Building Financial Inclusion: Elizabeth McCluskey, Director of the Discovery Fund at CMFG Ventures

What is venture capital doing to help promote fintech innovators who come from underrepresented groups and communities?

We caught up with Elizabeth McCluskey, Director of The Discovery Fund at CMFG Ventures, to talk about her work in supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs that are building solutions to drive financial inclusion.

We discussed her own extensive experience in financial services, working in both investment banking and wealth management before moving to venture capital. We also learned why she believes it is important to invest in female founders and founders from communities that are underserved by traditional financial institutions.

Why did you decide to transition from investment banking and wealth management to venture capital? What do you enjoy about working at a venture capital firm?

Elizabeth McCluskey: Investment banking is transactional. I enjoyed being part of transformational deals for companies but missed being there for the long-term impact. When I pivoted to wealth management, I was able to develop more longevity in client relationships, but the investments were focused on public equities with which I had minimal connection. These experiences led me to find the ideal balance in venture capital. Now I can build more intimate relationships with portfolio companies and invest in people and ideas that are meaningful and important to me. It brings joy and satisfaction to support their long-term growth and success.

Tell me more about your current role at CMFG Ventures and the Discovery Fund.

McCluskey: CMFG Ventures is the venture capital arm of CUNA Mutual Group. CMFG Ventures invests in fintechs to help financial institutions grow and provide a brighter financial future for all. The firm adds value to fintechs by leveraging its well-established network of over 6,000 financial institutions and suite of complimentary technology solutions. Since 2016, CMFG Ventures has invested in nearly 50 fintech companies and its Discovery Fund has invested in 14 additional early-stage companies led by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and women founders.

I am the director of the Discovery Fund. The Discovery Fund was created to support underrepresented entrepreneurs who are building solutions for financial inclusion. We plan to invest $15 million over the next three years in early-stage fintech companies. Through my role, I’m able to see the full scope of venture capital investing, including but not limited to:

  • Sourcing deals and meeting entrepreneurs
    • Conducting due diligence
    • Negotiating the terms of the deal
    • Providing long-term support for entrepreneurs’ journeys by helping them scale, network, and find the resources they need to continue to succeed.

Why is it important to invest in diverse founders, especially women-led businesses? And what qualities you look for when investing in these companies?

McCluskey: Women entrepreneurs receive less than 3% of venture capital funding. This staggering number demands that we take a step back and focus on supporting diverse founders, especially women-led businesses, to improve equity in the venture capital space. This is not just the right thing to do – it’s good business. A 2018 BCG study concluded that women-founded businesses yielded two times as much revenue per dollar invested as those founded by men.

Women and diverse founders who have been historically underserved by traditional financial services are working hard to create the financial inclusion they wish they had. We are investing in entrepreneurs like them who are deeply connected to the problems they’re solving. Empowering underrepresented leaders is already creating new opportunities for liquidity management, wealth management, credit access, asset protection, and more.

Can you share more about the women-led businesses that CMFG Ventures invests in and supports? How are they helping make the financial services industry more inclusive?

McCluskey: CMFG Ventures has made investments in multiple women-led companies, such as The Beans, Climb, Caribou, and Frich to help the financial services industry become more inclusive.

  • The Beans simplifies the path to financial balance through evidence-based design and cutting-edge technology, so consumers stress less about money and focus on what they love.
  • Climb is a student lending and payments platform intended to make career education more affordable and accessible.
  • Caribou enables financial advisers to engage their clients in healthcare planning to support life transitions and build stronger financial futures.
  • Frich makes money social. It helps Gen Z develop better financial habits leveraging the power of community and benchmarking.

These female-driven fintechs are transforming the financial services space and improving the financial lives of everyday Americans.

What advice do you typically share with women founders? What about those looking to break into the VC space?

McCluskey: I would give the same advice to women founders as I do with men: always ask for feedback, especially to better understand why someone is telling them “no”. Founders who send updates over time allow me to track their progress, including growth and consistency of their business plans. In several cases, I’ve ended up investing in companies that I passed on in earlier rounds. And even if someone says “no” to doing business together, they can still be a valuable ally. Attempt to stay in touch and leverage their networks. People are often willing to share their connections and provide valuable guidance.

As for those looking to break into the VC space, I believe it is slowly becoming more inclusive and representative, yet it is still a very network-based profession. Similar to my advice for entrepreneurs, start with one person you know (or cold outreach via alumni networks, common interest groups, etc.). From there, ask every person you talk to for an introduction to at least one other person. Focus on growing your network with the goal of building genuine relationships, not necessarily getting a job right away. This is a long-term investment in your career.

We’re more than halfway through the 2022, what do you predict for the rest of the year?

McCluskey: After record levels of investments in 2021, we all knew things had to cool off. However, I believe the pace at which this has happened surprised VCs and entrepreneurs alike.

In fact, startup funding has fallen by 23% over the last 3 months, bringing us back to 2019 levels. For many, it probably feels like the sky is falling, but there is still a significant amount of money in circulation. Venture capitalists today, and by extension founders, are more focused on “real” metrics versus vanity metrics when deciding which companies to fund. The companies that will do well in the second half of the year will have measurable revenues, not just wait lists, and will be managing costs and runway to drive profitability, not endless cash burn.

Photo by Dom J