Fierce Founders: Helping Women Close the Start-up Gap
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.
Participants in the 2018 Fierce Founders Bootcamp receive pitch coaching from Communitech advisor Ellen Johnson.