By Andrea Lo (Founder, Piggybackr)
A year ago, I was working in a corporate consulting job crunching numbers and pushing papers, struggling to find a larger sense of purpose. Today, I am busier and happier than ever, founder of my own early stage startup with the help of the Founder Institute, a part-time startup incubator.

What I learned is that there are resources and people out there interested in helping you succeed, if you take the first step. And if you don’t know where to start, consider enrolling in a startup incubator. There are full-time, part-time, specialty, and… even weekend startup programs all designed to get you up and running quickly. I wouldn’t be where I am today without this experience.

The Founder Institute is an intensive 3-month long program with sessions in over 15 cities focused on helping aspiring entrepreneurs create enduring technology companies without having to quit their full-time jobs. Weekly classes are taught by a network of experienced mentors ranging from startup CEOs to venture capitalists, while participants are challenged week after week to make progress, act on feedback, or drop out. Three weeks ago, the San Francisco program graduated 12 companies, 5 of which are led by female founders.

I, along with founders Shawn Bolan, Joanne Chen, Kristen Lewis, and Priya Sheth entered the program with unpolished ideas. 3 of us pivoted our ideas within the first 3 weeks. We came from varied backgrounds. And no, you don’t have to be a web developer or computer science major to start your own company. 4 of us started as solo founders. This experience proved to me that a little hard work, persistence, and dream can take you a long way.

Here are the stories of my fellow female graduates, and what they gained from being the incubator program:

Priya Sheth (Founder, BeScrappy)
While transitioning from Aerospace engineering into interaction design, Priya was introduced to the startup world via the Women 2.0 Founder Labs last summer. Priya is now the founder and CEO of Be Scrappy – an online marketplace that connects people who need tools for home improvement and building projects with lenders that have them (i.e.: drills, saws, sanders and more). Priya also validated her idea winning Startup Weekend San Jose in 2011. She gained invaluable insight and feedback from mentors, which enabled her to iterate on her idea quickly and efficiently. Focusing on building a strong company from the ground up through market assessment, customer development and creation of a product prototype.

Kristen Lewis (Founder, VenueScout)
Kristen is an event planner turned entrepreneur. After planning hundreds of professional events, she realized there had to be an easier way to book event venues. Venue Scout helps planners streamline a simple way to find and book event venues, without the time consuming task of having to contact and negotiate with each venue individually. Kristen has worked for the past 8 months on VenueScout and is excited to be launching in beta in September 2011. Being in an incubator helped Kristen step out of her comfortable zone and challenged her to articulate herself more clearly. Now she can talk to anyone about Venue Scout and convey both the problem they are aiming to solve and how Venue Scout is going to do it.

Joanne Chen (Co-Founder, Learning Yard)
Joanne has a degree in electrical engineering from UC Berkeley and met her cofounders as undergraduates in college. Learning Yard aims to build a full curriculum of math games on mobile devices for kids to complement the K-4 academic curriculum. They focus on producing mobile games that are fun and educational and that also reinforce basic math concepts taught in school. Their first game, Grow Your Garden, is launching on the iPad in August 2011. Joanne benefited most from Founder Institute’s rigid schedule that pushed her company to reach important development milestones despite working at full-time jobs and its network of mentors and peers that provided valuable, honest real-time feedback.

Shawn Bolan (Founder, Health On Deck)
Shawn has over 15 years of product management and software engineering experience. HealthOnDeck makes the experience of scheduling an appointment as simple as using OpenTable to get a reservation. The genesis of HealthOnDeck was her frustration in being unable to book near-term doctor appointments without repetitively calling front offices in hopes of bumping into a fresh opening. Most practices were haphazardly keeping and fulfilling waitlists, often jotting them down on post-its or paper. Shawn is now part of the Rock Health incubator, which kicked off in June. Shawn benefited most from the program by gaining project validation from mentors and the support of progressing along with other classmates in starting up companies.

Why did I join an incubator?

For me, it was the small push I needed to get me going. I spent a full year looking for that dream job that always seemed to elude me. Until one day, I finally had a breakthrough when a mentor asked me “Andrea, if you wantto make a real impact, why don’t you just start your own thing?” That marked the first time I began to consider the possibility. I had secretly dreamed of being a female CEO, but never seriously laid out the steps it would take to get there. I began to think and act big and as a result, opportunities began to present themselves.

I gave myself a realistic timeline of 5 to 7 years to get my act together and began taking steps towards the goal. I quit my corporate job, went to work with three guys starting their own design startup, and then started looking for startup jobs knowing I needed more experience. I’d never even worked at a tech company before! One day, I happened to read an article about the Founder Institute and on a whim decided to apply reasoning that if I got in, it would be meant to be. Why wait another 7 years?

I went into the Founder Institute with a fuzzy and subpar travel idea embarrassed to present it on the first day and found my business background self, intimidated by the engineers and product managers in the program. My own aunt even asked me, “Andrea, you have no engineering or teaching background. How do you plan to start your own education website?” But week after week, I worked hard, soaked things up like a sponge, adapted to feedback, and made progress.

Was being in an incubator worth it?

Yes. I started without an idea, and came away with a meaningful company. I benefitted from the structure of having a weekly program and learned how to test the market and build a product. It wasn’t easy but it was rewarding. We met 2-3 times a week, had weekly assignments, and continuously pitched our ideas in front of an audience. Some people dropped out while others who couldn’t keep up were invited to join again in a later semester.

The point is that, you don’t have to wait 5 or 10 years until you have more experience or have that perfect idea. You learn so much more by doing and your first idea is going to change anyway.

There really are so many resources and people out willing to help. Do some research and reach out.

About the guest blogger: Andrea Lo is the Founder of Piggybackr, a website that focuses on empowering kids age 8-14. Her startup idea was inspired by her 11-year old sister, Chelsea. Feel free to email her for more information. She’s looking for parents, teachers, and designers experienced in UX/UI design for kids. Follow her on Twitter at @andreatlo.