Microsoft’s venture arm M12 is launching another Female Founders Competition, this time with some help from Melinda Gates and Silicon Valley venture capital fund Mayfield.

The competition will award $6 million to four female-founded companies as part of its goal to “help create a more equitable playing field for innovative female founders,” Peggy Johnson, Microsoft’s executive vice president of business development, wrote in a blog post.

That’s up from $4 million that went to two startups last year. There will be a pair of $2 million awards for B2B enterprise tech startups, as well as two $1 million awards for “deeptech” companies. The competition also now includes entrepreneurs based in India, in addition to the U.S., Europe, and Israel.

“It’s well-documented that women-led companies deliver higher returns over time than those founded by men, yet female founders — particularly of enterprise tech startups — continue to receive significantly less access to capital,” Johnson wrote. “In fact, last year companies founded solely by women received only 2.3% of the total capital invested in venture-backed startups. While we’re seeing some pockets of progress, we as a VC community can do much more to support and financially back innovation and ideas from women-led companies.”

Acerta co-founder Greta Cutulenco (left) and Mental Canvas founder Julie Dorsey won the first Female Founders Competition. (Rebecca Wilkowski Photos)

Also new this year: Gates’ Pivotal Ventures investment firm and Mayfield are on board. Gates this month pledged $1 billion over the next 10 years to initiatives designed to accelerate gender equity in the United States.

Applications for the competition are open until Dec. 15. Interested startups can apply here.

M12’s push to recognize female founders comes as Microsoft is dealing with an ongoing gender discrimination lawsuits brought by current and former female technical employees.

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Earlier this year, an email thread surfaced in which women at Microsoft shared stories of sexual harassment at the company, as reported by Quartz. In response, CEO Satya Nadella vowed to overhaul how Microsoft investigates employee misconduct.

Microsoft’s last reported diversity numbers show its headcount at 28 percent women, as of June 2018.

M12, previously known as Microsoft Ventures, launched in 2016. The VC arm generally invests in early-stage B2B startups that are working on their Series A or Series B rounds, with investments ranging from $2 million to $10 million. There are nearly 80 startups in its portfolio.





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