What Mary McKenna dreams about in the future – an interview with “Europe’s Female Angel Investor of the year 2023“

Photo: Dr. Anna Christmann, MdB, Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Start-ups and Federal Government Coordinator for German Aerospace, Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Berlin hands over the “Golden Aurora” Award to Mary McKenna from Ireland.

Click here for the video recording

Dear Mary, first of all, I would like to congratulate you again on your title, Europe’s Female Angel Investor of the Year 2023. I’m really glad that you took some time to answer my questions today.

Anne Degenhardt: Why did you start being an angel investor and what was the key moment?

Mary McKenna:   I was originally a technology founder myself. I’m an exited founder and that was the jumping off point for me to start angel investing. As a tech founder, I realised how difficult it is as a woman to raise money and to even be taken seriously. I always had the idea that if I managed to make a good return out of selling my own business, I’d use some of it to help other women get started. I do a very particular type of angel investing as in I invest really early stage. Getting involved and being useful in those early days requires a bit more commitment. I guess it’s that part that I enjoy. That’s why I started it. I think all of us that have some success in exiting start-ups have got an obligation to put something back into the ecosystem.

Anne Degenhardt: What are the main skills of a business angel apart from the finances? How would you rate mentoring or being a sparring partner?

Mary McKenna:  If the relationship works well, you are almost like an extra person in the team. Some of what you bring could be helping the founders set their strategy.  It’s also part of your job as an early angel investor to go and find more investment, or to help the venture move further up the food chain and raise from a VC when they’re ready for a Series A. But you can also expect an angel investor to do many other things: Help them with recruitment of a team because you might have a much larger network. And you could help them selecting professional advisors like accountants and lawyers. Maybe even help them with their early sales and introduce them to suppliers. There’s a whole range of different things that you can add into the mix to bring value as an angel investor.

Anne Degenhardt: How does your portfolio look like? And do you have a special investment focus?

Mary McKenna: I’ve made about 25 investments so far. They’re all early stage. One is exited. That’s fabulous.  About three of them are ready to raise Series A, which is quite exciting.  The 25 are really a bit of a mix: 70% are women founders, about which I’m really pleased. And then there’s a real mix of health tech, sports tech. I’ve recently invested in a few really niche online learning businesses. Sometimes you just see something, and you really like the founder or you like the idea and you just decide to go with it, even though it’s not an area that you’re an expert in or even familiar with.

Anne Degenhardt: And what is the first thing you want to find out getting new start-ups?

Mary McKenna: I spend a long time getting to know them. I think that’s important because as I’ve learned, you can be together for a long time.  It is important to get to know the founders and to get to know the company before you make a commitment.  And at the point where I engage with the company or the founder, it is all about the founder or the founding team for me. Because so often what they’re doing at the time that I first meet them isn’t what they end up doing because they pivot.  It’s about trying to figure out if I think that they have the qualities and the resilience that they’re going to need when the market changes or when a new competitor emerges or generally when things don’t go right.  I’m trying to work out whether I think the founder has got what it takes to front the company and to weather the storms that are no doubt going to come down the line.

Anne Degenhardt: You are awarded as Europe’s Female Angel Investor of the Year and your portfolio is quite diverse. What is your main learning as a female founder? What can you suggest to other female founders?

Mary McKenna: This is a tough question.  I’m usually really, really optimistic and very upbeat. But I think for other women that are considering a startup as a way forward, it looks exciting and glamorous from the outside. But the reality is that it’s an awful lot of hard work over a number of years.  So, my advice would be, it’s much harder than you think it’s going to be. If people knew how hard it was going to be, some might choose not to roll the dice. However, on the flip side, the prize is so big that it’s worth putting yourself through that pain if you’re the right sort of personality. It’s not for the faint-hearted and you do have to be there for the long term.  Do your homework and weigh up the risks. And if you think you’ve got what it takes, then go for it.

Anne Degenhardt: Is that what you want to achieve with the accelerator “SheGenerate”? What do you offer (female) entrepreneurs in Ireland?

Mary McKenna: We’re a social enterprise. We call it “profit making, not profit taking”.  More than trying to make a financial reward, it’s a passion project for us. It’s a community for women founders and a way for women founders to meet each other and to have a place where they can collaborate. “SheGenerate” is a standard accelerator where we do teach early stage founders the basics (business plan, validation, value proposition, investor readiness). We do it really because we want to make a difference.  We’re three years in and we’ve got 3.000 women in our wider community.  We have women coming from all parts of Ireland, not just big cities. It’s great seeing them making connections and growing their businesses. We measure all the metrics every month to see how everybody’s improving. It’s a nice community to be part of.

Anne Degenhardt: You say that one of the goals of this social enterprise is making strong and successful female role models, much more visible to younger females. In your opinion, why is it important to create more female role models?

Mary McKenna: Because there aren’t enough, and there are never enough.  It’s really important that you find the women and you give them a platform. It is about “you can’t be what you can’t see”. For younger people, if they don’t think that other people have done this before them, they don’t choose it as a route. In the household, women are the people that make most of the buying decisions. Therefore, they should be able to buy products and services from other women, not just from men.

Anne Degenhardt: What about female angel investors? How do you help them with AwakenAngels? Do you think female business angels need “special treatment”?

Mary McKenna: I hate to say this, but I think that they do. I did some research and I learned that Germany is the European country that has the highest proportion of women business angels. You’ve got a very active angel ecosystem that a lot of women are involved in.  Ireland is very far behind. Nobody knows what the stats are but I believe that less than 2% of the business angels in Ireland are women. I think that women make decisions in a different way from men. I think they like to have knowledge and the know-how. And when they have that, it takes away some of the risk and they can make a decision. Angel investment is a risky endeavour. Joining syndicates and learning from more experienced people is a way of spreading risk and making it a little bit less scary. The other thing is technology that has really started to modernize the angel investing landscape. If your syndicate has a very efficient platform underpinning it, it takes a lot of the drudgery out of the administration. What that does is allowing to reduce the size of your ticket. So instead of people needing to have 10,000 euro or 25,000 euro to get started, with our syndicate they can come in for 2,000. That makes it more attractive for new investors to try it out and see if they like it. We think that they will. We think that once they get started and they start building their portfolio, they’ll be as addicted to investing as the rest of us are.

Anne Degenhardt: In an interview, you indicated that only about half of what you do is listed on LinkedIn and yet that you love everything that you are involved in these days, and that makes it less work and more fun. Maybe you can tell us a secret. What is one thing that you do that is not listed on LinkedIn and why are you passionate about it?

Mary McKenna:  One of the great luxuries about being an exited founder is that you can actually do whatever you like. Your time is your own and you can decide how you spend it. One of the projects that isn’t on my LinkedIn is that I’m an entrepreneur in residence at my local girls’ school in Ireland, St. Mary’s College in Derry. It’s a pro bono position that I’ve been doing for about four or five years.  I used to run monthly workshops for them about starting your own business, careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), generally thinking about entrepreneurship as an alternative and answering all the questions about their career journeys that their teachers and their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t.  These days I resource the best women speakers for Global Entrepreneurship Week for them in November.

Anne Degenhardt: I think that’s really important. Nice that you’re already forming the next generation in your region.

Mary McKenna: Absolutely. The future of work is very uncertain for young people because of all the changes happening with AI, machine learning and robotics.  Their parents just want them to become doctors, architects, accountants, lawyers, and these might be professions that in 10 years’ time perhaps they don’t exist.

Anne Degenhardt: As the award winner this year for “Europe’s Female Angel Investor of the Year”, do you see an opportunity to use the award to increase your ambassador activities as a female investor in Ireland but also in Europe?

Mary McKenna: I have to say that I am delighted to be the first Irish winner of the award. Very, very happy indeed. I’m not somebody that often enters awards, and it was one of my colleagues that put me forward for this. She didn’t really tell me, but once I was shortlisted, I was very excited. And of course, I’m going to use it to promote our mission and to collaborate with other angel syndicates in Europe and with other women’s groups. We’ve already met a number of them through your organization and so we’re very grateful for that. Let’s put this next 12 months to good use.

Anne Degenhardt: What are your hopes and wishes for the Angel investing future, especially the female Angel investing future?

Mary McKenna: I dream about a future where women in business generally are equal partners and are taken more seriously and are more visible. The “30%-club” – I am not always a great fan of quotas – has worked well for getting women into positions on corporate boards. Maybe we need something like that in terms of investment. Perhaps it’s time to think about that. And I dream about a world where women have more control over their money and their finances and where they have full information about what they can invest their money in. I also think that for women bringing their professional skills to help other women is great opportunity. That “women backing women” campaign is very compelling for us.  We’re really keen to collaborate with any other European syndicates. So, if anyone out there would like to work with an Irish syndicate, please get in touch with us.

Anne Degenhardt: Thank you very much for your time, Mary. It was a pleasure talking to you.