When Nava Swersky created the world’s first female-led venture capital funds, Columbine Ventures in 2000 in partnership with Shamrock – the investment arm of the Roy Disney family – a technology writer from a major Israeli daily approached her to an interview.
Nava told her that aside from the fact that Columbine was an all-female venture capital firm, there was nothing else to write about at the time and asked her to approach him when he would be something concrete from a commercial point of view.
“I wanted to be taken seriously as a businessman and not as a curiosity. And that’s what happened. In 2003, we made a very good deal for one of our companies; it was the deal of the year as well as the release of the year,” she says. His history.
The reporter ended up writing an article about Columbine that year, including the “all women” tidbit. “But it wasn’t the hook,” Nava points out. “It was important to me to be taken seriously and not at face value for what we were doing.”
Recently, the entrepreneur-turned-VC was in India to mentor 26 female entrepreneurs under the Advanced Entrepreneurship Program organized by the Embassy of Israel in India in collaboration with IIT Delhi and WEE Foundation.
India and Israel are celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations.
Put on different hats
Nava’s family has its roots in South Africa, and she is a first-generation Israeli. She started her career as a lawyer and served as a litigator for several years in the Israeli army before pursuing an MBA at IMD, one of the best schools in Europe.
She received an offer to join Ciba (now Novartis) at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. It was the start of a long career in the biomedical, pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. After five years, she moved to California and into venture capital with Novartis.
There she joined Sanderling, one of the first and largest healthcare investment firms, and began to focus on early-stage investments.
“I went from being a very large company to start-ups starting with academic research and giving them their first funding. I discovered that I loved the ability to make a difference with what I had learned…to use it to make a difference in health care and entrepreneurship,” she says.
It was the early 90s and there were very few women in venture capital. She decided to return to Israel and create her own fund to invest in the biomedical field.
When Nava set out to build a team, she found that the best people for positions were women.
“And so, I ended up founding the world’s first all-female venture capital firm, quite by chance. I have to admit, I wasn’t just looking for women, just good people. And, as it happens, they were women, so we ended up with half a dozen women in the office,” she says.
In 2005, she was recruited to lead Yissum Research Development Corporationthe Hebrew University Technology Transfer Society.
Ranked among the top technology transfer companies in the world, Yissum holds 7,000 patents covering 2,000 inventions, has licensed 530 technologies and established 72 companies. Licensed products generate over $2 billion in annual sales.
And that’s not all. In 2008, Nava founded NanoIsrael, a platform to showcase Israeli nanotechnology and encourage industry-academia collaborations.
“We’ve brought in thousands of people from 36 countries, creating many opportunities by transferring technology from industry to business, which has always been my passion,” she says.
From STEM to STEAM
“From STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math)” is Nava’s favorite tagline, which recognizes the role of the arts in the larger scheme of things.
She created a postgraduate entrepreneurship and innovation program at the Rimon School of Music, a leading institute in Israel affiliated with Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Nava explains: “We teach entrepreneurship, innovation and programming. The idea is to give musicians an insight into the corporate world, a basic understanding of the tools they are going to need.
She points out that not all music school graduates become full-time musicians.
“With this program, they are exposed to the industry. Recently I hosted the CEO of Waves Audio, one of the world’s most successful music technology companies, which makes plugins – pieces of software that drive sound into everything we use, from laptops to live concerts, and of course, recorded music. He shared his story with the students and they understood it as a business,” she adds.
In addition to being a VC and an entrepreneur, Nava also sits on the board of many companies and says that while these different roles were unintended, she is passionate about her commitment to mentoring women, gender equity, equality and equal opportunity in the workplace and beyond. .
Which brings us to the question: has female entrepreneurship really changed over the years?
“The biggest change we see in recent years is that the issue is on the table. There have always been women entrepreneurs, but we were a tiny minority and no effort was made to increase that number, and women received very little support in a male-dominated society,” she says.
Nava states the obvious when she says that even today a very small percentage of funding goes to women entrepreneurs.
“We are not asking for special rights, we want equal treatment.”
While Israeli law specifies a woman on the board, Nava insists that is not enough.
“If there are fewer women, you’re missing out on the obvious financial benefits of diversity. It’s well documented – diverse boards lead to better financial results and companies need that,” she says.
Mentoring women entrepreneurs in India
Commenting on the collaboration between the Israeli Embassy, ITI Delhi and the WEE Foundation, Nava says, “I am very impressed with the women in the group. There was a wide variety of fields, from water purification, waste water treatment, vehicles, FMCGs, etc. We had a demo day on the last day, and a number of participants will be selected to come to Israel as part of Indian business delegations and will be introduced to start-up nations and will hopefully be able to find business connections here.
Nava was impressed with the vision behind each startup.
“Each of these women had taken their own personal experience and their own pain to find a solution. What was also impressive was the entrepreneurial drive, levels of commitment and accomplishments they were able to deliver with very little funding.
Supporting women in STEM
In 2021, McKinsey in association with Leanin.org released the Women in the workplace report, speaking of the “broken rung” that still holds women back.
Nava believes that it is not enough to attract women, it is necessary to ensure that they progress and move up the ranks.
“What we really need to do, we need to fix the workplace, we need to fix the employers, we need to make sure real action is taken. For example, if you have to nominate candidates for a position, nominate an equal number of men and women – make it mandatory – and that makes a huge difference,” she says.
“Mentoring is not enough,” she points out.
“When I’m in a workplace and I want people to move up the ladder, I have to stand up for that. I have to actively help them. Those who defend others must necessarily be women. Nor do mentors have to be women. But the people who are defended should be women, because they don’t get the same level of hearing or screen time.
She stresses that it is time for big business to support, promote and defend women. And as we move forward, the responsibility must rest with employers, companies, businesses and policy makers.
“We should also start talking about working parents, not just mothers. When we do that, it will bring significant change,” she says.
Nava is happy that the younger generation realizes this and spends more time with their children than their predecessors.
As for the future, she says she would like to come to India regularly.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface. There is room to do so much more together. This program gave me a desire to come back and hopefully help make a difference,” says Nava.