Debbie Ackerman concedes that while building Twin Bridge Capital Partners into a nearly $2.5 billion firm over 15 years, she did not spend a great deal of time thinking about the number of women in the private equity industry. That began to change a few years ago, however, as she transitioned to a senior partner role with the Chicago private equity firm. Able to take a hard look at the industry she had been a part of for 25 years, she saw not only how male dominated it was, but how unattractive it appeared as a career choice for women – including her own twin daughters. “There was a confluence of events,” Debbie tells Women’s PE Briefs. “It became front and center in my mind that we really need to do something to influence women to go into finance and retain them.”
The result is Project Sunflower, which features a group of women investing alongside private equity firms in deals. The aim, she says, is “empower more women to invest in private equity.”
Debbie worked on developing the “proof of concept” over the course of 12 to 18 months and recruited women to be part of the network. Project Sunflower’s website currently lists 15 women, including Debbie. Those in the network are or were in executive roles within an array of industries, including technology, financial services, consumer products, management consulting and health care. The group includes Elizabeth Burgess, partner, Bridges Fund Management; Jennifer W. Christensen, managing partner, JWC Partners; Heather Fraser, managing director, Standish Management; and Harisha Koneru Haigh, who is a managing director with Northwestern University’s investment office.
“There are so few women in private equity, I wanted to try to do my part to remedy the situation,” Debbie said.
To date, Project Sunflower has invested in three companies through a pledge fund format: Nutrasource, a clinical research organization focused on the natural products sector; Colony Display, a maker of fixtures and displays; and Chelsea Lighting, the largest independent lighting and lighting controls distributor in New York City. In the Colony and Chelsea transactions, the lead private equity acquirer was Kinzie Capital Partners, whose founder and managing partner is Suzanne Yoon. “As one of the few women to start her own private equity firm, Suzanne is a role model and true inspiration to women in the industry,” says Debbie. “She is a strong supporter of initiatives that further women including Project Sunflower.”
The firm is investing in small to middle-market opportunities, says Debbie. She is seeking to develop the network’s deal flow by reaching out to PE groups she worked with – “99 percent” of which are comprised of male senior investment professionals. These firms, she says, will benefit from Project Sunflower in that the network “brings diversity” to the deals and “we can help them win transactions.” The Project Sunflower members are willing to serve in an array of functions, including sharing industry contacts, aiding in identifying add-on acquisitions and serving as board members. The pipeline of deals, says Debbie, has “really taken off,” which is “particularly gratifying.”
Aside from getting successful executive women involved in private equity, Project Sunflower will also provide mentoring services to the network’s partner private equity firms and their portfolio companies. Where Project Sunflower goes from here is still to be determined. “Stay tuned,” says Debbie. “There’s some interest in turning bigger, but I really think we need 12 to 24 months to assess the sustainability of the model, assess what we bring to the equation and how to be more impactful down the path.” As for what it will take to make the industry more diverse, Debbie has a simple philosophy: “We’ve all got to keep working at it. If you don’t focus on it, things won’t change.”