Suzanne Biegel: ‘It took me having a fatal illness to come back to my original self’

Many know her as the gender-lens investing champion; her friends consider her an “exceptional connector” whose crazy ideas have long been ahead of her time. Now, as the self-described party-thrower faces a terminal diagnosis, Suzanne Biegel is more impatient than ever to get money moving to where it matters. And her legacy project, she tells us, is deeply personal – and a source of joy.

My interview with Suzanne Biegel has been scheduled at a place mysteriously named Eden. I receive instructions in advance as to what visitors can bring (poetry, scented candles) and can’t bring (uninvited guests, a cold). We are asked to avoid making loud noises. 

The instructions are detailed partly because Biegel’s husband, Daniel Maskit, is autistic – but primarily because she has stage four metastatic lung cancer. “Mourning is ok here. We are all mourning something,” the guidelines read. “So is celebrating.” 

Biegel is something of a powerhouse in the impact investing and gender finance world. The news of her terminal illness – which she revealed in a LinkedIn post in April 2023 – prompted hundreds of comments from those who had been influenced by her work. Some credited her for redirecting their entire career. 

While Biegel did not coin the term gender-lens investing – the concept of integrating gender analysis into the investment process for better social and financial outcomes – she has done more than perhaps any other individual to make it count, as a co-founder of multiple initiatives and as a tireless advocate of women in finance. She is an investor, philanthropist and consultant, but perhaps most accurately sums up her role as a “catalyst at large”, as well as an “activist, instigator, environmentalist, feminist and party-thrower”. 

The parties may be a little smaller of late, but the urge to bring people together persists, and she is more impatient than ever to make a difference. Her story begins in New York, involves Harry Potter, bears, and dozens of influential people and organisations. And a new chapter is just beginning.


Big ideas

My directions take me to the affluent borough of Hampstead in London: Eden is the name Biegel and Maskit have given to their apartment, their home since just a few months ago, also occupied by Luna the kitten. We sit in a bright, open-plan living room as Maskit and an assistant make lunch and go about their day around us. 

It was while in hospital in early 2023, “when I was really at my sickest”, that Biegel decided she wanted to live “in a place that felt like a real sanctuary”. But it also needed to be a space for connection, for brainstorming “big ideas” – hence a dining table that seats 14: “I really love convening people. That gives me joy.” The hope is that future initiatives on gender or climate, or both, are born right here in Eden.

I really love convening people. That gives me joy 

Biegel was born in 1963 and is originally from New York. Her father had emigrated from Austria to the US aged nine, and had just US$17 when he married, but then made money working on Wall Street and later as a tech venture capitalist. Biegel’s mother, a librarian who also worked in museums, had a knack for encouraging curiosity and a love of reading among her visitors. Neither had a particular focus on social issues, but their work prompted the young Biegel to see businesses and finance “as an important part of how the world works”. Soon, that led to asking herself why all businesses wouldn't have a social mission.


Suzanne Biegel: career milestones 

  • 1980s: several roles at IBM and at IBM-funded startups
  • 1990s: CEO at edtech firm IEC
  • 2000: exited IEC
  • 2010-2011: CEO, Investors’ Circle
  • 2012: founded Clearly Social Angels
  • 2014-2019: investment director at Spring Accelerator
  • 2015: founded Women Effect 
  • 2018: co-founded GenderSmart 
  • 2023: co-founded Heading for Change

Other notable positions and roles:

  • Vice-chair, Liberty Hill Foundation
  • Fellow, Aspen Institute 
  • Senior advisor, Wharton Social Impact Initiative
  • Gender equity fellow, Tribe Impact Capital
  • Board member, Confluence Philanthropy
  • Board member, 2x Collaborative 
  • Advisory board member, Investors’ Circle
  • Member and co-chair of gender and racial equity working group, Toniic 
  • ‘Activator’ (ie member), Coralus (formerly SheEO) 


Harry Potter and the gender-lens wizard

Biegel studied communications and marketing in the early 1980s. She became a serious investor after exiting the edtech business she ran, IEC, in 2000 (she does not disclose how much money she made). By then Biegel – now living in California – had joined Social Venture Network. Formed in the late 1980s, it was one of the USA’s first networks dedicated to social and environmental impact in business; many of those involved then were “the godmothers and godfathers” of impact investing, and “enormously inspiring” to her. 

Soon she was influencing others to move their money, including as a board member of a foundation. It was too small, it couldn’t make a difference, it didn’t have the in-house expertise – all the usual reasons philanthropic foundations give for not investing their assets in impact, Biegel says. “I pushed and pushed and pushed.” She succeeded, “but it took a long time”.

They say the pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their back

She has applied the same principle to her own portfolio; by now, most of her investments are impact investments (in the UK, she has backed the women-led Apolitical, an education service for public sector workers, and chocolate social enterprise Harry Specters). At times these have been “more impact-first” than planned. “They say the pioneers are the ones with the arrows in their back,” she says, of her role as an early backer in wind and solar energy, but is pragmatic about the losses and recognises the value of building a market. “At least I was a pioneer in that area,” she says. 

Biegel’s move to London, in 2009, was thanks to Harry Potter. Her husband Maskit, who worked in visual effects, had been recruited to work on the films, which were being shot in the UK. The couple stayed, falling in love with London. And she was excited to witness what she describes as a “frothy time of innovation” in the country, with the emergence of social impact bonds, the beginnings of what would become Big Society Capital, and the country’s first community energy fund. More importantly, she found herself shifting from “US-centric investor” into a “really global citizen”: being in London opened her eyes to what was happening in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

She was also becoming increasingly active on gender issues. At Investors’ Circle, the first early-stage impact investing network in the US, she had been trying to encourage other women to invest and to encourage all investors to back female entrepreneurs. Getting to the next stage – considering gender across any investment – happened in collaboration with Criterion Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on systems change. The team there were trying to figure out why more women weren’t involved in impact finance, and in 2009 had coined the term ‘gender-lens investing’. Biegel worked with them to gather fund managers, wealth managers, private investors, institutional investors and others who considered themselves gender-lens investors.

More influential networks followed. She started Clearly Social Angels in 2012, a group of angel investors, where she was “really subtle” about the gender lens, although she wanted half the group to be women. That didn’t just happen. Rather, it meant proactively “asking people, grabbing them and dragging them in”, which  worked – until Biegel moved on, when, to her disappointment, the proportion of women dropped again.


Human switchboard

Joy Anderson, founder and president at Criterion Institute, has worked closely with Biegel for well over 15 years, and is among those supporting her newest project – more on that later – as an advisor and steward. She describes her friend as an “exceptional communicator”: a stickler for getting people’s stories right. “She doesn't just make connections. She makes very specific connections tied to very accurate knowledge,” Anderson tells me. Her role as catalyst or “human switchboard” is tied to a deep sense of integrity, she adds – which means she often won’t make the introduction if it doesn’t feel right. 

Women, especially, like to learn in groups. And it's more fun

I get the sense that what others see as exceptional is simply instinctive for Biegel, who is a people person through and through. “I like doing things in circles,” she says. You get more motivation and people like to learn – women, especially, like to learn in groups. And it's more fun.” Working as a group also helps to de-risk investments: “you’re just going to be smarter as a group.” Biegel herself prefers to co-invest and says she is never the lead investor in a deal.

Suzanne Biegel at GenderSmart 2022In 2018, she created and then ran GenderSmart, which aimed to promote more “strategic, impactful gender-smart capital at scale”. She considers her work here as among her proudest achievements: helping gender-lens advocates fighting a lonely battle at work to find a supportive community. “Having people tell me that this gave them the courage to push harder, go further, and help the rest of their organisation see something that they hadn't seen – I’m enormously proud of that.” Another achievement is GenderSmart’s intersectionality, particularly its recognition of race and ethnicity. It matters, she says, that women of colour felt they were being championed, yet also felt they could challenge others to do more.

By 2022, Biegel was ready to hand over GenderSmart. She had in parallel been a board member of 2X Collaborative, which aimed to get development finance institutions, multilateral institutions, banks and other asset owners to invest more in gender equality; it made sense to combine the two initiatives. By May 2023, the newly merged organisation, 2x Global, announced a gender-lens investing milestone of US$16.3bn. 

But things were changing, frighteningly fast, on a personal level too.


All change

In the summer of 2021, Biegel had been diagnosed with stage four metastatic lung cancer. In late 2022, first one and then another promising drug failed. Biegel had a stroke in December, a “really bad time in January”, and in February, was given a “pretty short prognosis for how long I was going to live”. 

While in hospital, her wishes became clear to her: first, to “have my days end in a really beautiful, wonderful place”. Second, to start an endowment with her husband.

Things happened quickly. The couple moved into Eden, their new home. They set up Heading for Change – an endowment investing in climate action and gender equality – committing US$1m of their own money. The fund was announced publicly in the same LinkedIn post in which Biegel revealed her illness.

The couple had not previously been very open about their money. Doing so now “was a pretty easy decision” for Biegel – there are “only upsides” in terms of potentially bringing others along – but a little harder for her husband. (Maskit, barefoot, happens to walk past at this point. “And there he is, my husband,” smiles Biegel affectionately.)

There was also some discussion about how to make the project a truly joint one, since Maskit had not previously been involved in Beigel’s investment work. He is a vocal advocate for valuing neurodiversity, and he had convinced his wife of this too: having a team member who questions assumptions and “really wants to get underneath the why and the how of something is incredibly valuable”, she says. So, a small portion of Heading for Change’s grants will go to “promising systems change initiatives in neurodivergence”, and Maskit is also involved in the overall fund’s diversity, equity and inclusion mission. 

He has another, less conventional role, which came about because he is an environmentalist who is obsessed with bears. “He said, ‘Could we have ursine-lens investing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I think all climate investing would be ursine-lens investing – what’s good for the bears, is inherently going to be good for the planet’”. The rationale made sense to him, and Maskit became the fund’s ‘chief ursine officer’.

Suzanne Biegel and Daniel Maskit
Suzanne Biegel and Daniel Maskit in their London home, May 2023 (credit Anna Patton)



Heading for Change is structured as a donor-advised fund, managed by ImpactAssets – much quicker to set up than a whole new foundation. Still, getting it to launch within two months of first articulating the idea would be considered crazy by many, Biegel says. Then again, she adds, people often describe her as “a crazy woman” who does things before they seem possible.

The idea is not just to deploy money quickly – she wants Heading for Change to invest in at least 10 funds by the end of this summer – but also to show slow-movers that they have no excuse. Foundations often pledge to shift their investments over five or 10 years, but “you should be investing your capital today... It makes me insane that people feel like it needs to take a long time.” Nor do you need to develop the in-house expertise; a fund like Heading for Change means specialists will source all the investments. “It’s quite an easy thing for them… day one, they’re a gender-lens and climate-lens investor.” 

Skoll Foundation and Laudes Foundation are among its early backers, the former to the tune of half a million dollars. Anyone can contribute, from as little as US$100, and alongside philanthropists interested in climate and gender there are also people “who are doing it to support me, and whatever I do… they trust me, and they trust the team that I put together”. Last week, Biegel announced that Heading for Change had raised US$2.2m so far.

You should be investing your capital today... It makes me insane that people feel like it needs to take a long time

Why the particular focus on the intersection of climate and gender? “I want to demonstrate that climate and gender coming together is a viable investment strategy. And that all climate investing should be ‘gender smart’. I really believe that. If we're not investing in half the talent that's out there, then we're missing all kinds of innovation,” she says.

In practice, that means investing in funds that back women as business founders, customers or suppliers. And it means investing in women-owned funds, or in funds with women on the boards, among their management and in their investment committees. Biegel hopes her initiative – which she says will be highly transparent about where it’s investing and why – will prompt others to support women-led or owned funds, which often have a harder time raising finance than those run by men.

“People have all kinds of bias against these fund managers, either because they’re first-time or pioneer funds; maybe they have a lot of experience and background, but it doesn’t look like the traditional experience and background,” she says. 

Already, the fund has been a learning process. Initially she wanted to invest only in funds dedicated 100% to climate while investing with a gender lens. In reality, few funds are 100% climate. “I wish that there were more, but I also understand that we have to look at what’s in the market. So, now we’re starting to say: okay, maybe it needs to be 40%, or 50%. And if it’s not climate, but sustainability, that might be okay, as long as they have a gender lens across all of it.” 


When women tiptoe

Some of Biegel’s ideas haven’t worked quite as planned. In 2015, she set up Women Effect, which aimed to get women together in an online community to encourage them to invest with a gender lens.

“I was wrong. I learned that just putting people together and building a website isn’t going to actually motivate anybody,” she says. In-person experiences, storytelling and teaching people the ‘how’, not just the ‘what’ and ‘why’, were all crucial, she realised. A valued friend talked her out of developing the pilot project further: “Sometimes it’s the person who talks you out of doing something that has as much influence as the person who talks you into something.” 

Sometimes it's the person who talks you out of doing something that has as much influence as the person who talks you into something

In her years of influencing the way people invest, she has also learned that many of them need more reassurance than one might think.

“No matter how sophisticated somebody is with the business that they’re running, or [the work] they’re doing, they may not feel the confidence or the competence in being an investor,” she says. Women, especially, “tiptoe” when investing their own resources, because they are afraid of making mistakes. They need the safety of a group and a learning environment “where there are no stupid questions”. 

As her own role as catalyst becomes more difficult, as her illness inevitably advances, the baton will pass to Samantha Anderson, who has been recruited to run Heading for Change. But it is clear that Biegel’s ethos as non-stop connector and instigator will live on. “Inherently I’m a field-builder. I can’t not be – I can’t not have Heading for Change be a field-building activity, as much as it’s an endowment.” Alongside a core team, members of an investment advisory circle are providing input as “sparring partners, while I’m making the investment decisions, while I’m still alive.” In the future, they will become the investment committee, carrying forward Biegel’s legacy. 



Ninety minutes in to our conversation, my interviewee shows no obvious sign of tiredness, but I’m conscious of taking up her energy and suggest that we wrap up. But she realises we haven’t covered one important topic. 

Biegel’s work with Criterion Institute, with Toniic (a network of impact-focused asset owners), and on a 2018 project that mapped out the finance system from a gender perspective all got her thinking about systems change. “Now that I have it in my head, I can’t un-have it.” She credits Joy Anderson for her insights. “Joy would say, sometimes you’re trying to build a company in a category that doesn’t yet exist – people don’t understand it, and they don’t understand what has to change about that system… If you have to build an entire category, like access [to] and affordability of menstrual health products, then it’s an awfully hard job, compared to building a company that’s in a category that’s well understood and well defined.” Similarly, investors should try to understand the system they’re operating in, and where the leverage points are. 

There are risks – many impact companies get so drawn into the bigger picture, they fail to pay attention “to running a really good business”, believes Biegel – and true system-changers are still rare. It is not a core criteria for Heading for Change’s investments, but she hopes that by raising the subject in conversations the fund can “light up a bulb”. Long term, she hopes it will move towards systemic-level investing.


Bias for change

Suzanne Biegel in LondonAnderson tells me that what drives her friend is a “mobilisation to action”; not just any action, but the right action. Biegel’s words echo this: the thing that brings joy – along with music, good food, and reading novels and nonfiction – is spending time with fellow “changemakers”.

“Even if it’s one person, it just makes me happy to be with people who share my bias for action and bias for change,” she says. But recent months have steered her back towards the change that most excites her. 

“It took me having a fatal illness to realise that what I was doing was really important in the world – but I could pass it on to other people, and it would be fine. And I could then come back to being what my original self was, which is a private investor, and show people that as a private investor, you can move your capital.” 

And it is joyful – remarkable, even – to hear how this return to her life’s work is sustaining her. Because amid what she says has been a “bad week”, working on her legacy project has been “really fun”. 

“I get to be with all these really smart, committed people. And I get to talk to these fund managers, and I get to talk about what’s important and defining our criteria. Some of it’s quite hard – we’re having to make hard choices on things, but I like the intellectual process around that. I’m really, really enjoying it.”


Photos courtesy of the interviewee

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