My gym teacher in junior high was a woman named Mrs. Landers. While I truly hated gym, Mrs. Landers was a godsend to an uncoordinated nerd like me.

You see, Mrs. Landers didn’t put your entire gym class grade in one basket. You got 50 points (out of 100) from “dressing out.” By simply changing from my Molly Ringwald-esque garb into a grotty Northport Jr. High gym-suit, I could get halfway to the “A” I craved. The written test counted for another 20 points. “Hello passing grade!” And I hadn’t even broken a sweat. The last 30 points came from actual physical activity, and admittedly, those I struggled with. But volunteer to put up the volleyball net? Five points. Get Mrs. Landers a diet coke and bag of Frito Lays to eat while she supervised our Jane Fonda workouts? Two points. Inevitably by the end of the semester, I had secured an A in gym without ever hitting, catching or running with a ball.

Finding more than one way to skin a cat is often a recipe for success. Today, Private Equity (an altogether different form of PE) has $1.04 trillion of dry powder, the highest on record according to the Private Equity Growth Council. As a result, there is a need to think creatively to ensure the best possible performance outcome for GPs and LPs alike. 

Cognitive alpha does exist in PE and in Venture Capital. There have been studies that show the excess return or alpha of women and minority owned firms in particular within the PE/VC space, although unfortunately there is a very small sample to study. Less than 1% of PE and VC firms are run or heavily influenced by women and minorities, along with less than 0.25% of the assets under management.  

And yet studies have shown that this small group “gets ‘er done.”

In one NAIC study of women and minority owned Private Equity, diverse firms delivered 1.5X return on investment versus 1.1X for non-diverse firms from 1998 to 2011. In the RK Women in Alternatives Study I authored in 2014, women-run PE firms outperformed the universe at large by one percentage point in 2013.

Now some would insert a best and brightest argument here: with such a small sample, isn't it only the best and brightest women and minorities that are able to rise through the PE and VC ranks to start a fund, causing the large return differential?

My answer is that I believe the reasons for outperformance go much deeper, well into the realm of behavioral finance. Two possible reasons for strong outperformance are pattern recognition and differentiated networks.

Pattern recognition Even though our brains consume roughly 20% of the calories we take in, making it the greediest organ in our bodies, it is always looking for shortcuts. One of the ways it conserves energy is through pattern recognition. We tend to look for patterns in data so we can make decisions faster. In PE/VC, that means we look for companies that look similar in some way to past successes, and place our bets with those. Women and minorities may be able to recognize different patterns, allowing for profitable investments that are more “outside the box.”

Differentiated networksWomen and minority owned or influenced firms may be able to find differentiated deals due to expanded or different networks. It’s true that anyone who goes a traditional route to PE or VC has some overlap of network (B-school, analyst training programs, etc.) but even subtle differences in network can lead to differentiated deals with less crowding and less competition.

These two characteristics may help women and minority owned and influenced PE and VC to excel in an environment with a tremendous amount of dry powder. It may also lead them down roads less traveled in PE and VC – towards minority and female founders. A recent McKinsey study of UK companies found firms in the top 10% of gender and racial diversity had 5.6% higher earnings while firms in top quartile of racial diversity were 30% more likely to have above-average financial returns. Both desirable traits in a PE or VC portfolio. However, those firms don’t generally fit into the traditional PE and VC mold, as evidenced by the fact that minority and female owned companies are 21% and 2.6% less likely to get funded, respectively, according to Pepperdine University.

In a world where there is a tremendous amount of dry powder, increasing interest in PE/VC from institutions and individual investors alike, and where returns are, as always, key, every advantage is important. For investors looking for that extra “je ne sais quoi,” women and minority owned or influenced firms may be the ticket. For PE and VC firms looking to get an edge on competitors, diversity hiring could be in order, because unlike my gym class, there are no points awarded for simply getting dressed every morning.

AuthorMeredith Jones