HearstLab’s VP Lisa Burton talks about why we need to invest in women-led startups and the importance of mentorship for women entrepreneurs.

7 Questions with HearstLab's VP Lisa Burton

Apr 26, 2021

by Chitra Sethi

As vice president at HearstLab Lisa Burton O’Toole, evaluates and invests in women-led startups in media, data, and technology. In 2020, Burton received ASME’s Kate Gleason Award, honoring women entrepreneurs who make a significant contribution to the engineering community. As passionate as she is about promoting entrepreneurship among technically minded women, Burton is equally driven to nurturing young and rising engineers. She earned her master’s and doctorate in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Q1: Can you tell us more about your role at HearstLab?
L.B: Our mission is to help close the funding gap by gender for startups and bring visibility and opportunity to women. My role is to make that happen. A big part of what I focus on is startups—both evaluating prospective startups for investment and also in supporting our portfolio companies, those companies that we have already invested in. I work directly with the founders to identify what they need and either help them by drawing on my experience as a former founder or connecting them to our broader network.

Q2. Can you tell me more about the decision to focus on investing in women-led startups?
L.B: We invest in women-led startups because it’s a great market opportunity. The research that shows diverse leadership teams outperform their counterparts is pretty overwhelming. For example, women-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams. We also see that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to exit, about a year faster compared to the rest of the market. What’s shocking is that despite results like this, just 2.8 percent of venture capital funding goes to female-founded teams. If you add in mixed gender teams, it goes up to about 11.5 percent. So for every dollar from venture capital, less than 12 cents go to startups with a female founder. It still surprises me that more investors aren’t taking this data seriously. That’s what we are doing—backing the more efficient and better-performing teams.

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Q3: How has your background in engineering helped you in this role?
L.B: I am a strong believer that a background in engineering helps in just about any role as engineers are great problem solvers. We are great at systematically evaluating systems and thinking creatively about how to scale while weighing risks. Most jobs can be broken down into those components. We live in this world where everything around us is increasingly data driven. So the ability to look at a system and parse out what metrics are important and how to measure them goes a really long way. Engineers are great at this. I use that same approach to my job every single day. I even get to use my data science muscles from time to time. Some of the teams we invest in are three to four people, and they don’t usually have a data scientist on board, so often I act as their “part-time data scientist” and work directly with the founders to help them develop initial machine learning models for their businesses.

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Q4: Finding a mentor can be valuable, especially for women in male-dominated industries. Did you have a mentor?
L.B: I think it is important to acknowledge that mentors are great for both women and men. There are certain times where it’s important to have a mentor of the same gender. But generally, I found that having both men and women as mentors is really beneficial. As both an undergraduate and graduate researcher, I had two advisors in each instance, one man and one woman. This balance works really well. Having diversity of perspectives on a leadership team makes a better business. The same thing is true here. Having a diversity of perspectives on you and your career path is really important.

Q5: How does one go about finding a mentor?
L.B: What I’ve seen work with our founders is that the best mentors are those that are just one step ahead of you, or even your peers. It’s important to remember that your mentor doesn’t need to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And in fact, if you get someone who is so far away from where you are in your career, and it’s probably been so long since they were in your shoes and facing the challenges that you’re facing, that they’re not going to be as helpful as someone who just graduated from your level. The other thing to remember is that it’s good to have mentors for different purposes and it’s a lot to expect one person to be your go-to for everything.

Q6: Is there a concern that the gains made in past decade to recruit more women into STEM fields maybe lost due to the work-from-home dynamic caused by the pandemic?
L.B: This is a real risk that could be devastating. And not just to women in STEM, but to any industry that relies on people who are caregivers. I see three main groups that need to be onboard to solve this caregiving crisis. First is government leaders. People like Melinda Gates are currently advocating for a caregiving czar and for the new administration to focus on exactly this issue. The second group is companies. We need executives to see that doing nothing and ignoring this problem isn’t an option. The third is startups, and we’re already seeing more and more startups trying to solve pieces of caregiving challenges.

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Q7: What would you say today to the next generation of girls who may be considering engineering as a career choice?
L.B: Do it! We need you and you are such an important part of the future. Engineering prepares you to succeed in almost any field. Also, for this next generation, something else that’s important to understand is the impact that they’ll have on products and companies that are built. We really need diverse teams working on technical problems.

Chitra Sethi is executive editor, media.

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