Celebrating Heather Henyon’s Mission to Invest in Woman Entrepreneurs

By: Maria Minsker '13
headshot of Heather Henyon.

Heather Henyan, MBA ’03, founder of Mindshift Capital (provided)

Heather Henyon, MBA ’03, is a trailblazer in social entrepreneurship. With over 20 years of experience in finance, technology and strategy in emerging markets, she has been a driving force behind breaking down silos and championing woman entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region throughout most of her career. Her journey reflects a visionary commitment to making a meaningful impact through investing.

In recognition of her achievements, Henyon was honored as the recipient of the 2023 Cañizares Award for Distinguished Alumni in International Business and Emerging Markets from the Emerging Markets Institute at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

5 people standing side by side at the front of a lecture hall.
(left to right) Andrew Karolyi, Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Gail Cañizares, Heather Henyon, her son, Alec Vartanian, and Lourdes Casanova upon presenting the Cañizares Award to Henyon at the Emerging Markets Institute conference 2023 (photo by Michael Graham)

“Heather personifies the purpose of the Emerging Markets Institute’s Cañizares Award, which is to honor alumni with international careers who have made a significant contribution to emerging markets and to increase awareness of Cornell and Johnson’s contributions in global business,” said Lourdes Casanova, Gail and Roberto Cañizares director of the Emerging Markets Institute. “In venture capital and private equity, an industry where women are underrepresented, she founded Mindshift Capital, a fund that aims to change that.”

The Cañizares Award was established in 2022 by long-time supporters and benefactors of the Emerging Markets Institute Roberto Cañizares ’71, MBA ’74, and his wife, Gail Cañizares. Both were on hand to present the award to Henyon at the 2023 Emerging Markets Institute conference, held on the Cornell Tech campus in New York City, November 3.

5 people standing side by side and smiling.
(left to right) Roberto Cañizares ’71, MBA ’74, Gail Cañizares, Michaela Walsh, founder of Women’s World Banking and Heather Henyon’s longtime mentor, Heather Henyon, MBA ’03, and her son, Alec Vartanian, at the Emerging Markets Institute conference 2023 (photo by Michael Graham)

From Wall Street to social impact: “Aha” moments and unconscious bias

After Henyon completed her MBA at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management in 2003, she went to work on Wall Street. But just a few years later, her career trajectory took a transformative turn. “I studied social entrepreneurship at Cornell, and based on my beliefs and values, I knew that Wall Street wasn’t going to be my long-term stopping point,” she said.

That’s when Henyon moved to the Middle East to set up a joint venture in Lebanon focused on microfinance between two very different organizations—the Grameen Foundation, a US nonprofit, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, a privately held family business —before ultimately moving Grameen-Jameel, the new company, to Dubai.

As she led the venture, Henyon always had an eye for identifying inefficiencies and ways to overcome them. For example, she developed a loan guarantee fund mechanism that enabled microfinance banks to borrow in local currencies, which was game-changing for the banks, since it mitigated the risks associated with borrowing in dollars or other hard currencies. It’s this knack for pinpointing the opportunity for social impact that drove Henyon’s foray into angel investing.

Around a decade ago, the landscape for angel investors in the Middle East, especially women, was sparse, Henyon recalled. Still, she leveraged her professional network to explore a unique opportunity. Approaching women in her network, Henyon proposed the idea of pooling resources to invest in female entrepreneurs in the Middle East. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the potential success of this venture, the response was positive.

The group, which later evolved into the Women’s Angel Investor Network (WAIN), received an overwhelming 75 applications at the outset. This initiative not only awakened Henyon’s entrepreneurial spirit, but also laid the foundation for a network that would actively contribute to empowering female founders—a cause that continues to shape her career.

2 women seated on stool-height chairs at the front of a lecture hall, holding microphones, talking, and laughing.
Lourdes Casanova, Gail and Roberto Cañizares director of the Emerging Markets Institute, speaking with Heather Henyon about her international career and Mindshift Capital at EMI’s 2023 conference (photo by Michael Graham)

Mindshift Capital: Bridging the gap for women-led ventures

The culmination of Henyon’s focus on female entrepreneurs came in 2017. At an Angel Capital Association conference, she was in a room full of men, all chatting rudely while a female presenter spoke about what is now a famous study. “That’s when I had an ‘aha’ moment about unconscious bias,” she recalled. “I just realized that the men who overlook women often don’t even realize they’re doing it. It just happens naturally as they’re all playing golf together, or networking. With only 2 percent of venture capital going to female founding teams, it’s not surprising that only 2 percent of founding partners at VC firms are female. In order to change one side of the table, we need to change the other.” This realization fueled her determination to address the gender gap and advocate for woman investors and entrepreneurs.

In 2019, she founded Mindshift Capital, a venture capital firm designed to challenge traditional biases in the investment landscape by investing with a gender lens. But Henyon is quick to emphasize that the organization is not a charity. “The financial returns are first and foremost the leading goal,” she said. “We wanted to demonstrate that [women] can do well as business owners, as entrepreneurs, as founders. By ignoring the largest emerging market, traditional investors are leaving money on the table.”

And the numbers supported Henyon’s mission: At the time Mindshift was founded, the average investment in companies founded or cofounded by women in the U.S. was half of that raised by male-founded companies. In the Middle East, Henyon estimates this percentage was even lower. At the same time, these businesses generated higher revenues: The average return on investment for women-owned companies was double that of men-owned businesses.

Today, Mindshift Capital is thriving and rapidly growing, listing 18 investments across five countries and focusing on companies with at least one female founder or cofounder. Henyon attributes this success not only to the entrepreneurs she works with, but also to how the organization is managed. “Our entire investment team is female. It’s much more decentralized, very different from how I see men work,” she explained.

As a result, Henyon says her team is more in tune with the challenges that entrepreneurs in the MENA region face. “The idea of failure is not widely accepted by families here,” she noted. Barriers such as cultural stigma, bureaucratic hurdles, and a lack of deep-tech knowledge pose challenges. At the same time, however, the MENA region has a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit, especially among women.

Keely Cat Wells, founder of Making Space, an organization that Mindshift has recently invested in, embodies this entrepreneurial spirit. Originally from the UK, Keely faced discrimination in Hollywood, which led her to start her first company, a recruitment agency for disabled people in the entertainment industry. After selling her first venture, Keely launched Making Space to revolutionize inclusivity training. Today, the company focuses on inclusivity training and learning management systems, with a unique angle on disability inclusiveness, with signed clients including blue chip names like Netflix and NBC.

“She’s doing that day in and day out for something she really cares deeply about,” Henyon says. Making Space not only exemplifies the potential for financial success but also the power of entrepreneurship to dismantle societal barriers. The company has plans to expand to the Middle East, where there’s a huge building development boom and, consequently, a massive opportunity to leapfrog architectural barriers and design buildings from the ground up in a more disability-friendly way.

Raising awareness to drive gender-lens investing

Henyon’s journey, from her Wall Street beginnings to the creation of Mindshift Capital, exemplifies a visionary commitment to challenging the status quo. As she receives the 2023 Cañizares Award, her story is a beacon of inspiration for a more inclusive and equitable future in the world of finance and entrepreneurship.

She hopes the award helps shed light on a growing need to support female entrepreneurs. “Even in the U.S., it’s still so nascent. We need more awareness around it,” she said, emphasizing the need for broader recognition and support for gender-lens investing.

In a world where unconscious bias often hampers the potential of woman entrepreneurs, Henyon stands as a catalyst for change. As Mindshift Capital continues to grow and companies like Making Space redefine inclusivity, Henyon’s vision becomes not just a personal journey but also a movement towards a more diverse, empowering, and visionary future.