Female Founders

What start-up accelerators must do to improve female entrepreneurship


As part of my research on female entrepreneurship, I have discussed with the CEOs and program directors of the biggest start-up accelerators in Nantes and Amsterdam. 

Every person that I interviewed has voiced the importance of supporting female founders. However, they do not feel responsible to improve the situation for women. Today, the lack of accountability remains at the core of the debate on discriminations. Who is responsible, exactly? Is it the government, private companies, or the women themselves?

My research shows that start-up accelerators hold a responsibility in supporting female founders. Here are concrete solutions that they can implement:

Numbers, numbers, numbers

Half of the accelerators interviewed in this research could not tell me how many female founders have participated in their programs over the years. If they made the calculation, they would discover that the number is particularly low, ranging from 0% to 27%, with only 1 accelerator achieving 46%.

The importance of tracking metrics has been largely discussed in the entrepreneurship field. Within companies, numbers have become guides of what is important. They drive resources allocation, establish priorities and ensure the respect of deadlines. Traditionally, accelerators track the funding rate and the amount of money raised by their alumni. Considering that many accelerators are often similar to early-stage investors, that fact isn’t surprising in itself.

However, a recent study by Paul Glompers and Silpa Kovvali for the Harvard Business Review shows how essential diversity metrics are in the investment industry. They state that “diversity significantly improves financial performance on measures such as profitable investments at the individual portfolio-company level and overall fund returns”.

Start-up accelerators must start tracking diversity metrics – gender and nationality – to better understand what kind of start-ups are participating in their programs. 

Changing the selection process

Ineffective recruitment in start-up accelerators may be the strongest barrier for female founders. That is primarily because selection committees are rarely diverse. This influences who is admitted to the acceleration programs, because people are drawn to those who look like themselves. Several studies demonstrate that investors prefer entrepreneurial ventures pitched by men, even when, word-for-word, the content of the presentation is the same.

Additionally, the selection criteria may advantage male founders. In each interviews, I asked accelerators to give me a definition of a successful start-up. Here are the 3 main responses:

– International growth
– Market potential
– Investment raised

Research on female entrepreneurship shows that women prefer stability over growth, steady revenue over rapid expansion, slow profit over fast investment. In consequence, selection criteria imposed in accelerator programs may completely overlook female founders. Adding to the fact that women are socialised to be uncomfortable when talking in public, which might be detrimental to their pitch, it is no surprise to see batches of selected start-ups with 100% male founders.

Accelerators that adjust their selection process and criteria will be more successful in attracting female entrepreneurs.

A new way of looking at events

Silicon Valley culture has expanded into many start-up accelerators in Europe: ping-pong tables, working until midnight, or afterwork parties with alcohol have become a staple… Events have become part of the startup DNA, with some accelerators organising more than 80 activities in their 6-month programs. Often, women will not be able to attend. Indeed, they remain largely responsible for domestic work and childcare. As a result, it is much more difficult for them to participate in networking activities in the evening, drinking contests on the weekend, and everything in between.

A couple of years ago, I was organising a pitch event for an accelerator. On stage, 10 founders would pitch their ideas in front of a crowd of 500 investors, potential partners, and mentors. In the morning of the event, one founder was missing, the only female entrepreneur that was performing. She arrived late, and explained to me that she needed more time than the other 9 male founders, because she had to take care of her hair and makeup. As a woman myself, I had not even considered that she would need that extra time. I was simply following the company guidelines on how to schedule and organise a pitch event.

Now, you could tell me that makeup and hair isn’t that important. And I would agree with you, it shouldn’t be important. However, that event was filmed, the founder would be photographed all day, she would have several 1-on-1 meetings with investors and potential partners. That event was crucial for her and her company. I’d like to think that she could have done everything with a tired face and crazy hair, that she would have received the same amount of attention and respect from the male-dominated audience. But that would be a lie.

If you work for an accelerator, you must question if everything you do – from the pictures you show on your website to the events you organise – isn’t targeting a single audience of young white men. Because if that is true, you are missing out on many start-ups.

And that isn’t enough.

The goal of start-up accelerators is simple: helping as many founders as possible to build and grow their companies. That is why supporting female entrepreneurs is so essential for the industry. Without them, you will end up with the same kind of applications of start-ups having the same ideas. From the selection process to the alumni support, each step of the accelerator model must be reviewed. Unintentionally, your programs might be giving clear advantages to male founders.

Diversity does not happen simply because you want it to happen. To really make a change, directors and management of accelerators must take proactive measures and implement strategies to support women.

If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between start-up accelerators and female entrepreneurship, find more resources below:

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