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A force to be reckoned with: Caitlin Illes

by Zilla Efrat | 01 Nov 2017

For the first 11 years of Caitlin Illes schooling, she struggled with reading and writing due to having dyslexia. Caitlin Iles

It wasn't until she was in Year 12, that she realised she continue in this state, so she confided to her dad. His response was unexpected: “If Richard Branson can do it, so can you.”

That really stuck. “I inhaled all the content I could get on Richard and he became a mentor of sorts without even knowing me,” she says.

“I don’t know that if I hadn’t had someone to look up to whether I would have continued to strive and work so hard.”

Iles became a psychologist, focusing on drug rehabilitation, and then went on to work in variety of sectors (advertising, advisory and enterprise) and in places like the Middle East, Europe and US.

Inspired by her entrepreneurial dad, she became a serial entrepreneur. Her first venture, at an early age, involved rescuing failed racing horses and training them. It certainly wasn’t profitable. However, she says: “It was an interesting learning experience on how to make enough money to have another horse and then another.”

Since then, she’s had many entrepreneurial businesses in various of different areas. “I started up a property investment company and it’s just continued from there. I think it’s deep in my DNA.”

These skills appealed to the team at Artesian Venture Partners, which hired her as their managing director in 2013. She helped Artesian to raise around $100 million and establish Australia's largest portfolio of early stage start-ups.

“Artesian took a very non-traditional approach to venture capital because traditional venture capital in Australia, let alone in other countries, has not delivered for investors. In fact, in Australia over the past 10 years, it has delivered -5.5 per cent return,” explains Iles.

“Artesian embraced an approach that it saw work in different areas of the financial sector and applied it to venture capital. It’s predominantly portfolio theory: invest in lots of start-ups, know that 90 per cent will fail, continue to concentrate your investment on those showing traction and let the market decide. The fund is now delivering returns above where we expected.”

Two years ago, Iles had the opportunity to visit Necker Island and spend 10 days with Branson and thank him for the influence he’d had on her career.

Branson asked her what she was committed to. She explained that she’d become an unlikely educator in the new economy and had a business concept in mind – Xchange to help women start-up founders – that she or someone else should take further.

“Richard circled me out and asked: ‘Why are you not doing it?’ He championed me to test my own boundaries and I started to look at Xchange and bringing it to life,” says Iles.

She left Artesian and spent a year trying to understand what holds female founders back and how to help them.

She says: “The view has been that we should have gender equality. But that’s very difficult to translate into a measurable impact when there isn’t a business case that explains why this is important.”

So Iles worked on creating this business case and found that on average, female founders deliver a 35 per cent higher return on investment than the rest of the market and 12 per cent more revenue. Their company valuations pre-exit are also 64 per cent greater.

Why? “It has been shown consistently that women find it harder to get the capital to invest in their businesses and so when they get it, they use it far more efficiently and effectively,” explains Iles.

“Yet, female funders receive less than 7 per cent of all venture capital funding at present. Women have been undervalued and underserviced. While it feels like there’s been a lot of change, the statistics are not showing that we are driving positive change in the right direction.”

Iles says, to the best of her knowledge, Xchange will be the largest early stage fund for female founders in the world.

Called Capital xx – for the female chromosomes – it plans to raise $50 million and invest in up to 500 female founders in Australia, Asia and beyond, trying to mimic the success Iles had with the Artesian portfolio. It will be supported by an education platform and mentoring at many different levels.

She says Xchange plans to “disrupt the venture capitalist model and the way things have been done before”.

Caitlin will be one of FINSIA's guest speakers at our next instalment of the Future of Finance series. Register now.

Future of Finance - v3 - All dates

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