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Why the Founder Institute is great for women

It’s hard to believe it’s nearly a year since I started as one of the inaugural founders accepted to the Founder Institute. Since then, lots of debate has happened related to these type of accelerator programs and women. (The irony is that while I publicly recognized it a year ago, the debate today is being discussed by men.)

Accelerator programs are interesting animals. Being Boulder based, it was natural for us to apply for TechStars last year. My startup was a finalist for the program but we ended up not going in because our idea was not yet far enough along for it to be on the same type of schedule as other companies they were considering. (As it is, we are still working on our launch – a number of reasons are behind that, but it should happen in the next few weeks.) In any case, we had also applied to the Founder Institute (FI) and after all three of the founders on (what is now) TribeVibe had gone through the interview and the 3-hour long examinations, all three of us were accepted.

My take is that TechStars focuses on the company primarily, while FI truly focuses on founders. TechStars does not interview founders individually but rather as a team, and the company idea needs to be pretty well complete. Instead, the FI exams and interviews are performed separately. Additionally as an early stage accelerator, we each undertook ideation and early stage investigations on at least three ideas (even though we already had one solidly constructed coming in). Finally, for two thirds of the program we were separated into other teams – founders of a single company were not placed together. (I was president of my first group, and Jed was president of his. That was interesting.)

These strategies for me, as a woman with two male co-founders, was really great. It pressured me to do the all the key requirements of the startup, not just what I was comfortable or a ninja in. It gave me input to numerous other companies that was valued. I was a founder, same as every other founder in the program. (To that time by outsiders I had regularly been identified as a founder in name only, married to the actual founder. That all changed with FI.)

Also importantly, I was able to do the program remotely, while my co-founders attended the sessions in person. I have children and this flexibility in the program was more vital even than being given $6K per founder going in (FI gives founders no money at the start).

The only disappointing thing is that there was only one female mentor in the entire program while I was there. Other programs also operate with a great imbalance between male and female advisors/mentors. You’re not going to convince women they’re welcome in programs when the most successful ones are not held up to the same level as the males. The best way of getting more women into your accelerator is not to ask the startup women to sign up – but to demonstrate real commitment by having a roster that includes 50% female speakers and mentors. They really are not that hard to find, and it’s kind of like “if you build it, they will come.” I believe all the accelerators need to do more than simply invite women or say “we welcome everyone to apply” and follow it up by making public the number of women in their programs – on both sides of the table.

As it was, the flexibility in the program, the individual recognition of founders (rather than companies) is, I believe, what led FI to having a far better number of women startup founders as part of its inaugural cohort (although it was still less than 10% of enrolments). As a graduate, I would absolutely recommend FI, particularly to women. Not only have I had a fantastic opportunity with a recognized accelerator and some great mentors, but I have connected with some very strong startup women who were part of my cohort – and been recognized by the men in the program as having talent and ability as a founder in my own right. I am not convinced an accelerator focused on the team would have provided that.

I also personally now hold interest in the warrant pool of quite a few great companies, and have a stack more confidence. In a startup environment full of hip 20-something dudes, that’s a real win.

Thanks to Scott for encouraging me to post on this topic. Scott is about to begin FI Denver this semester. He wrote about the difference between incubators here. Additionally, Chirag Pancholi from my cohort also wrote about FI here.

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3 Responses to " Why the Founder Institute is great for women "

  1. Scott Yates says:

    Excellent post, and thanks for the link. Bottom line: if you are thinking about starting a company, Colorado is a great place to be this summer. There’s certainly a program that will meet your needs.

  2. Sarah Merion says:

    Great article! Scott pointed me here after he commented on an article I wrote about seed programs in Boston (http://bostinnovation.com/2010/03/23/vc-bijan-sabet-on-seed-programs-and-why-startups-should-go-for-it). I really appreciate your view on this subject as a women. I’m graduating in December 2010 and am toying with the idea of doing a program like FI or TechStars. There are so many women entrepreneurs (not to mention they are successful) like Caterina Fake (Flickr, Hunch), Leah Busque (RunMyErrand), and countless others, that it’s a shame that the percentage of women mentors is so low.

  3. Nice article, Jo! I am going to apply to FI for this summer, and it was awesome to find this article for the exact thing I was worried about…Where are all the female mentors in the program? Even though there is a long way to go to even out the male/female mentor ratio, what I do look forward to is being one of the female mentors myself one day…In a way, that helps drive my passion and idea to an entirely new level. Hope to see you as a mentor with me!

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