Q&A with Level 20 founder Jennifer Dunstan

As part of my research for our latest white paper on the case for gender diversity in private equity, I spoke with Jennifer Dunstan, founder of Level 20, to talk about how the industry can, should, and is changing to address its lack of diversity.  

When Jennifer joined the private equity industry in the mid-1990s women were, as Level 20’s website says, ‘a rare species indeed’, which makes her subsequent ascent to leadership positions all the more impressive.

Jennifer’s record speaks for itself: beginning at Nomura’s Principal Finance Group she moved to Terra Firma Capital Partners, ultimately taking up the role as Managing Director. From there Jennifer joined 3i in 2005, as a Partner in the UK Buyouts team and Head of Consumer for the UK before becoming the Partner responsible for the Fund Investor Relations team. While at 3i she co-led a number of marquee transactions, including the firm’s investment in Mayborn and the creation of TelecityRedbus.

In 2015 Jennifer co-founded Level 20, an organisation devoted to increasing women’s representation in leadership positions across the industry, with a stated goal of 20% of senior positions being held by women by 2020. A worthy target, and one that seems even more ambitious when one considers that at the time of founding, only 5% of these roles were held by women.

Though the challenge is significant, swift progress has been made – Level 20 now has over 1,100 members and has begun its third mentoring programme, drawing together experienced voices from across the industry to help open (and keep open) the door for women. Moreover, it now counts more than 40 GP funds as sponsors, a sure sign that private equity is engaging with the core mission of the organisation.

The number of women in leadership positions has risen – recent research puts it at 9% – but clearly there is still work to be done. It was great to get some time with Jennifer to discuss the significant challenges the industry faces, how Level 20 is addressing them, and gain some valuable insight into what the next steps should be.

Photo Credit: Financial Times

Why was there such enthusiasm to set up an organisation like Level 20 in 2015?

Level 20 was founded by a group of 12 of us who had been working together in the industry for a number of years. We had got together informally and we’d come across each other in a business context as well, and increasingly we all felt there was a need to do something more formal and more structured. We had that lightbulb moment of realisation in 2015, so we decided to set up Level 20.

Why has it taken so long for this issue of low female representation in private equity to become more of a talking point?

I think you have to look at the world that we all live and work in. I don’t think financial services has been unusual – there are a number of places where you haven’t seen women strongly represented. A lot of it comes back to what women are encouraged to study at school and university, and the choices that people make very early on about the type of things they want to do. In fact, one of the things Level 20 is focused on is an Outreach Programme with schools and business schools.

That’s been an issue generally across the board. If you go back 50 years, women weren’t encouraged to be doctors or lawyers for instance, so it’s part of the evolution of how women are perceived and the contribution they can make. It’s about encouraging people to feel that they can do anything.

What have been some of your core priorities with Level 20 to date?

When we started we were focused around our three pillars – mentoring, networking and philanthropy. The mentoring programme has had a huge impact in terms of giving people the opportunity to be mentored by both men and women who have a lot more experience in the industry. There are two parts to our mission: one is attracting more women to work in the industry, and the other is about supporting and retaining the women who do work in private equity to ensure they are successful.  That’s why the mentoring programme is very important and we’re now onto our third intake – it just started in September last year. We now have in excess of 60 pairs of mentors and mentees involved.

We’re also this year in the midst of a big research project where we’ve gathered data from over 700 people in the industry so that we can look at some of the career paths and trajectories and get a better understanding of what the issues are for women working in the industry, and where there are key points where people might drop out.

What impact do you think the Level 20 movement has had on the private equity industry so far?

It’s difficult to measure at the moment as we’ve been going for just over two years. What I think is interesting is that we now have more than 1,100 members, we’ve got more than 40 GP funds sponsoring us, and we’ve now made sure the topic is on the agenda for everyone working in the industry.

When the Treasury was talking about the Women in Finance Charter recently that they want firms to sign up to, they acknowledged the work that we’ve been doing, so there’s a certain amount of profile that we’re getting. Getting people to talk about it and focus on it is a key part of what we’re doing, and over the coming years we’ll be in a position to measure and see what progress has been made.

Does private equity need to change how it thinks about the work-life balance it offers both men and women, and particularly millennials?

It’s a very complicated question: the world has changed a lot, and technology has certainly changed how people work. Culturally, the world is much more focused on work-life balance than it was even 10 years ago, and I think each generation always has a slightly different perspective on things given the type of world they grow up in.

Some firms are actually very good at creating a more flexible working arrangement to give people (both men and women) the opportunity to be more balanced. You have to be careful not to focus on just one thing – yes, the job is often long hours and transactional so that can be very demanding, but at the same time it’s also a very rewarding career so you’ve got to keep it all in balance.

What are your big plans for Level 20 in the coming year?

The key next stage for us now is that we’re moving outside the UK. We’ve had a lot of people say that they want to see something for them locally on the ground across Europe. We’re now in the process of launching in Germany and then we’ll look to move the model across Europe in other geographies. That’s very important because I don’t think this is a UK-only initiative for the private equity industry – this is a European if not ultimately global initiative to help the industry come together to look at this issue.

We’ve also just launched a dedicated platform for our younger members – the Future Leaders Group – managed by a committee of young women working in the industry who will be organising a programme of activities and helping to support Level 20’s initiatives.

Tackling the significant challenges raised by the lack of women in private equity is no easy task, but it begins by engaging with the complexities of the issue’s causes, current state, and solutions. After extensive and thorough research, The MBS Group has published a white paper on the issue titled ‘The Case for Gender Diversity in Private Equity’ which can be found here: The case for gender diversity in private equity

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