Setting a High Bar: 4 Women Founders who Took the Betaspring Accelerator by Storm

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By celebrating amazing female Betaspring grads, the accelerator's program manger hopes to demonstrate that such programs aren't just for young guys with no commitments who can pack up and move at a moment's notice. By Melissa Withers (Chief of Staff & Nerd Whisperer, Betaspring)

For a little over a year now, I have been working to evaluate how Betaspring--a startup accelerator based in Providence--can better attract and support top-notch women founders. Why? Because women are one of the most underleveraged resources in our collective quest to launch a startup revolution.

Integrating more women into the accelerator scene is a work in progress. Some great women-led companies are percolating at Betaspring and at demo days across the country, but my gut tells me we have a ways to go.

When I started my work a year ago, I began by asking if there were things accelerators could do differently to support women founders. Did the  underlying structure of the out-of-town, fulltime, 12-week session present unique barriers to women?

Can Most Women Just Pack Up and Go?

I am not a social scientist but my work with 50+ startups in the last eight months affirms for me that this accelerator model presents special challenges for women, who statistically are more likely to have familial and domestic obligations beyond those faced by their male counterparts. These obligations make it difficult for many women founders to pack up and move across the country for a three-month accelerator, however compelling the benefits.

Given this, I often wonder if women founders, who would be terrific candidates for a top-tier accelerator, hold back from applying. Compounding this is a paucity of news and stories about women-led startups in accelerators. It would be easy for a women founder to look at the opportunity and write the possibility off as "not for me."

Diversity Matters

But I don't think this dynamic means we should ditch the model. The 12-week immersive, high impact, mentorship-driven model that Betaspring and many others follow has much to offer. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a woman at a well-regarded business school who was excited about creating new models for acceleration that meet the needs of women. Her team was deep in progress opening a women-only program that sought to create work flows and cultural underpinnings that are "better mapped" to women's realities.

While I appreciate the spirit of this effort, I doubt the approach will significantly improve outcomes for the participating companies. Cohort diversity yields huge benefits for our accelerator companies and creates a richer experience for founders who undertake Betaspring's grueling 12-week session.

Gender diversity matters in an accelerator. Male and female founders can learn a great deal from one another, not only as as founders working the startup grind, but also as sounding boards to project customer insights, demographic differences and cultural trends that influence marketplace success.

Telling Better Stories

But if we don't change the model, and the model presents barriers, how can we increase the flow of women into startup accelerators? One place where I think intervention can be especially meaningful is in recruiting and in the stories we tell about women who have successfully cleared the hurdles accelerator programs may present.

In this model, we can reflect more honestly on the sacrifices women founders make and remove the "suck it up and get over it" stigma that still pervades the mostly machismo startup culture. For younger women coming into our accelerator, this is a critical step in setting up lifestyle frameworks that reflect the many challenges they will face throughout their journey as company leadership.

As an accelerator program manager, my job is to consciously extend the current conversations about life/work balance to openly address issues of dating, marriage, motherhood, and caring for other family members. By doing this, we openly acknowledge the concerns women founders may face in choosing an accelerator model, and make this recognition part of the narrative. If we put these issues right on the table, rather than shove them into a back room closet, we can reduce the power of fear that may hold some women founders back from taking the accelerator plunge.

Which brings me to the next part of this post:  The shameless celebration of four women who recently took our accelerator by storm. My hope? That other women founders will see these stories and realize that they can (and should) evaluate how an accelerator can help advance their ventures. When our applications close on Wednesday, June 12, I hope I will have the opportunity to interview more women founders than ever before.

Meet the Women of Betaspring

Anna Callahan, CEO and founder of ZoomTilt, graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in math, and went on to the most logical career: professional jazz trumpet player. After two cds, being featured on United Airlines, and touring Brazil, she moved to Boston to learn computer science. While working as a software engineer for 3M, Raizlabs, Techstars, and various startups, she pursued independent filmmaking in her off-hours, directing eight short films.

After receiving an amazing thriller-romance script (about two characters trapped in their apartment during a zombie-alien apocalypse who fall in love over a dinner of chocolate), she brokered a deal with Equal Exchange to sponsor the series. The goal was to reach 100,000 views in ten months; the series got over 150,000 views in the first week. And that was the beginning of ZoomTilt, which has developed a unique platform to help more businesses access the power of quality digital branded content.

Having Anna in our spring 2013 session was incredible. Beyond her business acumen, it was rewarding to have someone with her work and life experience in the cohort. She brought depth of experience and insights that many others in the cohort simply had yet to acquire. Anna was the perfect founder to dispel the myth the all accelerator founders are twenty something men.

Donna and Rosy Khalife

Just this week, sisters and co-founders Donna and Rosy Khalife had good reason to celebrate: their company, SupriseRide, was featured by the Food Network's "Pioneer Woman" as an indispensable summer survival tool. SupriseRide is a subscription service that delivers a box of adventure to kids each month, filled with everything they and their parents need to complete an awesome project.

This dynamic duo is making fast progress on bringing SupriseRide to kids across the US. Rosy just graduated college this spring and Donna, a Harvard MBA with a secret past life in improv comedy, are living lean while they build a customer base and dream up what comes next in SurpriseRide's plan for tween domination. With loved ones who need them spread out across the country, Rosy and Donna have been working hard to split their time between cities while staying laser-focused on building the company.

Laura Wallendal is the co-founder of edtrips.com, an education and travel technology startup that teachers use to plan school trips and manage student payments. Laura leads edtrips' strategic partnerships, marketing, user acquisition, and business operations.

Laura has seen the best and worst of being a young women founder. Her effervescent style and natural charm are a huge bonus when she presents at pitch events. She's smart and funny, making it easy for her to create quick connections with mentors and partners. But then, of course, was the "investor" who ultimately proved to be more interested in dating her. But Laura has handled it like a champ, calling out bad behavior, keeping her co-founder in the loop, and staying focused. Would you expect anything less from a woman who maintains a blog dedicated to the celebration of long dogs with short legs?

These women have joined a growing group of Betaspring alums sporting XX chromosomes. Growing this group has the added benefit of creating a new wellspring of resources, wisdom, and support that the next generation of women founders can tap into.

This week when applications close, I hope there will be a group of powerhouse women to interview, evaluate and, ultimately, accelerate. And, I hope they will take special comfort in knowing that Betaspring will work with them to openly face the special issues women founders face.

Women 2.0 readers: What else could accelerators do to encourage more female founders to apply?

About the guest blogger: Betaspring Chief of Staff and nerd whisperer Melissa Withers manages the startup accelerator's mentor network and programming. In her advisory capacity to Betaspring teams, her skills are primarily in PR and media relations, customer experience design, and get-to-market communications. Melissa encourages women founders with technology-enabled startups to consider applying for Betaspring’s next session, which kicks off in August. Applications are due June 12. 

 

Photo credit: bjepson