Maria Toler Velissaris knows all too well that a country’s economy suffers when poor health among women is deprioritized and ignored. “Women make up 50 percent of the world’s population,” says Velissaris. “Yet, very few investment dollars go towards women’s health solutions.” After several years of mentoring and investing in female-led start-ups, she discovered that women’s health companies received less funding than their women-led counterparts in other sectors. Recent figures back Velissaris’ finding: Women founders get less than 3 percent of $85 billion in venture capital (VC) funding, and only 4 percent of health-care research dollars are spent on women’s health care.
That glaring funding gap drove Velissaris to launch SteelSky Ventures, one of the first venture capital funds solely focused on women’s health. “We’re investing in health care to significantly improve access, care, and outcomes in women’s health globally,” says Velissaris. SteelSky Ventures has funneled millions of dollars into telemedicine, digital health applications, and other innovations, including technologies that help reduce maternal mortality rates and treat stigmatized reproductive health issues. It’s also giving diverse start-up communities access to diverse investors. “If more women and investors of color are able to raise funds, then we’ll be able to invest in and empower our own communities to create a sustainable venture ecosystem,” says Velissaris.
Velissaris is realizing that vision with hard capital. SteelSky Ventures has invested in eight women-led health-care start-ups—including industry star 23andMe—and plans to fund 30 more women’s health companies over the next three years. Velissaris is a charter member of the NJ Golden Seeds angel investing community and a member of Pipeline Angels, an angel investing network that’s provided over $6 million in funding to 70+ women- and non-binary femme-led companies. As a leading voice on gender equity investing and inclusive entrepreneurship, she also serves on the advisory board of the Yale University School of Medicine’s Center for Digital Health and Innovation.
Where traditional VCs see a niche investment, SteelSky Ventures eyes an underfunded and underestimated sector that can deliver lasting returns. “Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause don’t stop because the market goes down,” says Velissaris. “Women’s health care is recession-proof, and investors are missing out.” More importantly, she thinks they’re passing up a golden opportunity to create real impact around the world. “I’ve learned that you can’t wait for someone else to fix the problems you want to solve,” she says. “You have to start somewhere, and that change must start with you.”