Can Accelerators Better Support Women?

In late 2011 I took on a project at Betaspring to develop strategies to help our accelerator better support more women founders. Two years ago, the stats were grim…less than 5% of the founders we worked with were women. Pretty sad given that women are the globe's most abundant and under-leveraged economic resource.

Betaspring was not alone in its estrogenic scarcity. Nor were we the only ones who set out to reverse that trend--incredible people and orgs have been working non-stop to recognize women in the startup scene and bring new XX chromosome talent into the ranks. 

One year later, Betaspring is trending in the right direction, doubling the number of women founders in our two most recent accelerator sessions.  I hope when our application period closes on December 7, there will be some great women founders in the mix (apply at betaspring.com).  It's good to see but still just the beginning. For example, in November, I was at a gathering of the Global Accelerators Network. In a room of 200+ founders from the network's startups I saw but a few women. It was an XY extravaganza, providing a poignant reminder of how much we still need to do to unlock the startup potential of women.

Through the process of investigating how Betaspring could better serve women founders--and we're still very much at the beginning of this work--I learned things that surprised and challenged me. A few months ago, I actually asked myself if our accelerator really can better serve women founders. I know we can serve them, but can we do it better. 

In accelerator culture--and among the top accelerators there is definitely a culture--masculinity is embedded in our mythology, our language, and our programming.  And if I am honest, this is true at Betaspring. 

Beer. All night coding sessions. Pub crawls. Crazy interactions at odd places with potential investors. Startup swagger: it's how you build credibility in the scene. This culture was born from, and over the last five years evolved through, hustler hotshots...who by in large were/are dudes.

But to be clear, I LOVE our platform and startup culture--it’s an awesome luxury to be exposed to the high energy antics of our founders, to work on a constant stream of new problems, and be among a passionate global community of people who want to see a startup revolution.  

What I learned--and this surprised me--was that even though I personally enjoy this culture, it has embedded barriers that we need to acknowledge and deconstruct if more women are to join the startup revolution via accelerators.

For instance, most people assume that our founders are fresh out of college. On the contrary, many of them are older, working not on their first venture but on a second or third and/or coming out of their industries to take the big leap. 

This fall, Kirsten Lambertson joined Betaspring to work on her second startup, Kuratur. Kirsten had a successful exit from her first venture and after some time working on different projects, made the decision to pursue Kuratur full-time. Looking for community, fresh perspectives, relevant resources and the intense focus that accelerators like Betaspring provide, she left her husband and five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter to join Betaspring for three months. 

Kirsten never bemoaned the challenges of being 500 miles from her young kids and family. She never complained about being in a community of mostly younger men. She just kicked ass everyday, working hard to drive her startup forward. It wasn’t until a group of our women founders were discussing how Betaspring was/was not supporting them that I realized that within our regular programming, there just aren’t many spaces for someone like Kirsten to talk about this aspect of her experience. In the machismo of the hustler/hacker accelerator, we don’t talk much about these kinds of stressors.

To remedy this, we decided to keep meeting as a group of women founders to discuss a variety of issues within the context of our obligations and identities as wives, mothers, girlfriends, caretakers, single ladies with no time to date, female technologists, girl-geeks, etc. 

Similarly, this year Betaspring is being more intentional about hosting programs that 1) do not involve trips to the local dive bar (tiresome for some women founders who don’t enjoy the pick-up scene) and 2) happen at different times of day (rather than just evenings and weekends, when several of our women founders have familial obligations). As an aside, turns out that several of the male founders share enthusiasm for this change for similar reasons.

Programmatically, we are making a more conscious effort to better leverage and highlight  our incredible women mentors. We are seeking new resources to bring our women founders to national and regional gatherings to connect with other women entrepreneurs and with mentors and investors who are focused on women-led startups. These opportunities offer our women founders access to resources and connections we simply do not have in-house--and providing the financial resources for them to attend makes their participation feasible. 

And of course we will continue to convene our women founders to learn about their experiences--to confront issues, dispel myths, and broaden diversity within our accelerator culture.

Bottom line? Better supporting women founders is hard work for startup accelerators. The culture is built on modes of connection that are not flexible for women with families. The language of startups and the codes of behavior that define “success” still predominantly reflect the mythos of the young, male hustler. But things are changing...everyday. And those of us running accelerators can push the envelope simply by staying aware, communicating with our founders, mentors and investors, and challenging our own internal cultures to be more inclusive of women’s experiences. 

I wish I could conclude this blog by telling you my work was done. But really, it’s just begun.

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Melissa Withers
Betaspring Chief of Staff and nerd whisperer Melissa Withers manages the start-up accelerator's mentor network and programming. In her advisory capacity to Betaspring teams, her skillz are primarily in PR & media relations, customer experience design, and get-to-market communications. Melissa lives in Providence and, as an 11th level magic user, has soft spot for nerds. Melissa encourages women founders with technology-enabled startups to consider applying for Betaspring’s next session, which kicks off in February. Application are due Dec 7 at betaspring.com.