Want to Join a Women-Only Accelerator? Read This First.
I’ve been part of and have mentored at a number of female-focused accelerators. The programs center around empowering women through networking opportunities, education curriculum, mentorship and access to customers. But I’ve started to wonder if female-focused accelerators are the right choice for women?
Among the biggest concerns are that women who network only with women leave out half the population and could limit themselves from interaction with male C-suite executives (who statisically hold more of these top roles.) Also, as we know, women receive less funding, many face issues scaling and experience isolation, among other challenges. Without male allies at the early stages of growth, it may be harder to get access to opportunities that male counterparts are receiving. Going with a gender-balance accelerator could potentially provide more short and long-term benefits than a gendered one.
But there are also a lot of benefits. For one, in corporate America, women receive less advice on how to advance, and they have less frequent interactions with managers and senior leaders, yet both are linked to greater ambition. This is something that could be replicated in female-focused accelerators where both the members and, generally, the mentors are women.
This raises a question: How do you choose the right accelerator, as a female entrepreneur, to ensure that the time and money spent is valuable?
Here are some things to consider:
Understand your goals
An accelerator cannot help you with everything. You need to have one or two specific goals that you are focused on achieving during your time with the accelerator. To set these goals, figure out where your company is weak, or needs some accelerant. Pick an area and the one or two things you need help with like networking, marketing, sales, product development, or technology. When choosing an accelerator, you need to find out if that accelerator is skilled enough to help you accomplish those goals. Some accelerators are better equipped at helping with marketing, while others might have the right tools to help you with technology or product development. Ask the accelerator about their particular skill areas and research the founding team and those who teach in the curriculum, including looking at bios, researching their network and asking past members.
Think of accelerators like grad school
Like grad school, a company needs to determine what they want to learn and how. Recent research from the Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) noted that time spent doing accelerator curriculum actually lowers performance of a company in the long term. The key is to take what you need from accelerators but not do everything, if it doesn’t help your business, but instead bogs down processes. You’ll need to look for a program that is flexible, encourages working time and specifically encourages networking among other companies, mentors and more.
For females, you’ll want to feel comfortable knowing what you need to learn and when to say no to things that are redundant or less useful. Women are socially conditioned to be afraid to say “no” and while many believe it’s an immutable gene, it’s not. Being afraid to say no is a learned behavior that can infringe on your ability to succeed in an accelerator. Saying no will help you and your business stay on track in an accelerator program.
Be ready to take it on
Are you still struggling to manage your day-to-day operations? Between running digital marketing campaigns, setting up your accounting and processing customers, you might be too busy to get what you need out of an accelerator.
“You have to be able to take us on,” said Vanessa Liu, who runs the SAP Foundry accelerator in New York Cit focused on female entrepreneurs in B2B technology companies. “We are focused on getting companies their next million-dollar customer and ensuring that they can handle the help we are able to give. We want to bring our founders to our customers and our community, but we need to ensure they can handle the scale."
Liu recommends that companies who have recently gone through or are about to go through their Series A may be in a good position to take on an accelerator. “By then you have proven your concept, developed processes and are ready for the growth step that we, and others, can offer,” she says.
Ask about mentorship
Research from GALI also illustrated that mentorship quality has a significant impact on the success of companies to succeed in accelerators. Don’t take an accelerator at their word about mentorship programs. Push them to find out who the mentors are, what their commitments are and how they might be able to help you. Look for mentor networks that have valuable mentors for your specific company, and that have diverse (i.e. not only female) mentors.
“Women were more willing than men were to turn to external advisors (7.9 percent vs. 4.5 percent) to help them recover from failure experiences,” said a recent Kauffman report and diverse mentorship is a proven key to business success, especially for female founders.
Consider if you’re just looking for community
Female-forward workspaces and communities provide a strong alternative to an accelerator. You have access to professional resources to help grow your startup, daily programming to sharpen your skills and an amazing network of like-minded founders who are on the same path. “We've had founders collect their first investment checks and hire team members within our walls,” said Amy Nelson, CEO of the female-focused co-working space The Riveter.
In the US and developed Europe women are 18 percent less likely to perceive they have the capability to start a business. While access to healthcare, education, land rights and affordable childcare are crucial, so too are role models, mentors and community. To determine your right approach, ask yourself if you are joining an accelerator because you want community or because you need a structured learning environment with curriculum that provides access to mentors, partners and customers.
Ask about stats and references
Find out how many cohorts have been part of the program and what has the resultant success been. Remember to ask for names of former members and make sure if you are looking for a gender-mixed accelerator that you also do you research on female vs. male-founded companies. If you see female-founded companies making big leaps from the accelerator, that could be a promising sign for you. Continue that questioning to find out if former cohort members go on to get funding, find new partners and make incremental success.
Also, ask for references to graduates, in both femaled-only accelerators and mixed accelertors. Look to both male and female graduates to see if they have different experiences. Set up phone calls with the graduates and ask them about their experiences: Do males and females seem to have equal success, getting equal funding, have equal amounts of equity taken?
While there are a lot of benefits of being part of a female-focused accelerator, there are also potential drawbacks. Just make sure you do your homework before you commit.