To Leslie Feinzaig, representation is important. But money matters even more.
She’s the CEO of Female Founders Alliance, which hosts Ready Set Raise, a business accelerator for nonbinary and women entrepreneurs that teaches them how to pull in VC money. She started both efforts after struggling to woo investors for her own ed-tech startup. Rather than feeling heard by investors, she recalls feeling frustrated — not to mention, underfunded.
Feinzaig is far from alone in her experiences. According to business research firm Pitchbook, just 2 percent of all VC funding went to women-owned ventures in 2018, and most decision makers at VC firms are male. Her experiences bear those findings out. “I realized that the whole time I’d been pitching my company, I’d only been working with guys,” she says. “That opened my eyes.”
Seeking solidarity, she started a Facebook group in 2017 for fellow growth-oriented women entrepreneurs. Through it, she brought together people “with this particular experience of starting highly scalable, VC-funded companies,” which “not a lot of women have experience with.”
At first, it was a small community of 25. But then, it garnered press attention from the likes of Geekwire, Fast Company and the Seattle Times, and interest grew quickly — very quickly. “The level of demand to do something with this online group was stronger than anything I’d experienced in my entire career,” she says.
In January 2018, she committed full-time to what she officially dubbed the Female Founders Alliance (which does not have a relationship with the Female Founders Fund), fleshing out its offerings and bringing its membership total up to about 430. Now, she’s leveraging her past experiences and current connections to prepare fellow entrepreneurs — ones ready to “move their businesses forward” — for the investment meetings they need to nail to grow.
How It Works
Ready Set Raise’s eight-week program is mostly conducted online (with two in-person weeks in Seattle bookending the experience), in the hopes that its relative brevity and remote accessibility will improve entrepreneurs’ chances in taking part. Childcare is provided for those who need it during the in-person visits. And it’s industry agnostic, so anyone with any scalable idea can apply to learn from a panel of investors.
Plus, since the business accelerator is subsidized by the Female Founders Alliance’s corporate partners, founders need only pay for their travel to and from Seattle. (The organization does not take equity in companies, either. “The only requirement is to grant [the Female Founders Alliance] pro rata rights, which means that they grant [us] the right to invest in their company in the future,” Feinzaig adds.)
She carefully designed the accelerator from start to finish with accessibility in mind. Years ago, she recalls being encouraged to apply to Y Combinator — and finding the idea of putting life on hold to take part “laughable.” She pointed out that many women “can’t afford to leave their kids and move to Silicon Valley for 3 months.” So she created “the program I wish I would have had.”
The result, she says, is truly inclusive participation. Half of Ready Set Raise’s first class were women of color, and ages ran the gamut. “Their [combined] experience was so rich, and they were able to share across generations and levels of experience.”
That isn’t the only inclusion effort the accelerator is making, either. On all of its marketing materials, nonbinary individuals are specifically encouraged to apply. “We’re an imperfect organization, but a very intentional one,” she says. “We keep our ears open to what makes people feel included.”
In addition to a welcoming space, members of these communities are also getting advice that yields results: two of the eight businesses that partook in Ready Set Raise last year have since closed $500,000 pre-seed funding rounds, with others closing even larger rounds and forging corporate partnerships.
Feinzaig says the business accelerator is open “to everyone who doesn’t perfectly fit into any given category — [and] anyone who isn’t a 23-year-old Stanford graduate with a hoodie.” How else, she figures, will the investment world’s self-perpetuating “bro” problem get addressed?
Making a Movement of It
The application window for 2019 is now closed, and the panel of investors reviewing submissions will announce its 12 selected attendees in September.
In the meantime, Feinzaig aims to offer more programs in the near future to her ever-growing membership ranks. At present, in addition to the accelerator, she and her team host several day-long pop-up conferences a year in cities like Seattle and Boston, all “built around one-on-one intros between founders and investors, media and potential partners.”
Feinzaig is encouraged by the attention her programs and their participants are getting from press and in their industries, thanks in part to those types of connections. But she also feels it’s not enough. “The really frustrating thing happening now is, stories are finally being told and people are listening, which is great. But at the end of the day, behind closed doors, women are still not getting those deals.”
Pointing to the slow pace of change and Pitchbook’s bleak 2018 figures regarding investments in women-led companies, she says, “We’re supposed to be celebrating that? That’s not enough. I want there to be substantial change by the time our daughters graduate college.”
In short, Feinzaig wants this “surface-level excitement” to turn into a “real movement.” She hopes Ready Set Raise — and the money earned by its participants — will get that ball rolling.