Patty Abramson, a Washington-based business executive who founded one of the country’s first venture capital funds dedicated to investing in businesses owned by women, an enterprise that attracted national attention with its strategy of supporting a long-overlooked pool of entrepreneurs, died Aug. 24 at her summer home on Nantucket Island, Mass. She was 74.
The cause was complications from cancer, said a daughter, Jenny Abramson, a venture capitalist.
Starting in 1979, Mrs. Abramson spent a decade as a partner at Hager, Sharp & Abramson, a prominent female-led marketing and communications firm in the District. She later started her own communications shop before creating the Women’s Growth Capital Fund in 1997 — a response, she said, to the frustrations she encountered earlier in her career when she sought a line of credit for a business opportunity.
Even years after the passage of the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a consumer-protection law prohibiting banks and other lenders from discriminating against women, some banks persisted in requiring female loan applicants to have male co-signers. More than two decades later, when Mrs. Abramson proposed the Women’s Growth Capital Fund, a male investment banker scoffed at her idea.
Despite such inauspicious encounters, Mrs. Abramson and two partners — one man, one woman — attracted $8 million in venture capital within the first year of operation and won a U.S. Small Business Administration designation allowing the firm to tap into tens of millions of dollars more based on how much it continued to raise.
Women had long worked in private equity, and the Women’s Growth Capital Fund was not the first venture fund run by women. Moreover, it was small compared with the better-known, behemoth venture funds in Silicon Valley and Boston. But Mrs. Abramson was a “trailblazer” by starting one of the first funds led principally by women with the express goal of investing in female entrepreneurs, said Amy Millman, the founder of Springboard Enterprises, a Washington company that seeks to cultivate female business leaders and investors.
Mrs. Abramson’s operation attracted media attention that at times veered into the condescending. Once, a local business magazine asked her to pose for a cover story wearing boxing shorts and pummeling a male venture capitalist. She declined, settling on a power suit and a cigar.
“What we do is not about having an antagonistic relationship,” she told The Washington Post at the time. “It’s not a crusade or about punishing anyone. It’s about getting our foot in the door. It’s about having a place at the table.”
She said her foremost goal was to make money at a time when major lending institutions overlooked investment opportunities among businesses led by women. By the mid-1990s in the Washington area alone, The Post reported, there were about 375,000 female-led businesses with sales of approximately $86 billion, but they received a minuscule fraction of equity-investment dollars.
“Venture capitalists are a classic old-boy network,” Mrs. Abramson told the New York Times. “Women don’t have the contacts. They’re not playing golf with these guys.”
She said she aimed to help women learn the language used in investment settings, once telling NPR: “A woman might, for example, say, ‘I think this is what it’s going to take to market this company. What do you think?’ A man would say, ‘This is what it’s going to take.’ Now do those people have any better fix on what it’s going to take? I don’t think so. But that’s their style.”
Mrs. Abramson’s partners were Wendee Kanarek (now Wolfson), a former executive at Manufacturers Hanover Trust, and Rob Stein, a lawyer and investor who had served as Commerce Department chief of staff.
Their fund aimed initially to invest money in young and growing companies, rather than start-ups, and tried to diversify its investments across tech, medical and retail businesses. It was a range “reflective of the marketplace,” Mrs. Abramson said. But the lure of tech-company profits amid a surging economy proved too strong, she later said.
“In some ways, we all got greedy,” said Mrs. Abramson, adding that her fund — valued at $30 million as of 2001 — had invested 70 percent of its cash in technology companies. “We saw that there were some very fast-growing companies and it was . . . who could be first to market, and the way to do it was to hire a lot of people and put a lot of money into building the brand.”
When the euphoria subsided, a crash in tech stocks sent the market into steep decline, an economic wipeout that became known as the dot-com stock bubble. The Women’s Growth Capital Fund continued to operate in a reduced form for another several years. Meanwhile, Mrs. Abramson became a key player in WomenAngels.net, a private “angel” investment club of 85 Washington-area women who fund promising young companies before they grow large enough to attract venture money.
Millman said the Women’s Growth Capital Fund was a “breakthrough in new thinking” about investing in women and formed a “vital model” for women’s venture firms such as Illuminate Ventures in California, Texas Women Ventures and Golden Seeds in New York.
Patricia Jo Swaab was born in Philadelphia on Sept. 7, 1944. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a furniture designer and salesman. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1966 from Elmira College in south-central New York and a master’s degree in journalism from American University in 1975.
She was an account executive at Abramson Himelfarb, an advertising firm co-owned by her first husband, and promotion director for the Sentinel Newspapers in suburban Washington before joining the public affairs and communications firm Hager-Sharp.
The firm, which then changed its name to Hager, Sharp & Abramson, became one of the largest independent public relations companies in the Washington area. Its client roster included the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. Mrs. Abramson left in 1989 to start Abramson Communications.
She was a Washington resident and sat on civic and professional commissions addressing issues including women’s pay equity, health and education. Her board memberships included the Georgetown Day School and the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.
Her marriage to David B. Abramson ended in divorce. In 1995, she married Les Silverman, a senior partner emeritus at the McKinsey & Co. management consulting firm. In addition to her husband, of Nantucket and Washington, survivors include two daughters from her first marriage, Jenny Abramson of Washington and Stacy Abramson of Brooklyn; a stepdaughter, Leigh Silverman of Brooklyn; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Jenny Abramson, now managing partner at the venture firm Rethink Impact, said in a 2017 interview with Ellevest, an investment platform for women, that she did not fully understand the difficulties her mother faced until she entered the venture world a decade later.
“I sort of naïvely thought the gender stuff was no longer an issue,” she said. “It wasn’t until I moved into the tech sector and was a CEO that I kept finding myself as the only female in a given room or on the stage, and started to look into the data — and realized just how much it was an issue. When my mom was investing 20 plus years ago, women got 2.5% of all venture capital dollars, and today, women get less than that.”
She said she was determined “to finish the work my mom had started.”