I met Lisa Carmen Wang in May of this year, just a few days after crypto started its downturn that marked the beginning of this current financial crisis. But Wang—who, as the founder of a crypto investment group, has a vested interest in crypto’s success—didn’t seem too fazed by a market that’s known for its volatility.
We were a part of a group of investors, founders, and journalists who were flown out to Cascais, a charming fishing town on Portugal’s coastline, to discuss the current landscape of crypto and private investment, participating in roundtables and panels to share expertise and projections.
Wang shared her vision and work, building an empire using women investors and disruptive tech, with the audience during her on-stage interview. Her confidence is unmistakable. It comes from being a five-time Pan American Games gold medalist and a three-time World Championship gymnast. It comes from launching her second female-focused organization dedicated to closing the gender wealth gap. It comes from self-realization that happened early on about gender roles and how she wants to treat others and be treated. Part of it is innate. Wang possesses a remarkable ability not just to command the room, but to energize whomever she’s speaking with at a given moment.
“Someone told me that I had one of the greatest blessings that very few people get to experience,” Wang says. “I experienced failing publicly and at a high level; I was forced to learn how to pick myself up at my lowest point. I got to do that at such a young age, and that’s going to serve me for the rest of my life. It taught me to reframe things into learning experiences and has given me a much firmer grasp of empathy.”
“A giant hole where gymnastics used to be“
Wang was nine and living with her family in Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago, when she took her first gymnastics class. She decided on the spot she wanted to be an Olympic gymnast. “I fell in love with gymnastics for the grace and the athleticism,” she says. “Nothing compares to the feeling of leaping and flying through the air, knowing that it’s your own two legs that are catapulting you through gravity.”
In the next decade, Wang went on to win dozens of awards for rhythmic gymnastics, but she never did make the Olympics. During the 2007 World Championships, which served as the qualifiers for the 2008 Olympics, Wang placed 28th and missed qualification by 0.25 tenths of a point. (Her final path to the Olympics—a wild card slot reserved for countries that send small delegations to the Olympics—was also slammed shut when the U.S.Olympic Committee declined to pursue that route.)
“That was one of those moments where I really think I broke,” said Wang. “My entire identity was being an Olympic gymnast and suddenly my dream was gone—dictated by an outside judging panel based on one competition. My identity shattered, and in that moment, I had to make a decision. Part of me wanted to say ‘screw it, I never want to see this sport again,’ but the stronger part of me realized that my identity wasn’t an Olympic gymnast; it was a winner.”
Wang decided that this next year she was going to become the best gymnast she could be—not for others but for herself, to see if she could drive herself without that external motivation of the Olympics that she banked on for a decade.
So, at 18 years old, Wang put off an acceptance to Yale and flew to the Novogorsk Training Center in Russia, the most rigorous training facility in the world, to train nine hours a day. The work paid off: A year later, in 2008, she won five gold medals and took the all-around title and the Athlete of the Year award at the National Championships. That’s when Wang decided to end her career, on the highest note possible as the best gymnast she could be. In 2014, she was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
Retirement created a void. “Athletes don’t really talk about the depression that happens after you finish a high-level sport,” she says. “I had a giant hole where gymnastics used to be.” At Yale, Wang cycled through seven different majors, finally landing on literature.
After graduation, she received a fellowship to conduct research on the local Chinese economy, writing papers in Mandarin. Balyasny Asset Management, a hedge fund, found her during her research and asked her to join their Hong Kong office. She accepted, but only if she could work in their New York City office, which they agreed to let her do. The gig didn’t last too long. “I did a little under two years at the fund before realizing that I’m unemployable and I can’t work for people,” Wang says with a chuckle.
Though short-lived, the stint at Balyasny sparked an interest in business. Wang didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship, she didn’t have a network, she didn’t know anything about tech, and she didn’t even know what the term ”venture capital” meant, but she was drawn to the excitement and freedom of everything. “At that time, I was reading TechCrunch and saw all these stupid apps raising millions of dollars and thought, ‘Well I could do that,’” she says.
In 2015, Wang pitched Food-X, the first international food business accelerator, for a “late-night munchies” delivery company called Fooze. They liked the idea, and suddenly Wang had a $60,000 check and a vision in need of execution. After hiring an engineer from Craigslist, Wang started delivering food on a bike by herself at all hours of the day. Wang considers this her “starter startup,” where she learned the ropes of entrepreneurship.
After a few months, Wang had to go back to the fundraising table. That’s when she took her first trip to Silicon Valley—and when she saw firsthand the industry’s sexism. “I realized then how difficult it is for women to secure funding, especially in the pre #metoo era,” she says. “There was no real awareness or conversation around the funding gap or what women were going through.”
Chatting with me in Portugal, our conversation kept returning to what is, for her, a familiar theme: the wealth and funding gap experienced by women and people of color. While the conversation surrounding the funding gap has definitely evolved in the past few years, with more and more people speaking about it at dinner tables, the funding hasn’t. In 2021, U.S. women-only founded companies still received only 2% of all venture capital funding and participated in 6.8% of VC deal counts. Black and Latina female founders received just 0.43% of VC funding in 2020, and the World Bank estimates that this finance gap for women is valued at US$1.7 trillion. According to Pitchbook’s tracking, VC deal counts for female-founded companies are going up, but funding amounts are not seeing the same marked growth. Research from Harvard’s Kennedy School found that women in the U.S.make up approximately 11% of investing partners at VC firms, and nearly three-quarters of U.S. VC firms do not have a single female investing partner.
“We’ve seen female-run teams involved in more of the deal flow; now we just need the size of those deals to increase,” says Dana Kanze, an organizational behavior professor at London Business School who co-authored a study in 2020 that found that VCs penalize female-led ventures in male-dominated industries, giving less funding and significantly lower valuations than they would to female-led ventures in female-dominated industries. The study also found that male-led ventures receive high funding and similar valuations regardless of the industry.
For Wang, the Silicon Valley trip was an eye-opening motivator. Fooze ended up taking a backseat as Wang handed the reins to her COO and began working on something that could make an impact specifically for women. Wang’s second company, SheWorx, was born in 2015 out of a desire to create a support system for other female entrepreneurs. It focused on building community and having women collaborating instead of competing, and bringing VCs and Angels to the table that the members otherwise would not have had the opportunity to meet. By 2019, it had 20,000 members active in seven cities and helped women founders raise over 50 million in funding. In 2019, SheWorx was acquired by the equity crowdfunding platform Republic; Wang admits that she made a number of mistakes when growing SheWorx (although she believes the result turned out positive), but when the opportunity for acquisition came, she took the off-ramp. She left SheWorx and Republic on strong terms, according to Pialy Aditya, Republic’s chief strategy officer, who says that Wang “will always remain a good friend to Republic.”
Wang began coaching women entrepreneurs and CEOs and secured her first major book deal with HarperCollins. She returned to Republic in 2021 to briefly serve as Head of Brand and Communications. She again stepped away in 2022 to fully focus on her book and launch her next project, one that focuses on further developing, on the ground level, that investment pipeline for female-founded companies. She called the project, fittingly enough, Bad Bitch Empire.
Wang wasn’t sure exactly how to build this new pipeline, but she began exploring what this mission would look like in terms of empowering women, starting with herself. She went to a financial adviser to learn how to make her money work for her. “I now knew how to build a business, but I had no idea how to invest instead of allowing my money to sit in my savings account and depreciate.” She first started investing in the stock market, and then she moved on to investing in women-founded businesses.
“You’re not really in the game unless you’re the one making the decisions of where the money flows,” Wang says. “It’s the investors who are not only funding the companies but additionally, they are the ones getting rich from the companies.”
“Any company that isn’t making the world a better place shouldn’t exist”
The Bad Bitch Empire (BBE for short) investment strategy focuses on early-stage, female-led tech companies that focus on what she calls the three Bs: body (healthcare & wellness), boundaries (education and future of work), and bank accounts (economic empowerment). Investing in all three of these categories, whether the businesses are utilizing blockchain, Web3, AI, or machine learning, is technological disruption innovation.
BBE had its official launch at Bitcoin Miami in April 2022, where they had 2K women go through their pilot bootcamp, have 5K subscribers, a podcast, and are working organically toward their goal of getting 1M “bad bitches” investing. An exciting next step for BBE is the launch of their first venture capital fund, which will include lower minimums, something that has long been a barrier keeping many groups out of investing and the wealth gap gaping. BBE is heavily focused on investment education for women and events, utilizing the collaborative advantage of community to create transparency and democratization, while also maximizing returns. BBE plans to start investing this fall.
“It doesn’t make sense to invest in a company that isn’t doing good for the world and for our pockets,” says Wang. “Any company that isn’t making the world a better place shouldn’t exist in 2022 and on.”
More recently, BBE premiered their Bad Bitch Pitch at New York Fashion Week, a pitch event showcasing select Bad Bitch founders building high-growth tech companies focused on the three Bs. For female founders, the Bad Bitch Pitch is the opportunity to show investors why they should bet on your empire that’s changing the world. For new female investors, Bad Bitch Pitch is a way to see firsthand the process of analyzing a company and founder, learning what they should be looking for.
Dr. Kanze’s work looks at gender bias and stereotypes in finance and notes that women VCs are subject to the same biases and misperceptions that male VCs have regarding female founders, specifically in male-catered industries.
If funding count and dollars for women founders is to change, then education for women VCs should be high priority, and address these biases and misperceptions in the early stages.
BBE’s mission is to get one million women investing by educating and training them, not only how to invest, but how to break free from what Wang calls “good girl brainwashing.” “In business, you can get in the door as a good girl, and that gets you a job, but if you want to be a leader, then you need to become a bad bitch. A bad bitch is a woman who unapologetically takes charge of her body, boundaries, and bank account,” says Wang, noting that the term “Bitch” was chosen because of the power wrapped in femininity behind the word. Whenever I heard Wang name her company in conversation or presentation, “Bitch” would always be voiced with an additional significance; you could hear the importance in its use and see the weight it carried in the room.
Nicole Montoya first learned about BBE when she came across interviews with Wang online. She found herself instantly drawn to Wang’s perspective on “good girl brainwashing.” “Lisa talking about the values that she presents for Bad Bitch Empire and owning those opportunities, financially for women, really resonated with me,” Montoya says. BBE was the first time that VC or Angel investments were spoken about in a way that made this type of investing accessible. “The way she was providing the resources and education to access this world was very compelling.”
Aditya of Republic also holds BBE membership, and once spoke at a BBE event to promote bodily autonomy. “I was one of three women who shared our different journeys with egg freezing,” she says. “It’s interesting because it’s just something we don’t ever talk about, and I’m glad an organization like BBE is talking about things that are for our pleasure and for our health.”
Wang believes that before you can tactfully invest, you need to feel confident, and many women are lacking in that area because of key ways that society speaks to women and about women. “If you think about financial education to date, 90% of financial articles targeted toward women are negative. They’re about saving or spending less. It’s the exact opposite for articles targeted toward men, which are about investing and putting your money to work. We have cultural rhetoric that is constantly emphasizing fear, ignorance, and anxiety around women’s money, which is going to make them not want to invest, because at the same time, there is a misperception that investing means risk and investing means losing money. It’s not seen as an opportunity, culturally, and that’s a big part of what we do at BBE is that educational piece around investing.”
“The hardest thing is for women to feel empowered to do this on your own,” said Montoya. “I think it’s amazing when people can make a connection to encourage each other and figure this out together. If you’re interested at all, you should seek out someone else who can take that journey with you, or else it will continue to be male-dominated forever.”
Wang started diving into the potentials that tech and the blockchain could provide to solve the puzzle. “Initially, the biggest thing that struck me is that when we have a technology that is permissionless and trustless, without a central authority, there’s a huge opportunity for women and underrepresented folx to create an entirely new financial system that serves us, given that the current system was created by and for men.” Tech and blockchain do have the opportunity to advance underrepresented groups, but Wang realized that those groups need to be a part of building these new systems, or else they would be left out of yet another technological and financial revolution. That’s when she got the idea that she would work to get more women into the tech space, unapologetically claiming the opportunity that is now presenting itself to the world.
Focusing on this natural advantage of the birth of the blockchain and the collaborative nature of tech, Wang started focusing on educating women. It was around the start of BBE that one of Wang’s male advisers crossed a boundary with her, which became a tipping point. While she didn’t get into the specifics of the event, she did share that it was a moment of intense anger, because someone Wang had really trusted had violated her boundaries, despite doing all of the “right” things when working with and around men. “Something clicked inside me, and I realized that I am so done with this bullshit. I don’t care what men think anymore. I don’t care if this guy on my left thinks I’m a bitch, and I don’t care if this guy on my right thinks I’m a slut. I was realizing that so much of how a woman walks through life is dictated by fear of what men think of her.”
“This is a recurring anger and pain that is being experienced by generations, millions of women. I empathize with all of these generations that continuously feel pain, harassment, abuse, violence, and all because we’re living in a man’s world with their rules and their games.”
Wang has had to make shifts her entire life because of factors outside her control. The Olympics, her male adviser, and now the crypto crash. The original goal of the Bad Bitch Empire was to get 1M women investing in crypto; when they launched at Bitcoin Miami earlier in the year, the blockchain possibilities were endless. Crypto, NFTs, and Web3 were the target keywords and new frontiers that women and people of color were aiming to dominate by building a new world with new systems. And while they still do have long-term capabilities, and Wang is still utilizing them in her strategy, she recognized the need to refocus on core elements: female investment, female-founded and led companies, and tech.
“I’ve always believed that I have the ability to create a major impact and that I was meant to,” she says. “You can change the world and you do have something to offer, and it has to start with self-belief and confidence.”