Startup accelerators don’t work for female founders. Here’s how to fix that

August 13, 2020, 1:30 PM UTC
Female financial advisor in discussion with client in office conference room Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Startup accelerators work great for most startups. But not for female founders. 

This is something I’ve intuited for years. So many experiences have driven that lesson home: The time I found myself unable to even consider most accelerators because I couldn’t afford to leave my family for three months. The time I attended a demo night and out of a dozen or so companies there was only one woman on a team slide—and her title was “Executive Assistant.” The times—and there have been many—when members of our community who are going through top accelerators themselves share their experiences with me: their struggle to fit in; their struggle to keep up with the hustle-and-play-hard environment; their struggle to fundraise despite the programs’ genuine best intentions to help them. 

A study published earlier this year by the International Finance Corporation, a subsidiary of the World Bank, confirms what I’ve long suspected. The pollsters found that all-male teams went on to raise 2.6 times more money after completing an accelerator compared with startups that do not attend a program, while female-founded teams that completed accelerators saw no uplift at all.

Accelerators have the power to be a great democratizing force in venture capital, but this promise will never be fulfilled until we make accelerators work for female founders. 

Ready Set Raise, the accelerator I launched through the Female Founders Alliance, was designed to solve this problem. Despite our own short trajectory, we’ve demonstrated results: The eight companies in our most recent cohort raised nearly $5 million at the pre-seed stage in just a few months. The question is, Which startups are most successful in the accelerator environment, and how do we replicate their success?

In our experience, what makes the biggest difference for female founders is how they connect to investors. Most accelerators—ours included—culminate in an investor showcase, a closed-door, invite-only event where startups present their perfect pitch to a large group of vetted investors. What we’ve learned is that relying on the showcase for the purpose of fundraising rarely works. Instead, startups succeed only when they build excitement and rapport in the weeks leading up to the showcase, and sustain investor relationships in the months after, all while demonstrating consistent business growth. 

There are three components to replicating this success. First, founders need to know how to talk about their business model, what KPIs to measure, and how and when to communicate their results. Ready Set Raise, and other accelerators that want to support female founders, should spend dedicated time helping founders understand their business model, build a data room, and write investor updates.

Second, founders and investors must get to know each other more meaningfully—not just a one-and-done onstage. We do this by hosting events and office hours with emerging fund managers across the country. While these meetings feel scary to founders, great, stage-appropriate investors want to engage with founders before the point of perfect polish. 

Finally, founders must learn to confidently soft-pitch their company before the pitch is perfect. This is a skill you can learn and a muscle you can build, and accelerators can add programming to support both. 

Fundraising successfully—and running a startup successfully, for that matter—are not achieved in a one-time-only, perfect onstage performance. You have to build lasting relationships that matter. You have to know how to describe your business in a way that investors can understand and get excited about. And you have to be ready to pitch at any time. 

Ready Set Raise will help founders to always be ready. And we’re open-sourcing our program design so other accelerators can help female founders succeed too.

Leslie Feinzaig is the founder and CEO of the Female Founders Alliance.

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