Springboard Enterprises is a women-led nonprofit connecting female founders to experts who have “been there, run that.”
Helping women entrepreneurs establish and grow their networks is the top priority of Washington, D.C.-based Springboard, which operates a virtual accelerator that’s designed to propel women’s businesses forward. It’s “very hard to actually make money or figure out how to do this — for women specifically,” says President and Co-founder Amy Millman, and knowing the right people can make all the difference.
Springboard accepts between 10 and 15 women-run companies per class, which happen four times a year. After a 3-day, in-person boot camp in Washington, Springboard advisors and experts council founders one-on-one online. This digital model is designed to make it as easy as possible for women business owners to take part. “Everything we do is virtual,” Millman says, because many “women couldn’t necessarily pick up and go somewhere” for an extended period.
At the end of each class, it puts founders in front of about 100 investors and corporate partners, also in person. That final presentation day when founders ask for investments is especially important to Millman. She was inspired to launch the accelerator while leading the National Women’s Business Council, where she became keenly aware of the chronic trouble women have accessing capital.
When she organized what would become Springboard’s flagship offering in 2000, she expected about 50 applications — and instead received 350. That success and the strong interest shown by female entrepreneurs led her to reach out to like-minded women around the country about building a new nonprofit. It was then that officials at The Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City offered curriculum assistance and funding.
With support from Kauffman and others, Springboard’s reach grew. As of this January, 685 companies have completed the program and 555 are still alive today, according to Springboard’s online portfolio. Combined, they have raised $8 billion in capital, generated several billion dollars in revenue, and created tens of thousands of jobs. The organization grew as well, adding feedback-driven pitch sessions, events featuring investors and experts, and a digital learning center to its roster of programs.
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Rather than take equity in participating companies, as many other accelerators do, Springboard asks alumnae to give back. And they do stay involved, serving as advisors and experts to the next generation of accelerator participants. Some have also invested in fellow Springboard companies.
Millman likens Springboard to “a graduate school of sorts,” in that it’s for people who want to specialize and develop a career in a niche. And Springboard is most interested in technology-driven companies.
But it is not particular about where founders are located. In addition to its online program, Springboard collaborates with smaller, localized accelerators by both recruiting entrepreneurs from them and referring to them. And it connects participants with investors who are near to them and may have an interest in their companies.
Who does Springboard want in its program? “We look for entrepreneurs who have had significant experience in the workforce,” Millman says. For example, “we have an astronaut who is also a medical doctor” in the network. Alumnae include plenty of women with post-doctorates and women who run venture funds or whole divisions of companies. Millman recommends that applicants highlight their achievements to stand out.
Each interested entrepreneur goes through an interview process involving both a written application and a face-to-face meeting, which helps Springboard’s decision makers assess the viability and scalability of applicants’ companies. It also helps them figure out which on-call advisors to offer to an accepted entrepreneur or founding team.
To avoid frustration, Millman suggests founders research accelerator programs by what they offer before applying, as each one is designed with different purposes in mind. And wherever you enroll, “go in with an idea of what you want to get out of it.”
Making the Most of It
Measuring success “depends on who’s sitting at the table,” Millman says. For one participant the metric might be that entrepreneurs’ personal achievements. Or it might be how much product they sell or how much revenue they bring in.
No matter what success looks like for an entrepreneur, leveraging Springboard’s network of experts should play a large role in getting there, she says. “Everybody needs a village around them. Entrepreneurship is not a solo piece. It feels isolating, but you can’t build a business in isolation.”
Be prepared to work to forge and maintain relationships, Millman adds. “What we find is that a lot of women come up with ideas, but they have no way to build a network while building a business. Participating in an accelerator or incubator or coworking space is pretty critical for companies. It’s where they learn, where they get resources and connections.”
While Springboard’s leaders may have many metrics for gauging participants’ success, she argues participants must have their own very clear idea of what they want to achieve. “That’s what we tell women all the time: Don’t do this unless you have a goal, something you want to learn, some connection you want to make. Don’t do it just because they’re offering you money.”