Meet Sonja Hoel Perkins
I am the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants. My father grew up in a tenement in Bay Ridge, the poor Norwegian section of Brooklyn. He was born in 1935 and jokes that anyone born at that time – during the Depression – was a mistake. My mother landed in New York from Oslo, Norway after her mother divorced my grandfather for a better life that was never realized. Because my mom was a girl, she was not allowed to attend college. My father realized early on that education was the only way out of poverty. He worked hard and won admittance to New York’s finest public schools: Brooklyn Technical High School and City College of New York. Eventually, he earned his Doctorate from U.C. Berkeley and became a world-renowned expert in the field of Urban Transportation.
Given my parents’ hard childhoods, I learned, at a young age, the value of a dollar and how hard work is absolutely necessary in controlling your own destiny. I also learned later, that hard work was not all that mattered – having someone who believed in you was essential. My parents believed in me, even if I was not so sure myself. They said I could do anything as long as I put my mind to it. Because of their belief in me, I was able to fly.
Blind to the inequities of gender in the venture capital industry, I joined a venture capital firm right out of college. I believed I could do it and I did. At that time, my profession had less than 10% women and almost no people of color. Similar statistics remain today. I excelled in my career – always being the only woman – investing in ideas that grew into billion-dollar companies. For the first 22 years of my career, I did not look for discrimination perhaps in fear of finding it.
Then life changed. In 2008, I was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and became a mother for the first time. The uncertainty of life was hard – chemo, radiation, and a new baby. At the same time, I had a supportive family, great health insurance, and a job waiting for me. I was grateful but still struggling. I began to wonder, “If life is this hard for me, what must it be like for so many other women with much less?” With that thought, I became a feminist overnight and dedicated my life to bringing women and girls, of all races and origins, up with me. I asked myself, “If I don’t do this, who will?”
In 2010, I left my traditional venture capital firm to focus on issues facing women and founded Broadway Angels and Project Glimmer. Later, I created The Perkins Fund.
Broadway Angels is an angel investment group made up of world-class investors and business executives who all happen to be women. We invest in the best companies, like The RealReal, Hint Water, and 128 Technology, while inspiring women and girls to become venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. We invest in women and people of color at much higher rates than traditional venture capitalists. Women founders in The Perkins Fund portfolio, for example, represent over 50% of the portfolio. Black women represent 12% (vs a dismal industry average of 0.27%). There is so much data proving that diverse teams have better outcomes. In addition, diverse teams inspire diverse people to start companies. People cannot be what they cannot see. A diverse world where positions of power match the population makes the world a better place.
Project Glimmer’s mission is to help every girl to envision and realize her empowered future. Project Glimmer builds self-confidence in adolescent girls, just like my parents helped build my self-confidence. Self-confidence fuels her early ambition and vision for her future. It empowers her to use her voice, both defending her values and standing up to criticism. It allows her to develop sound judgment and make good decisions. It gives her the courage to own her story – no matter how challenging the circumstances – and recognize her worth, as a girl. But confidence doesn’t grow on its own, especially when living in an environment of poverty, uncertainty, or fear – environments that too often squander the futures of too many girls. Confidence needs to be nurtured and that nurturing needs to start early. The last eleven years have been nothing short of extraordinary, exceeding all hopes and expectations. Project Glimmer has grown from a single holiday gift drive for forgotten teenage girls to a nationwide platform of programs that inspires a girl’s ambition, connects her with a network of peers and mentors, and supplements some of her most basic personal needs. Project Glimmer’s 1,000 community partners have enabled us to reach more than 700,000 girls in all 50 states, while helping us transform what was once a historically-fragmented community into a highly operational eco-system of corporations, philanthropists, and volunteers donating their products, resources, time, and talent.
As I continue to broaden my exposure to the struggles women face to improve their lives at home and abroad, I’ve developed a particular interest in targeting my personal resources to the most vulnerable. I believe communities do not work unless everyone participates. I care deeply about Black women and have funded scholarships for Black women to attend college – many of whom would not have been able to attend without it. I also care deeply about the women and girls who are trafficked all around the world which is why I support the American Himalayan Foundation’s STOP GIRL TRAFFICKING and Legal Momentum. I am also a member of the Maverick Collective and the C200.
I joined Women Moving Millions because I found kindred spirits in its members. If we as women with resources and power don’t step up with our dollars and voices, who will? Women Moving Millions is doing the hard work of raising awareness of the issues facing women and girls. Today, only $1 dollar out of every $10 philanthropic dollars goes towards women’s issues. All of us are changing the world, one dollar, one woman, and one girl at a time. Like Gandhi, I always say, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Women Moving Millions is that change.