Why Rent the Runway’s Founders Launched a Startup Accelerator for Women Entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurial duo behind the popular fashion venture know firsthand the importance of a strong, supportive network. Through Project Entrepreneur, they want to make sure other women have one, too.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Rent the Runway’s Project Entrepreneur accelerator is giving women entrepreneurs a network to fuel success. (Credit: Project Entrepreneur Facebook page)

Rent the Runway’s Project Entrepreneur accelerator is giving women entrepreneurs a network to fuel success. (Credit: Project Entrepreneur Facebook page)

Connections can make all the difference to the success of a startup — and accelerator Project Entrepreneur knows it.

It’s a program offered by the Rent the Runway Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the popular clothing rental company bearing the same name. Jennifer Stybel, its executive director, says Rent the Runway founders Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss launched the accelerator to give other women entrepreneurs the kind of female support network they had when starting up.

The pair “recognized the importance other women played in their founding,” she says. Indeed, they often turned to female colleagues in the fashion world for advice on making first hires, employing the right legal team and answering other startup questions.

They launched Project Entrepreneur in 2015 with international bank UBS, which contributes financially, as a suite of programs for female founders. The project includes the accelerator, a 2-day class for 200 accepted applicants, and a number of 1-day summits held around the country that bring women entrepreneurs together. It also runs a digital hub featuring expert interviews, a podcast and other educational resources.

[Related: The Success Stories of More Than 300 Entrepreneurs, as told by The Story Exchange]

By creating a female-friendly support network, Project Entrepreneur aims to improve frustrating growth statistics for women-owned businesses. Research shows that only 10 percent of high-growth ventures are founded by women, despite the fact that women are starting companies at rates exceeding the national average. And women seeking funding for growth do so in a landscape where only 2 percent of venture capital is awarded to women founders.

Women are showing interest in what Project Entrepreneur has to offer. To date, organizers have reviewed nearly 2,000 business plans in applications for their accelerators and classes, and have worked with over 1,600 women entrepreneurs in person, Stybel says.

And to ensure Project Entrepreneur reaches a diverse population of female founders, the Rent the Runway Foundation consults with advisors from Black Founders, the Latino Startup Alliance, Venture for America and the HBCU Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship Initiative. As a result, half of all applicants and participants are women of color.

Project Entrepreneur will begin accepting applications for its 2018-2019 programs in late September.

Getting In

Finalists for Project Entrepreneur’s accelerator are selected from among the pool of its class participants. During the 2-day event, they vie for the 5-week program’s coveted five spots by pitching their ventures. Each company selected receives a $10,000 grant, too.

There are five key factors Project Entrepreneur considers when selecting entrepreneurs for its accelerator, Stybel says: strength of the founding team, strength of the idea, customer acquisition strategy, professional branding and future vision.

The program is geared toward newer businesses that have raised less than $100,000 in startup capital. Companies must have at least one female founder, and must be at least 50-percent owned by women. Project Entrepreneur considers itself to be “industry-agnostic” — past participants have run health, agriculture, beauty, fashion and education businesses, among others — but it does like to work with ventures that use technology “to their competitive advantage,” Stybel says.

[Related: A Janitor Walked In on Her Pumping. So This Project Entrepreneur Alumna Created Private Lactation Stations]

Participants in the accelerator travel to Rent the Runway’s headquarters in New York City, where they develop growth strategies for their companies. The five selectees, plus a few lucky founders hosted by partner companies, meet with women leaders and mentors from companies like Birchbox, Jet Black and the XO Group. Attendees also get the chance to refine their pitches in front of investors.

The combination of meetings and workshops lets them “tap into the knowledge and resources within a growing, thriving company — and see what success looks like,” Stybel says.

Making the Most of It

Of all the resources Project Entrepreneur provides, the opportunity to meet other women entrepreneurs stands out to participants, Stybel says. One of last year’s accelerator participants told her “the most impactful thing was being able to see what she could build” by visiting with female founders further along in developing their companies.

“Entrepreneurship is such a lonely journey, working solo in a living room or in a shared coworking space,” she adds. But through the classes, accelerators and events, female founders meet “other women at a similar stage in their journey, who are able to provide support and advice, and who understand what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis.”

It’s not just good for morale — Project Entrepreneur alumnae are thriving. Past accelerator participants have raised more than $25 million to date. Some have also gone on to take part in later-stage accelerators like Y Combinator and Techstars. Others have found business partners — for example, the two founders who Stybel says met in one class and decided to merge their companies.

[Related: An Online-Based Accelerator for Female Founders Looking to Learn, Connect and Grow]

Stybel says Project Entrepreneur wants the entire next generation of female founders to have access to cohorts and role models so they see entrepreneurship as “a more valuable and valid career path.”

After all, empowering women entrepreneurs serves Project Entrepreneur’s larger goal: to change the business world. Stybel says the organization’s long-term aim is for “50 percent of high-growth companies to be founded by women.”

Posted: September 13, 2018

Candice Helfand-RogersWhy Rent the Runway’s Founders Launched a Startup Accelerator for Women Entrepreneurs