Fierce Founders: Help­ing Women Close the Start-up Gap

Policy - - In This Issue - Kelly McGre­gor

Since it was launched in 1997, the in­no­va­tion hub Com­mu­nitech has been a force in Water­loo’s trans­for­ma­tion into a ma­jor tech com­mu­nity. Now, through its Fierce Founders pro­gram, it is train­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of in­no­vat­ing women.

It’s not hard to make the case that fe­male en­trepreneurs face chal­lenges men sim­ply do not have to deal with. I can’t count the num­ber of fe­male founders who have told me sto­ries of po­ten­tial in­vestors who have turned them down be­cause they can’t re­late to their prod­uct, can’t re­late to them as women, or be­cause they were per­ceived as date-able over in­vestable.

Aside from be­ing dis­heart­en­ing, these re­ac­tions con­tra­dict the re­al­ity of how com­pa­nies led by women ac­tu­ally per­form. Re­search by Amer­i­can ven­ture capital firm First Round Capital found that com­pa­nies with at least one fe­male founder out­per­formed all-male found­ing teams by 63 per cent over the last 10 years. Yet, a 2016/17 Crunch-

base re­port look­ing at global rates of in­vest­ment in women-founded busi­nesses found that only 16 per cent of ven­ture dol­lars be­tween 2010-2017 were in­vested in busi­nesses with at least one fe­male founder. Re­search out of Harvard Uni­ver­sity has shown that only 10 per cent of start-ups are owned by women, an ex­pe­ri­ence that was matched at Com­mu­nitech as late as 2015, when only nine per cent of start-ups were led by fe­male founders.

While the rea­sons for this can be com­pli­cated, the lack of fe­male role models and peers is un­doubt­edly part of the prob­lem—as Marie Wil­son of The White House Project puts it, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Combined with dif­fi­cul­ties women face in se­cur­ing ven­ture fund­ing, this cre­ates an in­cred­i­bly de-mo­ti­vat­ing en­vi­ron­ment for po­ten­tial fe­male en­trepreneurs.

In the 2018 fed­eral bud­get, the Trudeau gov­ern­ment com­mit­ted to sup­port­ing fe­male founders even fur­ther. We took our first or­ga­nized steps to­wards meet­ing these chal­lenges in 2014, when we hosted the Women En­trepreneurs Boot­camp, in part­ner­ship with Sta­tus of Women in Canada and Google’s #40for­ward pro­gram. In­ter­est in the pro­gram was huge, and we quickly re­al­ized that there was not only a need for more boot camps, but that there was also an op­por­tu­nity to help the most promis­ing com­pa­nies fur­ther de­velop their busi­nesses. With the sup­port of FedDev, we de­vel­oped the Fierce Founders Boot Camp and ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­grams in 2016. To date, 140 fe­male-led com­pa­nies have par­tic­i­pated in the boot camp, and we have worked with 23 com­pa­nies through three co­horts of the ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram.

We have learned from the needs of women ap­ply­ing to the boot camps, and have re­fined the pro­gram­ming to help women man­age the risks of start­ing a com­pany. Two key is­sues have come up—the boot camp needs to be fo­cused on one par­tic­u­lar stage of com­pany, and the im­mer­sive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment is best suited to early-stage com­pa­nies. As of 2018, par­tic­i­pants in the boot camp spend three days learn­ing about prob­lem val­i­da­tion, so­lu­tion val­i­da­tion, mar­ket seg­men­ta­tion, and how to se­cure early sales. One month later, they re­turn to Com­mu­nitech to spend three days fo­cus­ing on the ever-chal­leng­ing pitch­ing for in­vest­ment. The boot camp cul­mi­nates in a pitch com­pe­ti­tion, where the top eight par­tic­i­pants com­pete for a $100,000 grand prize. After the boot camp, women leave to build out their min­i­mum vi­able prod­ucts and se­cure their first sales.

Once fe­male founders have a base of sales, they are in­vited to ap­ply to the Fierce Founders Ac­cel­er­a­tor. After host­ing three co­horts of com­pa­nies in the ac­cel­er­a­tor, we have shifted the fo­cus of the pro­gram to com­pa­nies that are ready to ac­cel­er­ate their sales growth. Upon ac­cep­tance into the ac­cel­er­a­tor, com­pa­nies move into the Com­mu­nitech space and spend six months work­ing with growth coaches to re­fine their sales pro­cesses, gen­er­ate leads, learn how to over­come ob­jec­tions, and how to build a com­pany to sup­port that rapid growth. The ac­cel­er­a­tor also of­fers ac­cess to a $30,000 match­ing fund from FedDev South­west­ern On­tario that helps el­i­gi­ble com­pa­nies grow even faster.

The most re­cent suc­cess story from the Fierce Founders Boot­camp shows the in­cred­i­ble im­pact the pro­gram has on par­tic­i­pants. Monika Jaros­zonek of Ra­tio.City started the boot camp in Jan­uary 2018 with no ex­pe­ri­ence pitch­ing, and went on to win the grand prize. Ra­tio.City is an on­line plat­form that pro­vides datadriven anal­y­sis of ur­ban real es­tate to help de­vel­op­ers and real es­tate pro­fes­sion­als pre­dict the suit­abil­ity of a prop­erty for de­vel­op­ment or re­vi­tal­iza­tion.

Monika’s story il­lus­trates the im­por­tance of be­ing em­bed­ded in a startup ecosys­tem that helps com­pa­nies start, grow and suc­ceed. Ac­cord­ing to Monika, “Since win­ning the boot­camp Ra­tio.City has been mov­ing for­ward at warp speed. Part of that is a re­sult of the cash in­jec­tion, which lets us make our first full-time hire, but even more im­por­tant than that, the win pro­vided us with ex­po­sure within the tech ecosys­tem, giv­ing us cred­i­bil­ity, visibility and open­ing doors that were much harder to for us to ac­cess as first-time founders.”

Re­search out of Harvard Uni­ver­sity has shown that only 10 per cent of start-ups are owned by women, an ex­pe­ri­ence that was matched at Com­mu­nitech as late as 2015, when only nine per cent of start-ups were led by fe­male founders.

In ad­di­tion to the ecosys­tem of star­tups, women who have par­tic­i­pated in Fierce Founders high­light the im­por­tance of con­nect­ing with other fe­male en­trepreneurs, both as men­tors and as peers. The Fierce Founders Ac­cel­er­a­tor, in par­tic­u­lar, pro­vides par­tic­i­pants with an op­por­tu­nity to work along­side other women grow­ing their busi­nesses. Martha van Berkel of Hunch Man­i­fest par­tic­i­pated in the Fierce Founders Ac­cel­er­a­tor in 2017, and keeps in touch with the other founders from the pro­gram through a monthly peer group, as well as day-to-day. “There is noth­ing quite like learn­ing from founders who are one step ahead of where you are. The Fierce Founders Ac­cel­er­a­tor brings to­gether founders who can share their learn­ing, favourite hacks, and in­spire one an­other to the next quar­ter’s goals,” says Martha.

Hunch Man­i­fest’s core prod­uct, SchemaApp, en­ables dig­i­tal mar­keters to op­ti­mize web­sites at scale us­ing Google-rec­om­mended ad­vanced

SEO strat­egy called Schema Markup. Through the ac­cel­er­a­tor, Martha and her team dou­bled their re­cur­ring rev­enue, were in­tro­duced to and on­boarded a new en­ter­prise client, and hired their first em­ployee. Martha di­rectly at­tributes that suc­cess and Hunch Man­i­fest’s con­tin­ued growth, to be­ing rooted in les­sons learned through the Fierce Founders Ac­cel­er­a­tor. “Ac­cel­er­a­tors are im­por­tant be­cause they force change. For us, it took us out of the base­ment of­fice, sur­rounded us with rock star com­pa­nies, and changed the con­ver­sa­tion to growth and scal­a­bil­ity.”

The Fierce Founders pro­gram pro­vides start-ups with re­sources that would be dif­fi­cult to ac­cess on their own—fund­ing, net­works, of­fice space and ex­pert in­sight. The ben­e­fits have reached be­yond the scope of the pro­gram, with the par­tic­i­pat­ing com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing in­spi­ra­tion and sup­port to other founders in the ecosys­tem. In just three years, the pro­por­tion of fe­male-led com­pa­nies Com­mu­nitech works with has risen from nine per cent to 27 per cent. De­spite ini­tial suc­cesses, there re­mains a lot of work to do. Although the num­ber of early-stage com­pa­nies has in­creased, there re­main very few women-founded com­pa­nies that have made it past the $1-mil­lion rev­enue mark and into what we call the scale-up phase of build­ing a com­pany. The next phase of our pro­gram­ming will work with founders to make that leap, through pro­vid­ing alumni with the re­sources they need to fur­ther grow their sales and at­tract in­vest­ment.

While the fo­cus of the Fierce Founders pro­gram has been on com­pa­nies in the Toronto-Water­loo Cor­ri­dor, each ap­pli­ca­tion round makes us aware of more women, from coast to coast, who are start­ing or grow­ing tech­nol­ogy-based busi­nesses. To date, the boot camps have only been able to ac­cept one of ev­ery three ap­pli­cants, and the ac­cel­er­a­tor one of ev­ery four.

The an­nounce­ment of a Women’s En­trepreneur­ship Strat­egy in the re­cent fed­eral bud­get cre­ates a real op­por­tu­nity to pro­vide women across the country with this kind of sup­port. Ideally, this strat­egy will com­bine lo­cal pro­grams fo­cused on early-stage sup­port with a strong na­tional net­work of fe­male-led scal­ing com­pa­nies, so that en­trepreneurs can learn from each other and cre­ate a pow­er­ful alumni group that will serve as an ex­am­ple to the next gen­er­a­tion of women con­sid­er­ing whether to make the en­tre­pre­neur­ial leap them­selves.

Com­mu­nitech photo

Par­tic­i­pants in the 2018 Fierce Founders Boot­camp re­ceive pitch coach­ing from Com­mu­nitech ad­vi­sor Ellen John­son.

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