At a Berkeley open innovation course hosted by Henry Chesbrough in December 2018, John Chambers, then CEO of US-based network equipment company Cisco, reportedly asked: “What do you think is the next big investment opportunity?”

John Chambers, then-CEO of US-based network equipment company Cisco, in December 2018 at a World Open Innovation Conference organised by Henry Chesbrough reportedly asked: “What do you think is the next big investment opportunity?”

The audience, which was 80% to 90% men according to one attendee, suggested artificial intelligence and the usual hot tech areas.

Chambers however opted for female-led startups, as they were underfunded and hence undervalued. This is one of the foundational stories behind the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) latest report on women entrepreneurs, which details how it and the European Commission (EC) are throwing their weight behind the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which is calling for the world to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

The bank, under its exemplary innovation finance advisory head, Shiva Dustdar, has spent the past three years diving into the topic and has come up with some admirable recommendations off data prepared in partnership with Pitchbook.

In 2017, US-based startups founded exclusively by female entrepreneurs received roughly 2% of overall venture investment even though 38% of startup founders are women. Women-led startups based in the European Union secured 11% of venture capital funding in that region in 2017 while women made up 30% of the total number of entrepreneurs. In Israel, women-led companies secured 28.3% of the funding that year.

However, when looking at the actual amounts in each year the pattern is less promising outside of the US. As PitchBook data in the EIB report shows, while women-driven companies in the EU received a record €5bn ($5.55bn) in venture capital funding in the first three quarters of 2018 (up from €1.1bn in 2010), this is a fraction of the €34.2bn (€7.2bn in 2010) that women-driven companies received for the same period in the US.

At an individual level the reality is stark. Sweden, as the fifth most active country among EU Member States in this criterion, had just five women-led businesses raise a series C funding round between 2006 and 2018. Five. Out of a population of more than 10 million people, just over half of whom are of course female.

The UK, as Europe’s most developed venture ecosystem and also Europe’s leader in this category, had 48 in this period of over a dozen years.

At 110, the entirety of Europe’s seasoned, female-led, later-stage, venture-backed businesses could fit on a small plane, across a continent of nearly 400 million people that is in aggregate the world’s largest trading area.

As the EIB report said: “A combination of lack of female representation among founders and investors, gender investment bias and risk aversion creates a vicious circle that is difficult to break.”

The EC has started to make the smallest of moves over the past two decades. Last year’s Investor Day “dedicated to empowering women innovators,” had two of the 13 finalists selected to receive funding from the European Innovation Council, its multi-billion program for excellence. Two.

The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report said in 2018 that at this rate it will take another 108 years to close the gender gap.

Still, the rate of change and improvement is increasing. As the EIB report said: “There is a paramount need to increase the quantum of financing available to female entrepreneurs and women-led companies via existing and potentially dedicated innovative financing mechanisms. At the same time, efforts should be made to support a growing base of female investors on the supply side.”

Here, corporate venturing plays an important role. About a fifth of the most important CVC units are led by women according to the GCV Powerlist, and nearly half of the Rising Stars tracked by Global Corporate Venturing in an industry employing nearly 20,000 people.

This month’s promotion of Lara Koole to investment director at Philips Ventures, the corporate venturing unit for Netherlands-based Royal Philips, where she heads up the European investments of the Philips Health Technology Venture Fund, reflects the calibre of the emerging leaders making the world a better place.