In This Issue:
- On Mentoring and Racial Equity
- Closing the Racial Divide in the Startup Ecosystem
- A Mentor From Our 1:1 With Black Founders Initiative Shares Her Experience
- The Difference 30 Minutes of Mentoring Can Make
- Growing Stronger Going Solo
On Mentoring and Racial Equity
Closing the Racial Divide in the Startup Ecosystem
In early June, Project W launched its 1:1 With Black Founders initiative, pairing investors and advisors in our network with Black founders for mentoring sessions. This was the start of our journey to help close the racial divide in the startup ecosystem. We are excited to share where we go next.
At this time of national reckoning, we at Project W – like so many others around the country – felt compelled to reflect on how our work has been influenced by the systemic racism that pervades our society. Was our work leveling the playing field or perpetuating the racial divide? Were we breaking down the barriers that impede Black founders from being as successful as White founders or were we reinforcing those barriers? In our effort to close the gender parity gap, were we purposefully empowering Black female and Latina founders or was our work disproportionately supporting White female founders?
The honest answer? We didn’t like what we saw.
- A greater (but still not representative) percentage of Black female and Latina founders participate in pitch competitions and programming targeted at pre-seed or even earlier stage companies, but that percentage declines when those opportunities require the participating companies to have revenue, a full-time team or outside investors.
- While Black and Latina founders seem to be making some headway in certain sectors, like consumer goods and media, there is a relative dearth of female founders of color compared to White female founders in deep tech, B2B solutions, and life sciences.
- In our own Women Entrepreneurs Boot Camp (WEB), one-third of our first cohort (in 2016) were Black women. However, that changed when we modified the eligibility criteria to focus on seed-stage technology companies. In each of the last two cohorts, we had only one Black founder.
- There is an increasing number of accelerators, incubators, and other programs targeted at female founders and underrepresented founders. But those programs tend to focus on venture-backable companies and not on other types of businesses that many female founders of color are building, such as consulting firms, brick-and-mortar businesses, and CPG brands. While not likely to deliver the outsized returns venture capital looks for, these companies have the potential to be successful and generate wealth for their founders and their employees.
Through our self-examination, we concluded that while lack of access to funding is a perennial issue, the problem is much more fundamental. The ability to tap into established (and largely White) networks of influence can make or break a founder in the early stages of her entrepreneurial journey. Without access to business, technical, and legal expertise, and without the benefit of the network effect of referrals, introductions and recommendations, an underrepresented founder is fighting a Sisyphean challenge.
As a first start to address this problem, we put out a call to the investors, advisors, business executives, and professionals in our network and asked them to donate their time for a 30-minute 1:1 mentoring session with a Black founder. We had an amazing response with over 150 hours of mentoring time volunteered. We paired our mentors with 100+ Black founders (most of whom were at the very early stages of building their businesses) for mentoring sessions that have taken place over the past several weeks. From that program we learned that there is an abundance of talent, ambition and ingenuity waiting to be tapped, and there is a wealth of experience and expertise eager to give back. We just needed to connect them.
So, where do we go from here? While our mission remains clear – help female founders build great companies – we are committed to purposefully and meaningfully raising up Black female and Latina founders. Here’s how:
- Condition our support or sponsorship of programming and events by other organizations on a commitment by those organizations to actively recruit and include underrepresented female founders.
- Build out the Resources Center on our Project W website to connect founders of small businesses that have traditionally been outside or on the margins of the startup ecosystem with organizations that focus on core business needs, such as bookkeeping, marketing, sales and strategic and financial planning.
- Support initiatives to educate and develop a generation of Black investors.
- For our own programming, actively and purposefully recruit Black female and Latina founders and strive to have at least 25% participation by those founders.
- Launch in 2021, Project W’s Tech Equity Hub, a multi-month program for pre-seed stage technology companies founded by Black female and Latina founders.
The origins of this problem are centuries old. We won’t solve it soon, and we won’t make the kind of progress we want to make on our own. Project W and like-minded organizations and individuals need to pool our resources, talents and expertise and marshal our collective determination in order to make meaningful and measurable progress. If you are interested in joining forces with us – or if we can join forces with you – let us know by contacting Project W’s Program Manager, Neda Riskin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are in this for the long run, and we know that many of you are too. So, join us in doing our part to close the racial divide, foster a startup ecosystem that is more equitable and inclusive, and unlock the amazing potential of underrepresented female founders who will change our world.
With optimism that, together, we can make change happen,
The Project W Team
A Mentor From Our 1:1 With Black Founders Initiative Shares Her Experience
Gillian Muessig co-founded MOZ, a pioneer in search engine optimization, and the Masters Fund, a global gender lens venture capital fund, and she generously mentored three Black female founders through Project W's 1:1 With Black Founders initiative. Gillian shares how her life experience framed her advice to one of her mentees and why other successful founders should illuminate the path for founders just starting their journeys.
As a young female founder in the 1980's, I was very imaginative – and a very small thinker. The possibility of building a company with global impact was completely beyond my imagination. Only in retrospect do I realize the depth and impact of conditioning in my childhood through college years that quite literally prevented me from thinking larger. Breaking free from small thinking to consider larger possibilities and, more importantly, to develop the strong, flexible, informed strategies to build out that larger vision requires constant and active engagement with people who think in those terms. I did not have the opportunity to be engaged with those people until I was already in my forties. I lost twenty years of hard labor in building what was expected of me instead of what I was capable of.
I am one of the most fortunate of founders. I have seen success and I have the leisure to engage in retrospective assessment. What went right? What went wrong? Why? How can I help the next generation avoid the pitfalls of thinking small?
Recently, one of my Project W 1:1 With Black Founders mentees told me that a $1 million exit would be life changing for her. I've been there. I grew up in a household with five children and a widowed mother. Following the death of my father, until the youngest child went to grade school, we lived on welfare and on the money we children earned in jobs we were too young to hold. A $1 million exit would have been stunning to me at 25 or 30 years old. But, as we know, it is NOT a life-changing sum. Nowhere near.
I explained to the entrepreneur what a $1 million exit could provide, net of costs and taxes, compared to the exit numbers she might achieve with 12 - 24 months working on business expansion. We covered strategic and tactical plans to increase the company valuation to a minimum of $10 million for an early sale and discussed how to optimize founder ownership along the way. All the while, I am thinking, even a $10 million early exit may be thinking too small; clearly, this CEO has the capacity to build a $100 million + business.
Women are constantly congratulated for engaging in small activities that reinforce or increase the gender equity gap. The path to building a $100 million company requires access to powerful entrepreneurs who have already built successful companies and who can illuminate what's possible on a much larger scale. Female founders, particularly Black founders, more often than not lack that access.
In underserved founders, we have extraordinary potential waiting to be unleashed. So, here is my challenge to those of you who have been down this path and have built successful businesses. Let's pull back opaque veils to reveal hidden information, open doors to champions, provide access to capital and make big thinking and big ambition possible. CEOs of Fortune 100 and Inc 500 companies: take the time to work with and to champion one Black female founder for three years. Help that founder think larger by seeing you in action. Along the way, you may propel that founder to change the world. I promise you, what you learn about grit, tenacity, and fortitude from these powerful women will more than balance the scales.
The Difference 30 Minutes of Mentoring Can Make
When we launched our 1:1 With Black Founders initiative in early June, we didn’t know what to expect. What we discovered was an unmet and urgent need on the part of the founders for foundational advice and direction from experienced mentors. While we don’t know whether any longstanding relationships will result from this experiment, we know that several mentors and mentees have met more than once. We also know that many doors have been opened and that for some founders the experience has been transformational and empowering.
If you think 30 minutes can’t make a difference, think again. Here is what some of the founders had to say:
“When I connected with [my mentor], she was so patient and hands-on. She developed a document with my ideas for the business and some topics to discuss. She guided me through an analysis of the business to explore its capacity. She also helped me to process some questions I have.”
“[My mentor] has empowered me to take charge of my financials, and she has given me confidence and empowered me to become strong in the part of my business that I am weakest. On our first call, she made me see that the financials are a story just like the deck and that I didn't do a lousy job. I am proud of myself because of her. She also critiqued my deck and executive summary. I implemented 100% of her advice immediately. When we discussed the Market Opportunity slide, it was a lightbulb moment because it had been frustrating for me for two years.”
“[My mentor] is fantastic. She offered critical feedback on my pitch deck, provided links to additional resources, and made solid connections with other angel investors.”
“I loved [my mentor]! Within two weeks of our first meeting, I became a new person. She pushed me to dig into my "why" for my career and to identify what I truly enjoyed. It was a really challenging exercise at first, but I was finally able to be honest with myself and complete the exercise.”
“[My mentor] provided valuable insight and key action steps that I can implement in my business right away. She helped me to think about strategic ways to continue to grow my business. I found the session very helpful.”
We are deeply grateful to all the mentors who gave of their time and wisdom to make a difference in the journey of a founder. They are our heroes, and we hope their example will inspire many others. Who knows? 30 minutes of your time may be just the catalyst to propel a Black founder to build the next game-changing company.
Growing Stronger Going Solo
Associate, Davis Wright Tremaine
For years, we've heard from female founders that being an entrepreneur can be a very solitary existence. As a result of the pandemic, many people – and not just founders -- are learning what it is like to navigate life-and career-changing decisions alone. The number of us living in solitude in the time of COVID-19 may be greater than you know. In his recent book, Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg discusses the biggest demographic shift since the Baby Boom -- the number of people who live alone. His research also shows that going solo can lead to an engaged, purposeful and dynamic life. Project W leader, Valerie Gallo, shares how powering through the pandemic solo has honed her inner strengths and clarified her goals for her personal and professional life on the other side of this crisis.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I considered my house little more than a place to sleep. Between work commitments, social commitments (spending time with family and friends), gym time and other personal commitments, I was barely at home long enough to even understand what it meant to me to "live solo."
However with the onset of the pandemic, my time at home – and consequently my time alone – increased exponentially. I have never been one to dislike living alone since quiet time and personal space are two of my favorite things. But I also have never been faced with the opportunity to reflect on the value of living alone and how that has shaped me as a woman and as a young professional. That is until, in the depths of quarantine, I cracked open Going Solo, a gift from a girlfriend of mine who thought I would enjoy it.
Reading Mr. Klinenberg's book got me thinking about why society often stigmatizes the concept of "going solo." I realized that living alone has taught me so much about who I am as a person, what I want my priorities and goals to be in my personal life, and what I can do to achieve them. I also realized that the same strengths and values honed from "living solo" could be applied to my professional life as I "go solo" into further developing my career.
When I say "go solo," I do not intend to discount the value of professional relationships and of friends and mentors in the workplace. What I mean is that we, particularly as female professionals, are solely responsible for recognizing our strongest assets, appreciating them and applying them to developing our own professional goals as we envision them. Workplace friends and mentors are fantastic, but we are ultimately in charge of shaping our own professional priorities, goals and vision.
So what have months of living solo in a pandemic taught me?
- It is okay to want to achieve things that are primarily or even exclusively for me and me alone. Prioritizing myself and my professional goals should not be stigmatized and can even benefit those who are a priority in my personal life, such as family and friends.
- I am more independent and resilient than even I had previously given myself credit for.
- I am my number one advocate and, moving forward, I will not be afraid to advocate for the things I want out of my personal and professional life.
- I intend to act on those "random thoughts or ideas" I've had about how to develop my business, grow my career or increase my network. I write my ideas down in a journal and am working to find ways to turn those ideas into realities. I am more committed than ever to try out new ideas and potentially fail. Just as there is no stigma to "going solo," there is no stigma to trying out an idea and perhaps not succeeding with it, then tweaking that idea and trying again.
As female professionals, I hope you can relate to what I have learned whether you are living solo, going solo in your career, or both. Sometimes when we are going it alone, whether it be in our personal or professional lives, we can be our own worst critics. But, remember: we absolutely should not be. Instead, we should hone in on the unique skills and attributes we have gained from such an experience and use it to propel us even further. So to all those reading this who are thinking of "going solo," whether it be through advancing in your current workplace, changing jobs or careers, or even starting that new "random" business venture you always wanted to start, never forget how strong you and you alone can be and go for it.
- Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab Winter 2021 Cohort
- Halo Incubator
- Brooklyn Bridge Ventures’ Circulate: Education
- The Venture City’s Product-Led Growth Week
- Schmidt Futures’ Tools Competition
- Hello Alice’s Pitch Investors Virtually Guide
- EnrichHER Fund New Majority Companies
- Woman@Austin’s Beam Angel Network
- Guild Academy: FemTech Edition
- Hangar51 Accelerator
- Beta Boom Friends & Family Pitch Competition
- Black Girl Ventures x Bumble Investment Fund
- Pipeline Angels VC-in-Residence