A Holiday Gift Giving Playbook

A cartoon of a woman reaching a hand up as she is buried in a mountain of presents and objects.
Original cartoon by Liza Donnelly

As published as part of the SheMoney newsletter on LinkedIn.

‘Tis the Season… to shop. According to a recent estimate, Americans will spend around $860 billion this holiday season. This article also notes that compared to last year, Americans overall have more money to spend on themselves and on others. However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Because the fact of the matter is that most of us are over-consumers, meaning we buy and own more than we need. And during the holiday season, we likely buy presents for others who are also over-consumers, and who also don’t need more stuff. All of which is incredibly damaging to our environment as well as our bank accounts. That being said, if we stop over buying things, our economy will grind to a halt, good businesses will go under, and people will financially suffer. Our economy relies on over-consumption to grow.

So the question becomes this: How do I, you, all of us, reconcile the fact that in order to save our planet, we need to buy less, and yet if we don’t continue to buy stuff, particularly from women+ and other marginalized communities, our economy will tank and businesses owned by women+ will suffer? Furthermore, every dollar that we spend on more stuff is a dollar that is not saved, not invested, and cannot be used to buy us the most precious thing of all – financial freedom. Of course, the goal is not to be a Grinch, either towards ourselves or towards others. Instead, the answer is more conscious consumerism. So this holiday season, I decided to create a shopping and gift-giving playbook to help guide myself, and you if you are interested, with this process. But first, a confession.

I’m a “shopper”. This is the label that some of my family and friends have given me. Of course, being a “shopper” could just literally mean a person who is shopping. But in my case, it means a person who LOVES to shop. As my mom likes to say, “Jacki has never gone into a store that she hasn’t liked.” This may not be exactly true, but it is somewhat true. And therefore, because of this, I decided to do what I have never done, and I looked up the definition of a shopping addict. It is quite an expansive definition, and while I don’t fit neatly into it, I messily do. As I said. I’m a shopper.

Over the years, I have justified my overconsumption with the fact that I can afford it. I also compare myself to some of my friends and think to myself, “I spend less than they do, so I’m good.” Talk about a slippery slope. I also tell myself that buying things, especially from women+ founders and business owners, is a good thing. And it is. But I can support women+ businesses and still have an overconsumption problem. By acknowledging this to myself, and to you, I am bringing more self-awareness to my behaviors and invite you to do the same. Bottom line, as a society, we need to consume less, consume more responsibly, and if we all come together in this, we can truly have a big impact.

Conscious consumerism — sometimes called ethical consumerism or conscientious consumerism — is shopping in ways one believes makes a positive social, environmental, or economic impact.

This is a massively, and I mean massively significant concept to embrace, especially in a culture where we use the phrase “change the world” way too much. This behavior, when adopted at critical mass, truly will change our communities, not to mention the world more generally. Back in 2012, I gave a TEDxWomen talk in which I declared that our spending dollars are the most underused tool for social change. And I stand by that declaration nearly a decade later. In the US, women control up to 85% of consumer purchasing decisions, and therefore any mass change in our spending habits will be instantaneously felt. This is why buycotts are perhaps the most powerful tool in a financial activist’s playbook.

So this holiday season, of course it’s wonderful to give presents to your loved ones, but my invitation is to do so more intentionally. I am trying to do it more intentionally. Take a little extra time to think about what you are buying, and maybe even do a little homework before making your purchases. To help with this, I decided to create a 2021 holiday shopping playbook, although I should say that this is still a work in progress. I welcome YOUR ideas and feedback once you’ve had a read through.

1) Make a list of the people to whom you want to give gifts, and create both a per person and overall spending budget. Review it, perhaps edit it down, and then review it again. Really know what you are spending this year and can afford to spend. And don’t forget about charitable gifting as well. Did you have an especially prosperous year? If so, great, be generous!

2) Think about what would be a meaningful gift for each person. I have often fallen into the trap of buying things that I like for a person, rather than taking the time to think about what the recipient would really like. Because if the recipient doesn’t need it, like it, or want it, the purchase is truly a waste. If the goal of gift giving is an expression of love and generosity, take a minute to make it so.

3) People often say that our most valuable resource is time, so think about giving a togetherness gift. Does your friend love movies, hikes, foot massages, or going to a new restaurant? If so, make the gift time together doing what they like and you treat! And because it is so easy to not make it happen, make sure you take the time to schedule it.

A photo of two jars of homemade jam sitting on a table in front of a sign that says Merry ChristmasNo alt text provided for this image

3) Homemade gifts are awesome. Yes to a plate of homemade cookies, but also, get creative. This year, I plan on making a big pot of soup, Russian borscht, that is a family recipe, and gifting it along with some fresh bread and the recipe. I also made jam and canned peaches with fruit from our family orchard this past summer, and it will also go into baskets with some cheese and crackers. (check out @hoffmanorchards on instagram) Personally, I love giving and receiving food gifts, especially when they are packaged with love.

A photo of homemade crafts and food items, packaged in plastic and sitting in a line on a table.No alt text provided for this image

4) Shop local holiday markets. This past weekend I went to one here in Park City, and I loaded up on homemade bath balms, chocolate covered pretzels, and other locally made goodies. Not only do you meet the maker, but you also keep your money in your community and support local entrepreneurs and artisans.

5) Give photos in a frame that captures a memory from the year. In a world where most photos are viewed digitally, taking the time to print a photo and frame it is both thoughtful and awesome.

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6) Give books. For me, I have been digging reading poetry this past year so I have handpicked some poetry books that are aligned to my friends interests and life events.

7) Give cash gifts. I have often felt strange giving cash gifts thinking it may be perceived as not thoughtful or intentional. If you really don’t know what to give someone, and/or you know that they may really appreciate pure financial support, cash with a thoughtful note may be perfect.

8) Buy from women+ owned and operated businesses (this is, after all, SheMoney). You can do this for local businesses or online, or even brands that you find at big box retailers. And if you need some suggestions of where to start, check out The Verticale, which just partnered with The Helm and brings forth women-owned and sustainable offerings. You can also check out the Holiday Gift Guide by the Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College which I just received in my inbox. I am also going to take a moment to shamelessly champion two companies that are owned by friends of mine; Zenzee by Sharon Backurz and Michael Stars by Suzanne Lerner. They both produce gorgeous women’s clothing. (photo of me with Sharon)

A photo of author Jacki Zehner in front of a photo of Sharon Backurz.No alt text provided for this image

8) And finally, what about all the big producers and retailers? Thankfully, there are many resources available to help you make smart decisions about which ones to support and which ones to avoid. One of the tools I use is GenderFair, which ranks a company’s commitment to gender equality. You can download the app, or sign-up to be sent a shopping guide of the best companies in lots of different consumer categories by clicking here and scrolling to the bottom.

One final note. I just finished reading The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel. In it, Housel talks about having goals around money, and how his primary goal is independence. He says that, “independence at any income level is driven by your savings rate”, and the big message of the book is to save more. The key to saving more? Not wasting money. So this holiday season, know that it’s possible to be intentional, generous, and loving in your gift-giving, while also spending less and saving more.

As mentioned above, this guide is a work in progress. I would love to hear ideas you have about holiday gift giving. If you have favorite companies and platforms, share those too!

Happy holidays! Wishing each and every one of you health and happiness.

Introducing SheMoney! What’s Your Money Story?

As published on LinkedIn as part of the SheMoney newsletter.

Why is money called dough?

Because we all knead it.

I know, I know. Not the greatest joke about money. But I’m about to start talking about something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and so I thought I’d open with a joke.

But puns aside, let’s talk about money. That’s right. Money. Let’s say it together shall we? Money.

Money is any object that is generally accepted as payment for goods and services and repayment of debts in a given country or socio-economic context. The main functions of money are distinguished as: a medium of exchange; a unit of account; a store of value; and, occasionally, a standard of deferred payment.

When you think about it, it’s a rather small word for something that means so much. Like air and water, money is a resource that we all need to survive. It is something that shapes all of our lives in countless ways, and yet, for many reasons, money remains a taboo topic. Especially among women.

I want to change that.

That’s why for the first anniversary of the SheInvests newsletter, I am changing the name to SheMoney. I want to broaden the conversation beyond just investing, because money is so much more than investment capital. Importantly, SheMoney will continue to employ a gender lens, because as a woman and a financial feminist, my primary goal is to help other women on their money journeys.

I should note that writing about money is not new for me. The SheInvests newsletter may have only launched last September, but I have been writing about money since 2008 when I started blogging under the tagline, “On women, money, and changing the world.” Nearly 800 articles later, I’ve learned a few things. And as I look ahead to the next 800, I know there are a lot of things that I have yet to learn. But one of the things that I have definitively learned is just how many people have money “issues”. Heck, I have money issues. I have a history with money, beliefs about money, and habits around money. Some of them are serving me, and some of them are not. And I’m sure the same is true for you. So I’m inviting you to join me on this money journey to explore how we all might positively engage with our financial resources to better serve us, our loved ones, and the world more generally.

Money is like an iron ring we put through our nose. It is now leading us around whever it wants. We just forget that we are the ones who designed it. – Mark Kinney ( and pulled from the highly recommended book The Soul of Money by the incredible Lynne Twist)

A great place to start is with an invitation to you to think about your money story. What are some of your earliest memories about money? What did your parents teach you about money? What did they not teach you? Do you remember the first time you got paid for your labor and how that felt? Do you have a propensity to be a saver or a spender, and where do you think those habits might have originated? Do you have any fears around money? Have you had any extremely negative or positive experiences with money? Right at this moment, how would you rate on a scale of 1 to 10 your comfort level as it relates to talking about money issues with your partner and/or best friend?

Are you uncomfortable yet? I told you this wasn’t the easiest topic to wrap your head around. So in the interest of getting the ball rolling, I’ll start. Here is a bit of my money story.

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I grew up in a small town in Canada called Kelowna. I had very hard-working, awesome parents. For most of my life, my dad worked at, then managed, then finally owned a grocery store. My mom worked in insurance, real estate (their Century21 Real Estate photo), and other jobs. My mom’s family was lower income than my dad’s, and my grandmother, who lived until the age of 97, was a housekeeper for most of her working life. Her name was Sadie and I wrote about her in this article a few years ago. My sister and I are first generation university graduates. We were a family that had enough, but we only had enough because my parents worked their butts off to provide for us. Of course, there were many times when my parents had financial stress, but they pretty much kept it hidden from us as children. It is only now when I have asked them about their money stories that I have learned just how much they struggled, especially when they mortgaged all they had to buy the a business, a grocery store, when interest rates were 18%.

Looking back, the primary lesson I learned from my parents is that money is what you earn when you work hard. It is what you are paid for producing a good or a service. I also learned that money went into a bank account where you would earn interest, you should never spend more than you earn, you should only borrow money to buy a major asset like a business, car, or house, and finally, that money should not be wasted! Both my parents, but especially my dad, has ‘fairness’ as a thinking talent , and how that manifests is paying the ‘fair and right’ price for goods and services. I have that embedded in me too. To this day I get a lot of anxiety when I feel that I have overpaid for something, which is not the same thing as paying a lot for something. Overpaying is connected to feelings of being taking advantage of while buying something that may cost a lot is a choice.

Before I had a bank account, I had a piggy bank, and in it would go the coins and bills that somehow ended up in my possession. I remember liking the clinking sound when another one was dropped in, and I understood at a very early age that having money meant you could get the things that you wanted. Not needed, that was mom and dad’s job, but wanted. And what I wanted was to be rich.

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Rich like the people on the shows Dallas and Dynasty. People who had mansions, great clothes, nice cars, servants, and lived in Texas. They were also all white, but I wasn’t socially aware enough at that point to realize the social and societal implications of that just yet. Nor did I understand the enormous amount of privilege I had growing up in a white, middle class family, with ample social structures designed to support people like me. That awareness and knowledge would come later. All I knew as a kid watching those shows was that I wanted to grow up to wear expensive jackets with shoulder pads and attend fabulous parties.

My first job was working at a concession stand at the local hockey arena, and I think my pay was around $2.75 an hour, which was the minimum wage in 1977. Let me tell you, it was an awesome job for a 13 year old hockey loving Canadian girl. I got to do math in my head all day long, I got paid a fixed amount per hour (plus tips!), I got to meet boys, and I got to snack on popcorn for free whenever I wanted. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite foods.

Awesome first job? Check. And this is very important, because it meant I had very positive early experiences around money and math. I was both money confident and math confident from a young age, and I know that that made a huge difference in terms of why I ended up having the career that I did. This confidence followed me from job to job, and I went on to work at Dairy Queen, Footlocker, Fashion Corner, and as a cashier at my father’s grocery store. Being a cashier in those days was a whole different experience than it is now. It meant a lot of memorization of prices and codes, handling cash, and making change the old fashioned way. There was no computer telling me that if the total was $17.50 and someone gave me a $20 that the change was $2.50. Again, money and math, all before I turned 20. Looking back, I always had a job growing up, and the vast majority of the money I earned, I saved. What I did spend was very intentional and on things I really wanted and loved. I was very money motivated, always. In fact, in my high school yearbook where you capture your aspirations, I said, “I want to make a million dollars by the time I am 30”. The year was 1982.

After high school, I went to study psychology at a local community college. I was planning on following that up with law school, because all the wealthiest characters on TV seemed to be lawyers. However, on a trip to Vancouver to visit the University of British Columbia, I happened to attend a party at my cousin’s place with all her commerce and business school buddies. Far too many beers later, they had convinced me that business was the way to go, and I applied to the faculty of commerce the next day.

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Luckily I was accepted, and I was working towards a marketing degree when I heard of a brand new program being created at the university called the Portfolio Management Program. Six students would be selected to manage a real endowment fund, and I was fortunate enough to get picked. I quickly changed my major to finance, did internships at a brokerage and money management firm, and graduated with several job offers in the field, including one to become an analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York City in the mortgage finance department. The professional world of money was now my world.

Slight side note. I feel I need to acknowledge that college was very inexpensive in Canada at that time, and due to scholarships, bursaries, my savings, and help from my parents, I did not incur any college debt. I’m also very much aware of what an extraordinary privilege that was. The carry forward of educational debt is a huge issue today, and it will be the subject of a future article in terms of its magnitude, implications, and inequities, as well as tips on managing it. But back to my story.

I still remember my first day at Goldman Sachs. I arrived so early that I sat on a bench outside 85 Broad Street in downtown Manhattan and wondered how in the world someone from small town Canada could ever end up there. But I was there, and it was at Goldman Sachs, perhaps the most prestigious Wall Street firm, that I truly learned about financial instruments and markets, economic systems, and the power of money. I went from my starting position as an analyst, to the youngest woman and first female trader to make partner in just eight years. My husband, now of over 25 years, also made partner the same year as me, and we became Goldman’s first partner couple.

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During my time at Goldman, I worked for many men. In fact, I only worked for men, and many of them were legends in the field of finance. Three of them went on to become Treasury Secretaries of the United States, including the most recent one in the Trump administration, Steven Mnuchin, who was my direct boss for many years. Throughout my career, I had many sponsors and champions, but I also experienced some pretty extreme sexual harassment. I saw first hand how few women and people of color were in leadership roles, both at Goldman and in financial services more generally, and I made it my job to try and change that. For me, money was, is, a resource, but it represents something so much bigger. It represents careers, institutions, power, the patriarchy.

For example, I received many big pay checks while working for Goldman, but I also knew that I was underpaid at different points of my career relative to some of my peers, almost all of whom were men. Early on in my career, I found myself working for someone I did not respect and who did not treat me with respect. As a result, I interviewed outside of the firm and got a job offer that was double my Goldman salary. However, when I went in to resign, my boss at the time, Michael Mortara, would not accept my resignation. Instead, he took me to lunch in the partners dining room and asked me why I was leaving, and I went on and on about how I was treated and underpaid. Together we came up with a plan to make things better. While he could not match the competing salary, he promised me that he would effectively be my sponsor, keep a closer eye on my career, and look to move me away from my manager at the time. I grabbed a pen and wrote his commitments down on the back of a cloth napkin, including a line that said, “I will do my best to help Jacki get paid $1 million dollars one day”, and he signed it. I still have that napkin.

That was the experience where I learned to self advocate. I learned to ask for what I wanted, and to make sure I had a sponsor who believed in me. And I did. I had an incredible sponsor in Mike Mortara and I made partner. By 1997, I was married with our first child, and despite our combined salaries, we were living well below our financial means, living in the tiniest make-shift three bedroom apartment you could find in New York. My husband had a similar financial upbringing as me, and it worked for us. However, in 1999, Goldman went public, and I was suddenly and very officially a very wealthy person. It was weird, and I worried a lot about how it might affect relationships. That feeling was driven home one day when a dear friend told me, “Jacki, I don’t think we can be friends anymore because we are now in very different socioeconomic classes.” I challenged her, arguing that I would continue to be as cheap as ever, and we laughed it off. But it was something that has stayed with me all these years. I’ve known a lot of rich assholes, and I vowed never to become one.

I ultimately left Goldman in 2002. I was the mother of two young kids, we had moved to the suburbs, and we were financially set because both my husband and I had benefited greatly from Goldman’s IPO. But as the saying goes, with great (monetary) power comes great responsibility, and I felt the weight of that responsibility greatly. That’s why I was determined to manage our wealth in a way that would also benefit others. It is a value that my parents imparted on me from a young age, especially my mom. Even though we didn’t have a lot of extra money when I was growing up, I absolutely consider my mom to be a philanthropist. She cared for and served others in countless ways, and she taught me to do the same.

Therefore, my new professional mission was to “give back”, and I embarked on a journey into philanthropy that lasted for over a decade. I joined a campaign called Women Moving Moving Millions, which sought to inspire high net worth women to give a million dollars or more to support women and girls’ causes. I became WMM’s founding President, and spent the next decade building that community into a global philanthropic network. As a result, I was recognized as cofounder alongside Helen LaKelly Hunt. Side note: the show Dallas is actually somewhat based on Helen’s family, the Hunt oil family of Texas, or so the rumor goes.

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There were so many money moments and learnings from the decade I spent in women’s philanthropy. Far too many to list here. But one of my big takeaways was the fact that philanthropic capital will never, ever, be enough to solve the world’s problems. It’s why I’ve changed course in recent years and focused more on investing, and it’s why I continue to encourage other women to do the same. I will never fully understand why so many high net worth women are completely comfortable writing large checks to a non-profit, but are completely uncomfortable writing that same sized check to a fantastic female founded start up. But research shows us time and time again that while women tend to give more charitable dollars at every income level than men, we are not as engaged as investors. There is so much unused power in our collective investment capital, and it is one of the main reasons why this newsletter began as SheInvests.

That being said, most of my experiences with money as it relates to my decade with WMM were amazing. I met countless women (and men) who were profoundly generous and humble, and who realized just how fortunate they were to be in a position to give away significant amounts of money. I also met women, and men, who were the opposite. Over the years, I even met some who thought that if you have a lot of money, it meant you were right and that you knew what was best for people who had less of it, and they wielded their money power stick in ways that were as gross, if not more so, than some of the masters of the universe I encountered on Wall Street. Turns out there are assholes everywhere, and I tried my best not to be one.

But back to the present. I will wrap up this origin story knowing there is so much more to it in terms of my money beliefs that are both serving and not serving me. Today I describe myself as a financial feminist. I want to use my wealth to invest in, and with, those who are traditionally excluded and underserved by our current financial systems–financial systems that are exploitative, extractive, and patriarchal. Yes, I benefited greatly from Wall Street. But I also had a front row seat to the injustice of its operations, and I want to help change that. That is why I have spent the past 20 years building up my experience and knowledge around money. I have used my wealth and resources to create, build, and partner with like-minded people, products, and companies, to create new systems that are more just, equitable, generous, and generative. Not just in investment, but in every type of monetary exchange, because there is power in them all.

At the end of the day, I aspire to be holistically financially intentional and generous. I want to have a healthy relationship with money, seeing it as a means and not an end. And I try to recognize the fears of scarcity that still show up for me, as well as my fears around how money affects relationships. To counteract these fears, I try to stay grounded and honest on my money journey.

If you have made it this far, I encourage you to think about writing your own money story. Have fun with it. See where it takes you, and try to end with a summary statement of some sort that can help keep you grounded and well on your way to having a healthy relationship with your financial resources. You might just be surprised where this journey will take you, but I promise it will be worth the trip.

And please join me on Clubhouse @JackiZehner and the new group SheMoney. I have yet to start conversations on this explosive new platform but I will soon.

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She Invests #3 – Data. Money. Power. Cheerios. Change.

An info graphic of the data points from the Women in VC report listed in the article.

As published on LinkedIn for the She Invests monthly newsletter.

Welcome to She Invests, a monthly newsletter on women, money, and investing. This is newsletter #3! If you have not seen the first two yet, please click here and here. Thank you for reading and sharing. So far 11,553 subscribers and I thank you all! If someone is sending this to you, please subscribe. Just a note to keep you reading, there will be a picture of me in a bikini.

This post is a mix of the old me and the new me. You will see the difference. The old me finds a new report about gender inequality and shares it. The old me continues to curate a list of 650 (and counting! And thank you Laura) reports that highlight this data across 21 different categories for all to see and use. The old me still thinks in some small part of my brain that data, enough data, will drive people towards change. The old me still thinks in some small part of my big brain that if we all just give more philanthropically, we can change the world enough, or at least enough for now. The old me does not want to rail against the systems that created this f’d up world because I am part of the system, and to fully rail against it would be to more fully be accountable to myself to change it, to be willing to change, and to be willing to accept what that might mean for me, someone who has a lot. That I would have to do more at a time when I really want to do less. Because I am so damn tired (and scared).

No, really, I am tired. SO tired, that my therapist doing QNRT (Quantum Neuro Feedback Therapy) with me said, “Jacki, you are exhausted. Long-term exhausted, not just the you-don’t-sleep-much-anymore exhausted.” And why is this? Because I have been carrying around indigestible anger, both my own, and those of other women for a long, long time. This is the kind of stuff that shows up when you do QNRT. It is not for the faint of heart. No wonder I have had digestion issues, I immediately thought. I burp and hiccup all the time, which frankly, is really annoying. And gross. My stomach feels knotted up most of the time, but until a month ago, I could not feel it as much because my tummy was so loose and distorted from birthing two, BIG, beautiful babies. (9 pounds 5 ounces, 8 pounds 3 ounces, and I gained 50+ pounds with each pregnancy)

But then I had a restorative abdominoplasty on October 16th (thank you Dr. Angela Keen), and now, as I am healing, I am feeling so much more in my belly, and it feels really uncomfortable. It feels like I am pregnant, which I know may sound weird and unrelatable, especially if you have not been pregnant. But for me, it feels like the time, 23 years ago, when my tummy was tight, but I had to make space for someone growing inside it. And at times, that someone, a literal body part of another human, started to press out against the skin, and I would feel it and need to rub it. That kind of uncomfortable. If you want another analogy, imagine a moving bumpy ballon being inflated in your stomach. It’s an inside out feeling of discomfort. Okay, okay. At this point, you either get it or you don’t. And that’s okay. Moving on. So I had an abdominoplasty, which I refuse to call a Tummy Tuck because it is insulting in my view, and although it is really uncomfortable, it looks amazing. I’m hoping tank tops are still in next summer, because I am going to rock it. I mean, who said 56 year olds can’t wear crop tops? Also, I promise I will get to writing about investing.

But first, back to my exhaustion and my anger. To be honest, I have not fully processed what that means for me, as my therapy that revealed and released this was just two days ago, but what I think it means is this. My anger relates to being born a woman into the Patriarchy, and in particular, into the Patriarchal Financial Systems that are just not working for women. Never have, and at this rate, never will. Now, full disclosure. I am a woman who had a successful in a career in finance. I was a Goldman Sachs Partner at the age of 32, and because of that, I am in fact a rich woman. And while I have done lots, arguably more than most, to use my financial power to change things, it still feels like mere crumbs in a big pile of “how to make a difference” Cheerios. Don’t worry. I’ll explain what I mean by that.

But first, just in case you need a definition:

Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authoritysocial privilege and control of property. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.

Patriarchy is associated with a set of ideas, a patriarchal ideology that acts to explain and justify this dominance and attributes it to inherent natural differences between men and women. Sociologists tend to see patriarchy as a social product and not as an outcome of innate differences between the sexes and they focus attention on the way that gender roles in a society affect power differentials between men and women.

Now, this next part is still the old me. It will likely feel familiar, because it is what I, and so many other people, do all the time. We illuminate data that should be rage inducing in a thoughtful and kind way, hoping that it will lead to more people doing more. So here it goes.

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered brutal setbacks to the progress of gender equity. The list of ways this virus has disproportionately affected women is long and frustrating, and has been covered widely in the media. But a recent headline in particular jumped out at me: “Quarterly VC funding for female founders drops to three-year low“. The reason why it caught my eye is that it is a well known fact that venture capital funding directed towards women and/or people of color was already minuscule, and remains one of the highest and most stubborn glass ceilings in the finance and business world. The high point came last year (2019), when female founders received 2.8% of funding dollars in the US in 2019. Yes, you read that right. 2.8% is the highest that number has ever gone.

If I had any tech visualization/presentation skills whatsoever, I would create a snazzy video to illustrate just how ridiculous and insane that number is. But sadly, I do not have those skills. Just to give you an idea of how technologically challenged I am, I just learned how to use bluetooth on my iPhone a couple of months ago. So we’re going the analog route instead, with an invitation to do your own live visualization at home. Take a household item that you have a lot of. I’m going with Cheerios. Clear a space on a counter in front of you and count out 100 pieces. Now pull out three of those pieces, three, and separate them from the rest. Look at this image. Sit with it. Think about it. How does it make you think and feel? If you have children, maybe a son and a daughter, imagine you are giving them breakfast and you gave one child, your son, the bowl with 97 Cheerios with a proportionate amount of milk, and you gave your daughter three Cheerios with a few drops of milk. How might you think and feel? How might you think they think and feel? Because that is the world of Venture Capital. A world where we feed male founders and pretty much starve the female ones.

A photo of a box of Cheerios with a pile of 97 Cheerios and a pile of three Cheerios sitting in front of it.

Now let’s try to stretch this visualization. According to the data, Latina and Black women currently only receive 0.2% of all VC funding dollars in the US. Go back to that pile of Cheerios you have in front of you. Remove just one of them and cut it into five pieces. Or I should say, try to cut it into five pieces. You literally can’t, because it results in a small pile of Cheerio crumbs. Crumbs. That is what we are investing in Latina and Black women founders in this country. Crumbs. And, if your brain might be thinking… but, but, but… stop it. Look at it again. Sink into the image.

A photo of a box of Cheerios with a pile of 97 Cheerios, a group of three Cheerios, and a cluster of crumbs in front of it.

If you’re not infuriated yet, let’s go back to the data. Always the data. I wonder if it is time to burn the stack of mother friggin data and reports because it is so damn frustrating. Oops. Sorry. New me snuck in there for a moment. Back to old me. Recent reports suggest that 2020 is on track to be the worst year since 2017 for female founders. Investments in female funders dropped a whopping 48% between the second and third quarter, and while pundits are quick to blame COVID-19, the fact is that overall VC funding is on par with previous years. Meaning once again, this pandemic is disproportionately affecting women. And even if it wasn’t, the fact that even in the best year, women founders were given less than 3% of all funding dollars is simply not acceptable, right, or fair. Especially given that women are in fact half the population of this world. And if you’re thinking, “if just”, “yes, but”, “if only”, then think again. Look at your pile of Cheerios, and then look at the tiny little pile you carved out. There is simply no way that this image is right or fair, so instead of continuing to search for excuses, it’s time we find the solutions and actually do something. And what can we do? Invest. Invest. Invest.

Time for another report.

Women in VC, the largest global network of women in venture capital with 2,500+ members, understands the urgency of this issue all too well. Despite a sea, make that a lake, full of good intentions and numerous initiatives over the past several years aimed at diversifying the venture capital industry, the numbers aren’t going up fast enough. This is why Women in VC has decided to look further back in the process for potential solutions. Last month, they released a report that tackles the pipeline issue head on by examining the demographics of the decision makers at VC funds. It should come as no surprise that the numbers are dismal, particularly as it relates to representation for women of colour. Select data points are listed below:

  • 5.6% of all VC firms in the US are women-led, and only 2.1% of VC firms are founded by a woman of color.
  • 4.9% of all VC partners in the US are women; and only 2.4% of all VC partners are Founding female partners.
  • 73% of all women-led VC firms were founded in the last 5 years (since 2015).
  • 23% of women-led firms are currently raising their first fund, and 44% are deploying Fund I.
  • 90% of all women-led funds are considered emerging managers.

So why does this matter? For one thing, people who share demographics in common, including gender, race, ethnicity, etc., are more likely to invest in people who share common backgrounds. Many studies have shown this to be true. Many. And if you need to, refer to the definition above for a reminder on what a patriarchal system is. Think of the Cheerios, only now for the funds themselves. Decision makers (96% of them) of certain shared characteristics (male) are more likely to be present in formal and informal networks with their types of people. They see possibilities in people with shared characteristics, trust them, give them the benefit of the doubt, believe in them, and connect with their stories, products, and services. So who controls the funds really matters. Really, really, matters!

Funds run by women and people of color are also more likely to have embedded mandates to invest in the most underinvested groups. But even if they don’t, by default, they are more likely to invest in people who are like them. Does this mean that all male VC investors are intentionally NOT investing in women and people of color founders? Of course not. But it is likely that a lot of them, most of them, have embedded biases that will kick in. If you don’t think this is true, go back to the Cheerios photo. The system in which this world works is one of a patriarchy, and therefore it’s likely that we all have these embedded biases to some degree. It takes work, a lot of work, for each one of us to unpack our core beliefs around the decisions we make, both consciously and subconsciously. Furthermore, if I dig back to my old psychology classes, science shows us that people are more likely to behave according to their core beliefs, again, consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, to change systems, we need to work, and work hard, on changing our own beliefs, and belief systems.

One key takeaway of the Women in VC report is the fact that nearly three quarters of all women-led VC firms were founded in the last five years. I can only hope that this is the start of a massive wave and not a flash in the pan. I’m also heartened by the fact that of all women VC-partners, 33% are women of colour. These women have created the structures needed to take in our investments, and now what we need to do, collectively and in a big way, is invest in them. I also understand that most people invest in funds primarily to make money. And to that I would argue that investing in small funds, especially those that are mining opportunities where others aren’t, is more likely to yield better returns. Is there data on that? Likely yes, and, but, most of the women led funds are too early in their investment cycle to know.

Of course, there will always be challenges when investing in small funds, especially small, first-time funds. Personally, I have invested in a number of them over the years, and sometimes it worked out or is working out well (my open investments), while other times it did not (closed funds). Sometimes I have done well financially, and sometimes I have not. But I will say that of all the funds I have invested in over 20+ years, the worst performing were, are, ones run by teams men. In fact, one of the funds I am currently in is so poorly run and managed that every time I get a statement from them I rage. RAGE. Because once you are in a fund there really is no way out. I may just write about it directly one day, but I need the numbers in front of me when I do.

It is also worth noting that when I invest in a female-led fund or a female-led company and it does not do well, I actually feel okay about it, because at least what I did was give that woman a shot. I used my money to invest in a woman, or women, who had the courage to at least try in a system that is deliberately set up, designed, to tell her not to. And that takes a lot of GUTS and TALENT and PERSISTENCE to do it, anyways. Not all women will succeed, and neither do all men, but it has not stopped a disproportionate number of men from trying. The system, again, think of the Cheerios, is set up to help them, men, succeed in a disproportionate way. While we/people/the system make it so hard for women to succeed.

I recently did a talk with Olga Miller, cofounder of SmartPurse, with female founders in Switzerland, and I described it this way. In the movie Wonder Woman, she walks through the trenches where all the dirty and beaten down men are huddled up, holding their guns, and the dirty women are holding dirty children, in the trenches, beaten down by oncoming fire. There are casualties everywhere. She looks around, is told not to go, and climbs up that ladder and dares to try and cross No Man’s Land. I know this is slightly dramatic, but women founders have to do the same. They pop up from the trenches, and then have to cross a minefield of oncoming fire to get funding and to do everything else they need to do to succeed. And some of them do actually make it through. So let’s recognize, finally, how hard it is for them. Let’s put up some shields for and with them to help them get through so that there are more of them on the other side. Because the more women entrepreneurs that are successful, the more that will be successful in the future. “We cannot be what we cannot see”. Period. Full stop.

Photo still from the No Man's Land scene in Wonder Woman, with the character looking straight into the camera.

Again, the simple and very painful truth is that we, the royal we, make it so much harder for women to succeed as founders and fund managers. We punish women so much more for failure, especially in finance where we need them the most. This is true not only in Venture Capital, we do it across the spectrum of investing classes and strategies. If my 2009 report remain true as it relates to women hedge fund and mutual fund managers, women actually outperform on average. I believe this is because it is so much harder for them to get the damn money in the first place. I’m beginning to think I may benefit from anger management classes…

At the end of the day, there are a number of reasons why an investor, including me, will choose one fund over another, one company over another, but we all need to start looking at this more deeply from a top down as well as a bottom up perspective in order to solve this gross inequity. And we must hold ourselves accountable for unpacking the belief systems we may have as to why we are not doing more.

So first, top down. What can the industry be doing? What can financial planners (notice I did not use the term advisor, it should be planner) do? What can people with big money be doing? What can people with smaller pools of investable assets do as it relates to these founders and funds? Create a Fund of Funds? Provide better operational support for small, first-time fund managers? Create better ways to access family office money for small and first time funds? Require that pension funds and endowments change their rules to include and not exclude first-time managers? If you have large pools of money, carve out a chunk of it with a strategy to invest in small, first-time fund managers? Yes, yes, yes, yes. And, and, and. In 2009, in that report that I created in partnership with the National Council for Research on Women, an organization that gave me my first board seat, I laid out what was true for me at the time with respect to a list of solutions on how to fix finance for women, and while some of them still hold (take a look here), there is so much more we can do. Different times, same solutions maybe, and different solutions likely. But come on people, work with me here, let’s get to the solutions already!

So what can women with big money do? Invest. Invest. Invest. I know it’s hard and it feels scary. I get it. I REALLY get it, but we need to do it. And we, rich women, need to stop thinking that charitable dollars alone will solve the worlds problems. Nope. Never. Watch my TED Talk from 2012. Please. I have been saying this for nearly a decade. Maybe I was ahead of the times back then, but I shouldn’t have been. What I said in 2012 still applies today, so let’s just get on with it already. On a side note, if you haven’t seen my Ted Women Talk (TedX technically) , I don’t blame you. Someone, somewhere at TED, decided that my talk wasn’t good enough to be included on their main platform, despite being a Goldman Sachs partner talking about women and money. To this day it still pisses me off. Definitely looking into those anger management classes…

Next, what am I doing? Personally, I currently have a mix of funds and direct investments in companies. You can view the list of companies here, although there are a couple that are not listed yet (on my to do list!). In total I have 16 active direct investments, and three that have closed, failed. After years of not staffing myself up so that I can finally honor my intentions to more fully support them so that they can be successful because of their talent, I am going to hire someone, maybe a few someones, to help me. And by the way, my returns on my direct investing are incredible. I have not done the full spreadsheet, as I need to hire someone to do that, but over the past 15 years I have invested around $3 million, and so far have returned around $6 million in cash. And that was by having ONE exit. Thank you to Alexa von Tobel and her team at LearnVest. So might I start my own fund? Yes, I might. And….

I am also an investor in a number of funds that meet the above criteria, including Illuminate VenturesGolden Seeds FundAsia Alternatives and Inspired Capital. At the moment, I am in the process of figuring out just how much of my total investment capital to put into early stage investments, which includes the money I am hoping to set aside to invest in up rounds of my existing companies, new directs, new funds, and my own start-up. Yes, you heard that out loud for the first time. My own start-up. More details to come later, but I am so excited about it. I feel it is the fulfillment of a vision I have had for over two decades, or maybe even my whole life, or maybe even before I was born. (Thanks to my mom and my grandmothers!)

And, this past March, at the onset of COVID-19, I made my single biggest investment ever in one company: SmartPurse, which I mentioned above and wrote about in my first newsletter. In fact, one of the reasons I am so tired at the moment is because I woke up at 2am on Saturday to take part in their first ever Money Rally that started at 3am my time. And it was AMAZING! Never, in all my years of dancing in the space of women and money and gatherings, have the conversations been more honest and helpful. If you’re sad you missed it, you should be, because I posted about it and you could have joined. But don’t worry, there will be more, so be sure to join next time. And you can join for FREE if you want to become a financially empowered woman, so just do it, now. Not for me, but for you.

Why did I invest in this particular company? Well, because it checked every single box except one when it comes to why I would consider investing in a start-up. Women Founded. Amazing women. Values based. Product/service for women. I loved the product and could relate to it personally. Designed with women and by women. Meets a BIG need in a NEW way. It’s coming at the right time, which means historical context, future looking, and right for this exact moment. The right team/founders!!!! Right valuation for the stage of the company. Availability of the tech to scale. All of this is why SmartPurse, in my view, will be a billion dollar company, and I said that to the founders on our first call. They had be at hello, but that is Olga’s story to tell. The only thing it didn’t have was a woman founder/co-founder who was a woman of color. That would have been EVERY box as it relates to my investment criteria.

Over the years, I have learned to try and not judge people based on what I think I know about them and their money. In part, because judging others would mean I would have to judge myself. Some people have less and do more, while others have more and do less. That’s just the way the world works. But what I hope I stand for, have stood for, from the first day I really felt, deeply felt, what it was like to be controlled and manipulated by a man who led me to believe that he held my financial future in the palm of his hand and could punch me with it anytime he wanted to (he was a boss at Goldman Sachs), is stand up for other woman in the way I could at the time. My new mantra, thanks to my supershero Brené Brown, is “know better, do better”. I realize now, post QNRT session three, that I walked into work at 85 Broad Street most days bracing to be punched in the gut. Did I always get punched in the gut? No, of course not, but many days I would be. And of course not literally. Funny enough, the reason why I think I was hired at Goldman Sachs to begin with was not because I had amazing grades and work experience, but because I was a champion body-builder. I literally had a six pack. I used to joke that being in a gym all those years prepared me for my big shot to make big money to make big change, and it really did. (photo below was when I became Ms. Junior Canada 1982)

Photo of author during her bodybuilding days.

So yes, I’m angry. Really angry, and I have been for a long, long time. That’s the new me. And as my therapist said, that’s okay. She said that she has learned to love her anger because anger’s job is to help us set boundaries. Don’t you dig that? But what I also know is that I can no longer carry around my anger inside, so this newsletter will be one of the places I will let that anger out, among other places and spaces. I am tired of feeling knots in my now flat-as-heck stomach because of financial systems that are just not working for women and people of color when I know I can do more to change it. I am tired of bearing witness to women and people of color being punched in the gut over and over again by patriarchal financial systems in a thousand different ways, including talented people who check all the boxes for starting a company but don’t get the funding, or deserving first-time fund managers who don’t have enough investors to get their first fund off the ground.

I was the first woman trader and still am the youngest woman trader to make partner at Goldman Sachs, a title I thought I recently handed over because I thought I had just turned 33, but nope. The year was 1996, I had just turned 32, and I was pregnant with my first child when I heard the news. And if you are connecting the dots and thinking, weird, she made partner while her belly was making room for a new human at a patriarchal institution, and now she is writing this article with a tight belly birthing the possibility of a matriarchal/just/equitable system of finance, the irony is not lost on you. Not only will I continue to use the money that I received from that IPO to fund and support women and people of color, but I will use it more boldly, bravely, and fully, because I am letting that anger out, finally, and I will more fully and productively help change the financial systems that are just not fair. And maybe when that pile of Cheerios is spit equitability and rightfully, I can actually rest and the annoying burping and hiccuping will finally stop.


Jacki Zehner

(with a huge thank you to the incredible Laura Moore for helping me birth the She Invests Newsletter and so much more. Love ya, sister)

To read the full report, please click HERE. A huge thank you to all the contributors of this report. For more reports on Women and Girls, please see my top reports list HERE.

To apply to join Women in VC, please click HERE. The directory is password protected and open to women employed full time at institutional, corporate, impact, accelerator and family office funds making direct investments; applications are reviewed and approved on a rolling basis. And thank you to the founders of Women in VC Sutian Dong and Jessica Peltz-Zatu love! You two rock.

By the way, I ate the whole bowl of Cheerios.

A photo of author Jacki Zehner holding up a bowl of Cheerios to the camera.

QNRT™ is a proprietary protocol designed to initiate a quantum shift in the nervous system by resetting the brain’s response to emotional triggers for both past and present emotional trauma and stress.

* I highly recommend Brene Brown’s books, and especially her podcast, Unlocking Us.