Who’s funding women-run media?

Illustration: Columbia Journalism Review

Shauna Stark, a former executive at Intel, doesn’t have fond memories of her career in Silicon Valley.

“It was the ’80s. It was an era—you’ve probably seen movies about this—when women were wearing little ties, and there was one woman at every table in every business and you were somewhat patronized,” says Stark, who is now 61. “Especially by the older men you were working with. I found a lot of the places I worked to be inhospitable to women, unwelcoming.”

Thirty years later, Stark, who still lives in Silicon Valley, doesn’t think much has changed for women in tech, aside for maybe those little neckties. That’s why, in June, when Katie Tandy, Kelley Calkins, and Nikki Gloudeman—all veteran writers who had worked together at Ravishly.com—approached her about investing in their plan to launch a digital publication aimed at supporting an array of women and minority voices, Stark didn’t hesitate to back them.

When The Establishment launched this morning, it did so with $1 million in funding, all of it from Stark. Stark says she’s not “a traditional venture capitalist,” and has never before invested in media. Yet her investment in The Establishment may have already broken a ceiling, becoming one of the largest angel investments by a female VC into a women-led, women-focused publication.


The Gender Gap
Men still dominate bylines across print, digital, broadcast, and wire news.

  •  Women
  •  Men
  •  Unknown

Source: “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2015,” Women’s Media Center. Chart data in percents.


Finding funding for women entrepreneurs and women-led websites has been notoriously difficult. This isn’t the case for websites for women run by men—Bustle, for instance, raised $6.5 million when it launched, and Refinery29 has raised $80 million to date. Meanwhile, The Toast, a feminist website founded and led by women, has had trouble getting those funds.

Even though the founders of The Establishment have impressive publishing track records, the ease with which they landed their angel investor (between the time the three women quit their jobs at Ravishly.com in May, when their frustrations about being relegated to “pink topics” bubbled over, and the afternoon they presented their business plan to Stark, over a plate of cheese and crackers, only a month had passed) is something of a unicorn.

Then again, Stark’s not the only investor these days with an eye on women-focused media. Even as female entrepreneurs, editors, and bylines continue to be overshadowed by men, a massive chunk of social media audiences is now comprised of millennial women, who outnumber men on platforms like Snapchat, Facebook, and Pinterest. With advertisers clamoring to capture these female impressions, and demographics shifting—nearly 1 billion women are expected to enter the global labor force in the next decade—there are indications that the news world’s gender gap represents a major opportunity for investors who are savvy enough to invest in it.

A few recent deals and maneuvers, The Establishment included, suggest that investors and media companies are making moves to reach these millennial women. In September, Lena Dunham and her Girls producing partner Jenni Konner, launched Lenny, a weekly newsletter dedicated to “feminism, style, health, politics, friendship and more,” according to its site. And just last week, Time Inc. bought Zooey Deschanel’s startup Hello Giggles, a popular website focused on female readers, for an estimated $30 million. With 11 million unique visitors in September (up from 721,000 from three years ago), most of whom are females between the ages of 18 and 34, the site was seen as an opportunity for video growth and advertising, as well as other sources of revenue.

We believe it’s good business. Half the population is women. Women are leading in every other industry. And there is a tremendous demographic shift.”

“We see great potential, because they haven’t had the capital to staff up for video or advertising at the levels they want,” Rich Battista, a veteran media exec who joined Time earlier this year, told The Wall Street Journal. “This will also enable them to add more writers and editors. We think they’ll be able to expand into TV, movies, books, e-commerce and events.”

Big tech money is also flowing towards women. In June, Intel Capital, the venture arm of Intel, announced it would invest $125 million over the next five years in tech companies run by women and minorities. The announcement marked the first stage of the company’s larger plan to invest $300 million to diversify talent and leadership in the tech industry. Venturebeat.com called it “a huge commitment that dwarfs other efforts to change the face of Silicon Valley.”

Intel called it smart strategy.

“The big issue we have seen, because venture capitalists are on the leading edge, is that we need to engage here,” Lisa Lambert, Intel Capital’s team leader for investments in software and services and the head of its Diversity Fund, told Venturebeat.com.* “We see a lack of engagement and involvement across the industry as a whole. We want to be a catalyst. We believe it’s good business. Half the population is women. Women are leading in every other industry. And there is a tremendous demographic shift.”

Given the increasingly close alignment of tech and journalism, it should be interesting to watch how Intel’s money shapes the new face of digital media startups.

If The Establishment is any indication, that new face could mean more women on the masthead and more minority voices, backed by a diversity of revenue streams. In September, the startup landed Ijeoma Oluo, a prominent writer and race activist on Twitter, as one of its staff writers, and it is establishing content-sharing partnerships with other female-led media startups, including Dame and Bitch. In addition to advertising, grants, and sponsorships, the site plans to monetize through live events that can tap into an upswell of feminist media voices.

“I think it’s important that we support each other vis-à-vis visibility,” Calkins says, speaking of pooling resources with other women-run companies. “At a time when media is so dominated by men”—a recent study by the Women’s Media Center found that men had 63.4% of bylines—“a lot of stories don’t get told [if they] don’t resonate with the editor. We’re just trying to tip the scales, make it a little bit more even.”

As for Stark, she says her former connection to Intel had no bearing on her decision to fund The Establishment. That decision, Stark says, was driven by a frustration she shared with the site’s founders over being sidelined in the workplace, along with the conviction that their business plan belongs to the future of news.

Stark also tips her hat to the work of Maria Klawe, a mathematician and computer scientist who has quadrupled the number of female computer science majors at Harvey Mudd college, where she’s also president, using some deceptively simple strategies; they’ve included renaming entry-level computer science classes in a way that helped stop women from self-selecting out of them, and “visualizing success.”

“I heard her speak years ago about how she did this. Now about 40 percent of her computer science graduates are women,” Stark says. “I sort of see The Establishment as that entry-level class. We are just feeling our way towards redesigning the newsroom.”

*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name and title for Lisa Lambert, Intel Capital’s team leader for investments in software and services.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.