Business accelerator Techstars is on the hunt for brilliant minds behind explosive new ideas. And while it’s historically worked more often with men, it’s actively working to engage more women.
First incorporated in November 2006 in Boulder, Colo., to boost area startups, Techstars has grown aggressively over the past 12 years, moving into cities from Boston to Berlin and launching programs in niches like sustainability, healthcare, music and more. To date, more than 3,300 founders running 1,300 companies have gone through its 40 accelerators.
In exchange for common stock in a company, entrepreneurs receive a small cash infusion. Following each program’s 3-month cycle, founders meet with investors, walking away with an average of $2 million in follow-on funding. About 75 percent of companies have gone on to secure additional funding or quickly achieve profitability. As of today, 90 percent of participant companies are still in business or have been acquired, and have raised more than $11.4 billion in funding.
But this kind of startup success doesn’t come easy. “It’s a very intensive bootcamp,” says Jenny Fielding, a managing director at Techstars who has run several of its accelerators, including its Internet of Things program.
Participating founders make huge sacrifices, moving to cities all over the world to immerse themselves in “everything from product strategy to fundraising to going to market,” she says. “We surround them with mentors in all of those areas, as well as corporate partners,” including the likes of car-maker Ford, online shopping giant Amazon and media corporation Comcast.
Like many programs in the tech world, Techstars has more often than not worked with male entrepreneurs. Indeed, Fielding admits that the number of female founders who have participated so far is “pretty low,” adding that representation is higher among location-based programs than industry-focused ones, though they are unsure why that is.
However, the accelerator is working to attract more women through targeted events and grants, among other efforts, reaching both participating entrepreneurs and leaders for Techstars’ programs. Results have been visible, she says. “When I started at Techstars, I was the only female managing director — now we have eight or so,” Fielding says. “The demographics among our leadership are changing significantly, and it has an impact on our classes.”
Hilla Ovil-Brenner, managing director of Techstars’ new Barclays Accelerator in Tel Aviv, agrees that improving representation for women in leadership roles is critical — especially in tech, where female founders “keep meeting men” in job interviews, boardrooms, in pitch meetings and more. She continues, “There are not enough [female] role models, not enough entrepreneurs or investors or mentors” who can show them how to thrive as businesswomen.
How can interested women get accepted to a Techstars accelerator? Be part of a killer crew of founders, for starters. At Techstars, Fielding says recruiters are looking for six key traits: “team, team, team, market, traction, idea.”
Techstars works with companies at various levels of development — from those sketching ideas on napkins to those already earning millions. Especially “in the early stage, there’s so much that’s developing — ideas change, markets change. But the team is probably not changing as much,” she says.
No matter where they are in their startup story, Fielding says entrepreneurs should be “really good at putting themselves out there” and taking the initiative. “The best thing a founder can do is get in front of us — not just with an appointment, but by attending events, signing up for office hours and meeting our team to get our attention.”
Ovil-Brenner says Techstars also wants to see “good innovation, good tech and good product,” as well as proof of traction. But, she adds, “if your team is very capable and intelligent and talented and open-minded, then we don’t have limitations on where you need to be” on your growth path to be accepted.
And personally, Ovil-Brenner advises female applicants to be themselves. “Women don’t need to sound like men to be entrepreneurs,” she says. “A lot of mistakes that women make are around wanting to be like everybody else,” she explains. “Women can be and sound like women — it’s okay that they have different priorities or hobbies or friends. They can still be exceptional.”
Making the Most of It
Once in the program, a founder looking to make the most of her time will be vocal about what she wants and needs, Fielding says. Entrepreneurs are asked early on what they hope to achieve at the accelerator. With that information, Techstars “tailors the program in a bespoke way,” she says.
Techstars aims to help ventures prepare for their next steps and scale up smart. The ideas is to fast-track participating ventures so they can seize big opportunities without ending up in over their heads.
After the program is done, Techstars measures success by looking at typical markers of growth. “Do they have clients or partners or people using their tech? Are they considered a market leader in specific areas? Did they get investors on board to believe in them? Did they win competitions? Do they have a presence online?” Ovil-Brenner says.
One key ingredient that will help entrepreneurs achieve their individual goals, during and after the program, is Techstars’ network of founders, she says. “We give them the opportunity to tap into a network in over 150 countries, to tap into mentorship around the world and investment opportunities.” It is up to founders to take advantage.