For three weeks, Gina Dubbe schlepped all over the United States and Europe with other executives from her Howard County company, meeting with hundreds of investment bankers and technology analysts about the firm's plans to go public.
Thirty-five cities, 64 meetings. And not once was there another female in the room.
"The guy on the other side of the table would go, 'Huh. You're a woman,' " remembers Dubbe, then vice president of sales for Trusted Information Systems. "It was surreal."
Dubbe's isolation on the road in 1996 has a familiar ring to many of her counterparts who feel women have been largely left out of the riches and excitement of the technology boom. Now, Dubbe is among dozens of Washington's wealthiest and best-connected women who are getting in the game by creating their own "angel" investment group.
The members of Women Angels.net, who believe theirs is the country's first all-female angel fund, are raising an initial $5.25 million to be used as seed money for new ventures, primarily in high technology.
Each of the group's 70 members--who include lawyers, venture capitalists, corporate wives and technology workers--has promised to kick in $75,000. The club will start gathering in February, hear pitches from local companies at each meeting and vote on where to invest.
The initial fund is small by the standards of the huge venture capital war chests chasing technology ideas, but is not unusual for an angel group. Not all the deals will involve women-owned businesses, but the group hopes to use its financial influence to bring more women into the high-tech orbit.
"Women typically haven't been exposed to these types of networks," said Patty Abramson, co-founder of the group. "People know what's going on in this community and want to be part of it."
Abramson, who separately runs a venture capital fund that invests only in companies owned or run by women, says she wasn't sure of the appeal of the concept of an angel group when she raised the idea in November. But, she said, "the idea created quite a stir from the very beginning."
Those who joined right away include some well-known figures in local technology and finance--April Young of Imperial Bank, Esther Smith of the Poretz Group and Dubbe, now of Steve Walker & Associates. They told their friends, and the word spread.
"This is the beginning of an old girl's club," Young said.
At a breakfast meeting earlier this month at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner, Abramson urged about 25 women to sign up. "The motivation is to make money," said Abramson to the group, enunciating each word. "The way to do it is to get into deals that would be closed to individuals."
She added: "Women bring enormous intuition and skills in assessing people."
Abramson said the breakfast meetings themselves show how female investors think differently than men: They ask lots of questions. They are more likely to say they don't understand something.
Another thing the members bring to the table is wealth. Each must meet federal regulators' definition of an "accredited investor," which means a minimum net worth of $1 million or sufficient annual income--$200,000 for an individual or $300,000 for a household.
While women have made enormous strides in the business world in the past 25 years, technology--especially the finance side--remains largely a male bastion. The number of companies owned by women has doubled since 1987, making up 38 percent of all U.S. businesses, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. But many of those profiting from the Internet gold rush come from fields dominated by men--engineering, computer science, investment banking.
Capital Investors, generally acknowledged to be the Washington area's most powerful angel group, includes no women. Its 25 members are on the A-list of Washington technology, including America Online chief executive Steve Case and MCI WorldCom Vice Chairman John Sidgmore. Like Women Angels.net, they meet once a month for dinner and to hear investment pitches. Each put in an initial $100,000.
They're considered "super angels" because each of them has enough personal wealth to run his own venture capital fund. Conversation at their dinners often includes non-business topics such as vacations, philanthropy and restaurants. "We do it for social reasons," said member and AOL co-founder Jim Kimsey.
John Burton of Updata Capital, one of the Capital Investors, said it's not an "expressed policy" to exclude women, but just a function of the fact that there are more men in the business than women. "It's not a back-office men's club," he said.
The United States has about 300,000 angels, who invest about $30 billion a year, according to Gerald Benjamin, president of International Capital Resources, a San Francisco company that links investors to companies. John May, who runs two Washington area angel groups, estimates that there are 4,000 to 5,000 individual angels in the region who each have at least $1 million in net worth and have invested at least $50,000 in a private equity deal.
May's two groups, The Dinner Club and the eMedia Club, together have 125 members; about 10 of those are women. "Our list of invitees were people we'd done business with, who were heavily white male," acknowledged May, who is advising Women Angels.net on how to set up the club.
Amy Millman, executive director of the National Women's Business Council in Washington, said the women's investment group is an excellent idea because the investors will more quickly build a power base than if individual women joined established groups.
"We can infiltrate or we can create a platform for ourselves," Millman said. "This is faster."
Millman said that on her government salary, she can't afford to join Women Angels.net. But she's part of an effort called Springboard 2000 that is about to launch a roadshow of venture capital fairs for women-owned and run companies. The first one was held yesterday in Silicon Valley. Washington and Boston fairs will follow.
"There are more and more women searching for a place to play and a way to do it," Millman said.
JoAnne Boyle, president of Seton Hill College outside of Pittsburgh, which is also the home of the National Education Center for Women in Business, said she has never heard of an organization such as the Women Angels, but now plans to help start one in her area. "The idea is fabulous," she said. "I think of it as access to influence."
As the president of a women's college, Boyle said, she's familiar with arguments against all-women groups. Her attitude: "We think there are only benefits to come when women get together."
Still, some women express reservations about a segregated group. Two prominent Washington businesswomen--Susan DeFife, chief executive of Womenconnect.com of Reston, and Kathy Clark, chief executive of Landmark Systems, also in Reston--have decided against joining.
DeFife admits that her view may seem contradictory, given that she runs a Web site for women and has taken investment money from Abramson's Women's Growth Capital Fund.
"I worry about too much separation," DeFife said. She said that while she hopes the group will be successful, she believes that women will not succeed by networking only with other women. DeFife said she'd rather see women joining investment groups open to men and women.
Clark said first of all she's too busy to join, but she also has never been a fan of affinity groups. Several years ago Clark lobbied Ernst & Young, which holds an annual business awards ceremony in the area, to drop its "women" category and instead nominate women in gender-neutral categories such as "technology" or "real estate." The accounting firm did get rid of the women-only category, and Clark won in the "software" category two years later.
Given those facts, those who know Clark might question why she started the RPW--Rich Powerful Women--group of local CEOs. She said that's different because that group is helping prepare women to join previously male-dominated groups. "We don't want to be successful women, we just want to be successful," Clark said.
About five years ago Clark became the first female member of Washington's exclusive 123 Club, a powerful group of business leaders. "I do more value to myself and to women in general by not differentiating," Clark said.
For others, though, the current system produces only a small number of female movers and shakers. Young, senior vice president of Imperial Bank and former president of the Potomac Knowledgeway tech advocacy group, remembers sitting in a 50-person meeting of the Northern Virginia Roundtable--a group of the area's top business leaders--and being struck by the fact that she was one of only three women in the room. She realized they were the same three at every event.
"Not only are there very few women, but you see the same ones everywhere," Young said. She thinks Women Angels.net will help bring new faces into the fold.
The angels also plan to offer members optional "refresher" courses on topics such as due diligence or how to value a company. Investments will probably be in the $500,000 to $750,000 range, in early-stage companies with an emphasis on technology, because that's where the money is, said Kyparissia Sirinakis, who as the group's manager will be the only paid employee.
She said the angels will invest wherever they see the best deals, whether the companies are owned or run by women or men. The group will form relationships with venture capital firms and invest alongside them. Sirinakis said members should expect annual returns of about 35 percent to 40 percent. Each member will get a vote on each deal, and Sirinakis said she'd like each member to be personally involved in at least one investment.
For many of the members, investing is only part of the attraction.
Young likes the idea of meeting Washington women in other fields. "These are women who I can turn to over time," she said.
Dubbe, an engineer by training who screens deals and advises startup companies as a partner of venture fund Steve Walker & Associates, is looking forward to the opportunity to talk business with more women. "I'm going to get a network I don't have," Dubbe said. And she hopes to find some management talent among the group's ranks.
Another new angel, Julie Holdren--chief executive of the Olympus Group of Alexandria--said she'll be able to contribute her knowledge of how companies are run to the group. But she also looks forward to learning things she doesn't know, such as how an investor analyzes an audit.
Holdren, who at 31 is one of the younger members of the group, made her money from "friends and family" stock in a blockbuster local tech company. She hopes Women Angels.net will increase her investment, but also give her a better look at companies being formed in the region.
Why hadn't she joined an angel club before? "I wasn't invited," Holdren said.
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Among the new investing group's members, from left: April Young, senior vice president, Imperial Bank; Gina Dubbe, vice president, Steve Walker & Associates; and Julie Holdren, president and chief executive, Olympus Group.
CAPTION: Patty Abramson, co-founder of Women Angels.net, explains the "angel" club's concept to potential members at a recent recruiting meeting.