funding in early 2022 to build and launch our site. We are excited begin the journey to disrupt education and to help make education accessible to all.

So, that’s my story. I appreciate the tremendous support we have received from our early investors who supported iSPY Visuals. We love our small but mighty team. And we are eager to begin talks with the many people interested in what we are doing and willing to give us a try.  It has been a fun ride so far and we are just getting started.

portrait image of leslie hughes

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Technologies, Inc. which first launched iSPY Visuals, an intelligent search tool and workspace for visual content users, and iSPY Education. Hughes has over 20 years experience blending content, creativity and technology. She was President of Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, and President of the Markets and Products Group for Corbis Corp. She became an entrepreneur 10 years ago. Hughes has consulted or been part of 6 start-ups and 12 acquisitions.  She has an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, is the proud mother of two and lives and works in New York.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

Women raising startup capital (Reprinted with permission)

Reprinted from iSPY Visuals – 

Raising capital as a woman founder is tough.

According to the Harvard Business Review (HBR), women raising startup capital are getting about 2% of the VC funding, despite owning 38% of businesses. According to Fortune (Fortune), in 2016, 5,839 companies with all male founders received venture capital funding compared to only 359 with female founders. Men received 16X more funding than women raising capital. In 2016, women led companies represented nearly 5% of VC deals, up from 10 years ago when women led companies represented less than 3% of deals. While this was a bit of an improvement, sadly however, the average value for women led companies was down 25%; $4.5 million compared with slightly over $6 million in 2015.

The numbers vary depending on the source, but in no case are they any good for women entrepreneurs.

I am glad I didn’t know these numbers when I became an entrepreneur. They certainly would have given me pause. However, progress is made by the fearless. Being a woman in business means there is often a reason to pause, and we mustn’t. My company is hoping to raise $1 million in the next year, so while the numbers above are daunting, we move forward… fearlessly.

iSPY is a technology used to search for topics across platforms.

[iSPY Education will use the same technology to allow users to search education  programs. This article was written for iSPY VIsuals]

The core of what we do is simultaneous search. We save our users a lot of time. In addition, we are connecting our users to legally, licensable content, unlike Google and other more general search aggregation tools. Creative Pros can search their favorite image sources, or find new creative resources. In addition, we offer our users a creative workspace full of collaboration tools to make the journey from concept to campaign far easier. Not only can they collaborate with team members, but through iSPY they can gain direct access to the image providers; making requests for similars or variations simpler.

Users are able to manage projects, all from their iSPY dashboard, including uploading documents, project briefs, storyboards, and image licenses. Also, companies are able to manage teams with administration and enterprise rights. In addition, we offer access to resources with one click that the user might not know existed. We offer advanced search to aid in finding the best content that meets the users needs. In the end, we are a tool but also a creative resource.

To date, iSPY has raised $150,000.00 and we are in beta. We expect to begin generating revenue in the coming months, and are positioned where we can start raising growth capital in a Series A round. I know that we need to grow quickly to be able to cement our position in the industry. To do this, I will be seeking $1 million.

So, in light of the statistics above, how do we move forward? By using our network, connecting with clients, and proving that we are meeting the needs of a dynamic marketplace. Proving we have a good product, however, may not be enough. It is difficult to understand why women founders are so underfunded. But, I am not sure it really matters. As women, we must deal with it. The question I am more interested in is how we change it.

One way is to get more women involved in investing. I am pleased to say that of 7 early investors in iSPY, 4 are women. I am looking for funding from investors that see the value in what we are doing and aim to support a more diverse entrepreneurial environment. So, while raising money as a woman founder is tough, it is a challenge I am tackling with enthusiasm and confidence.

Stay tuned as I will be documenting this journey; sharing the trials and tribulations of raising money as a woman founder. We may or may not succeed but I will be sharing it all – what we do right, the misses, and in the end, if we accomplish our goal.

(For the follow up post, click here.)

portrait image of leslie hughes

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Technologies, Inc. and iSPY Visuals, an intelligent search tool and workspace for visual content users. Hughes has over 20 years experience in digital media licensing, content production, and distribution, including having been President of Bill Gates’ Corbis Images, and President of the Markets and Products Group for Corbis Corp. She became an entrepreneur 10 years ago. Hughes has consulted or been part of 6 start-ups and 12 acquisitions.  She has an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, is the proud mother of two and lives and works in New York.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

Education in the time of COVID-19

Education in the time of COVID-19

Who would have thought that we would have a global pandemic in 2020 that would last for two years (or more)!  Sheltering in place, masks, and hand sanitizers have all been front and center. Learning from home and “Zoom education” was the norm in 2020 and has re-emerged in 2022 due to the Omicron variant. The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in education as well as a significant acceleration in online programming.

Can you imagine if the pandemic had hit before the internet? Thank goodness for tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meets, Discord, What’s App, and Signal. Technology has truly helped to connect people who could not otherwise be together.  While we are all hoping to get back to normal, Covid may have other plans. But regardless of what happens, education has been transformed. 

While there had previously been a move toward more online programming, the change was slow and steady. The pandemic threw gasoline on the fire. While it was a bumpy transition for many, schools built online programs using tools like Zoom and Discord to deliver education to our kids. The number of education platforms has grown quickly. And now, 75% of  schools say they plan to operate online, at least in some capacity, going forward.

Issues facing education

This paradigm shift has shined a bright light on a couple of very important issues facing education.

  • The first is the high cost and how digital technologies
    can bring those costs down. This is at a time when young people
    have already been questioning the cost of education.
  • The second is that online programming can offer an exceptional
    for students and parents seeking the highest quality
    education, regardless or borders and boundaries.
  • The third is the inequity and digital divide that exists. Studies
    show that upwards of 33% of students have limited access to digital tools
    or broadband, or both.

If, as a student, you had access to digital tools and broadband during the pandemic, you were probably ok. At least, you were starting with a solid foundation. For children who did not have access to digital tools, they had greater difficulty and many fell far behind.

Post pandemic, most experts believe that this shift in education will continue. We will continue to have a hybrid environment from kindergarten on up. Education choice will become more important to individual parents and students. Ensuring that students can get access to the education they want for an affordable cost will become a critical driver in the future.

But how do we make sense of the massive number of online education programs available? Do a search on 6th grade math. On Google, you will see over 130 million results. This is insane.

Enter iSPY Education. iSPY Education is a powerful tool to help make education accessible to all. It is an AI drive, intuitive SaaS platform that allows the user to search across education platforms, and collaborate with their trusted advisors to find the programs best suited to their needs.

So why are there no aggregators currently?

  • The task is complex
  • Supply is not sufficiently modularized
  • Success requires significant effort from the user

iSPY Education addresses each of these difficulties using a combination of  advanced technologies and human resources. iSPY Education will simplify the complexity and make the process more user friendly. Click here to learn more about iSPY Education.

iSPY education grew out of the pandemic and a real need that parents and learners have to be able to make sense of the massive number of online education programs. Online education will continue – for supplemental programs, for core programs that need to offer students an at-home alternative, for homeschooling, and even for schools who want to supplement their in school classes.  If you would like to learn more about iSPY Education, email hello@ispyeducation.com to be added to our mailing list and to get on the invitation-only list for beta access.

portrait image of leslie hughes

Leslie Hughes is the CEO and Founder of iSPY Technologies, Inc. 
She has expertise blending content, creative and technology to build new companies that deliver for users. Her strategy, operations and P&L experience spans start-ups to $100MM+ corporations.  Public and Private Board experience. MBA.

Connect with Leslie: Twitter | LinkedIn | Angel List

An Educational Paradigm Shift

The pandemic has caused an
educational paradigm shift

The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in education with online programs now supplementing and sometimes replacing traditional classroom education. While the pandemic did not create the move to online education, it is certainly accelerating it.

Suppose you are looking for a tutor for your child. Maybe you need a remote online school alternative, a home school program, or a math tutor. Is finding music lessons, a STEM after-school program, a chess club, or a summer camp on your to-do list? Ever thought a gap year opportunity would be an excellent experience for your child but just never had the time to spend researching the options? Then iSPY Education is for you. It’s where everything you could possibly need related to education is just waiting to be found.

How it all started.

My name is Karen, and I am part of the founding team at iSPY Education. For years, I have worked with creative small business owners. I help them communicate who they are and what drives them to want to improve the lives of their customers. When I work with a new client, I always start with the same question. What’s your story?

Here’s my story. I was a motivated kid who had big dreams, so I, like many, moved to New York City and made a career for myself. I knew what I was good at. I loved to work; I loved it so much that it didn’t feel like work. I’d “made” it, and life was good. And for the record, my aspirations didn’t involve working in education.

We have two boys. We’re the kind of parents who have embraced learning toys. We’ve fed their little minds just as we did their bellies. We showed our kids how important learning is, and they both became good students because of it. We moved from Brooklyn to Maine just as our oldest completed 2nd grade. At that time, our youngest was a kindergarten graduate from our blue ribbon school, and I was already working primarily from home. We were not the adventurous NYers we used to be. We yearned for a simpler life – a life where our kids could be kids a little longer. So we packed up and left our city life.

My passion for education grew.

It is here where my passion for education grew. Though we’ve had some exceptional teachers, our new school’s goal seemed very different from what we had known and remembered when we went to school. The more I spoke to friends around the country, the more I realized that many parents were experiencing what we were.

Watching our boys sit in a classroom full of kids performing below or well below the grade average stirred a calling in me. I repeatedly asked what the school (the district, the school board) would do about below grade-level performance. I was told, along with academics, our schools are also keeping the kids safe, feeding the kids, teaching the kids to be kind, and making sure the kids stay healthy. I get it. School is complicated. For them, school was not just about academics. But, where did that leave us?

We’ve all read those articles about how 1/3 of our jobs will disappear by 2030 due to automation. I was wondering how our kids were going to prepare for this future? Yes, we could have put our kids in a private school. However, adequately preparing my child for a promising future shouldn’t be a problem in our nation’s public schools. So if my kids were not being challenged in school, I wanted to figure out what I could do as a parent?

Then came the Pandemic.

We did our best to get through those late winter/spring months of school. When we returned to a hybrid school model in September of 2020, we were disappointed with the solution our school had found for replacing the 6th grade advanced math teacher. We had no other choice than to step in to find a better solution.

I was relentless – researching on the internet for days, calling online education providers, looking into homeschool options, and asking just about everyone we knew for advice. Exhausted, we finally found a recently retired, middle school math teacher who agreed to be our Zoom math teacher.

Our problem was not finding online education programming. There was no bottom to the well of educational programming, tools, apps, services, self-paced classes, instructional videos, and educational products. But, unfortunately, what didn’t exist was one place where I could simply search for what we needed and where we could easily make sense of the options.

Remember how much time it took to find the best flight to France before Travelocity and Expedia? We have become so accustomed to aggregated search. Suppose you are a magazine photo editor looking for a photo of a student sitting in a math class. You could spend days looking through the millions of images available to license from hundreds of websites. Enter iSPY Visuals. In 2018, we launched a one search site – endless images to choose from in seconds – solution. You enter a keyword, then set your search parameters specific to your needs and include the vendors of your choice. We built iSPY Visuals, the first aggregated search and work system that matches your needs to the images available. Why wasn’t there a site like this for education? And with that, iSPY Education was born.

Online Education.

Now that our 6th grader was in good hands with our Zoom math teacher, I couldn’t stop looking at the education options online. By winter 2021, our 8th grader was enrolled in The Art Of Problem Solving — a supplemental program known for teaching math at an advanced pace. Our 6th grader began taking engineering classes through OutSchool. In addition, we took virtual museum tours, joined a virtual music community, and participated in webinars about Greek Gods and Percy Jackson. It was endless — Johns Hopkins Center For Talented Youth classes, one-on-one music lessons with Berkeley School of Music, writing assignments from The New York Times educational section, Youtube videos making multiplying fractions fun. And the crazy part, all of this existed before the Pandemic. Who knew?

I then started reading about Micro Schools, Learning Pods, daycares opening their doors to older kids with online school options only. Employers began buying digital education subscriptions for their employees’ kids. These kids were coming into the office to do their schoolwork. And the teachers were early adopters – embracing the idea of multi-media enriched curriculums filled with links and assignments, embracing these fantastic educational resources. So many people were disrupting traditional education.

iSPY Education.

Where am I now? Past the Pandemic and frustrations from the shutdown, the dust is starting to settle. Instead of just complaining about academics at school, I find myself using this analogy. If your kid is really good at soccer, you as a parent, support that talent by finding a more suitable team. You find a travel team or club soccer program, so your kid can play to their potential. It’s time for parents to apply this same idea to school.

We, at iSPY Education, are going to make it really easy for you to find what your child needs. iSPY Education was born with a bold mission: to make the world of education accessible to all. The normal paradigm of education has shifted and will continue to change. From today on, if your child needs more. You will find it on iSPY Education with one click, one search and the world of education at your fingertips. To learn more, click here.

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portrait od Karen DSilva

Karen D’Silva, VP Marketing & CX, specializes in shaping the overall customer experience and marketing communications. She has more than 20 years experience leading creative and marketing teams for companies like Getty Images. She has been a Creative Director and Senior Marketing Consultant, was Co-Founder of Spark Visual Research and is the owner of DSilva Creative Services.