Unilever to work with more female-led startups

The CPG commits to using its size and innovation program to advance diversity in tech and innovation.

Unilever plans to use its size to do something about the lack of gender diversity in the startup community, a place the CPG giant is turning to more often to innovate its business.

This week, the company set a new goal to have at least 50% of the startups it works with be run by women by 2023.

Unilever’s Foundry program allows startups from around the world to respond to public briefs seeking technological solutions to problems the company wants to address in reaching and engaging its consumers. Those solutions have ranged from new ways to drive sampling, using sensory marketing to create more interactive in-store experiences, using new platforms to curate user-generated content and developing new consumer research methods. Over the last four years, Unilever has worked with startups on over 150 different pilot projects.

Aline Santos, Unilever’s EVP of global marketing and head of diversity and inclusion, said during a keynote at the Mobile World Congress this week that 23% of its startup investment currently goes to companies led by women. While that number is well behind its five-year goal, it is still outpacing the broader startup community: according to a recent survey of 685 founders and company directors conducted by Unilever, 17% of startup founders are women.

What’s more, 39% of those founders said they “frequently” encountered sexism while running their business, with 42% believing gender discrimination will be a continuing issue as they attempt to scale their companies. Another 24% said investors have been less willing to fund companies run by women.

Santos also said an organization the size of Unilever is able to “unleash the best in creativity, ideas and innovation” when it embraces diversity. It plans to also use its power to both bring more attention to the issues women working in startups face, as well as provide more opportunities to innovative, female-run companies.

The initiative appears to be limited, at least at this time, to the company’s Foundry program, and will not apply to other parts of the company that are involved with the startup community, such as the Unilever Ventures investment division.

In 2016, Unilever announced the “#unstereotype” initiative at Cannes to end portrayals of gender stereotypes in ads for all of its brands. At the following year’s festival, it announced an alliance with companies including Mars, Microsoft, J&J, Mattel, P&G, WPP and Google to develop a measurement system and set more defined goals for the initiative. That alliance included a partnership with UN Women, and Unilever’s new startup goal also involves working with the UN and its Global Innovation Coalition for Change to create a “set of innovation principles” and provide women with more role models and mentors.