AMY MILLMAN OF SPRINGBOARD ENTERPRISES

Why dolphin tanks are better than shark tanks.

Springboard Enterprises is one of the oldest organizations dedicated to helping women entrepreneurs. Amy Millman, Kay Koplovitz, and others started Springboard in Washington D.C. in 2000 as a nonprofit that helps women-led, high-growth enterprises get the venture capital and connections they need. President Millman was executive director of the National Women’s Business Council during the Clinton administration.

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Why Springboard was created:

“The whole thing sort of started around ‘98, ‘99. I was running a federal commission on women’s business ownership and we were looking at the issue of women’s access to capital to run their businesses. We were out in California doing a workshop and these women stood up and said, “We need equity capital, not lending. We don’t need debt. Bankers aren’t going to lend to us, we’re technology companies.

“Well, that was the first time that I’d ever heard this. And that’s when everything sort of exploded for us. Our chairman, Kay Koploviz, was sitting on the Oracle board at the time, and she said we ought to do something that has a big impact. So we rounded up a bunch of the women investors and we worked with Cate Muther, who was thinking of starting an incubator for women entrepreneurs. We held the first event at the Oracle facility in Redwood City in January 2000.

“It was this moment in time before the market crashed. Everything was incredible, all our companies that we did present that day got funded, and we said, “Wait a minute. There are probably people all around the country that could use this kind of expertise and engagement.” And so we contacted people in Chicago, in Boston and New York, in North Carolina, Texas, Washington, D.C. and asked if they would help. It’s been a wild ride and pretty exciting, to meet the most talented women entrepreneurs and then surround them with experts that will help them open doors.”

We’ve got 560-something businesses now and they’ve raised a ton of money. A bunch are public companies or acquired ventures and now the women, two-thirds of them are serial entrepreneurs, a bunch of them are investing and, you know, it was the dream. To see if we could actually build that on ramp for women entrepreneurs.

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The need for women-focused groups:

“I never looked at this as women being disadvantaged. I just felt they didn’t know where to find the door. My approach to this is never what women haven’t gotten; it’s what’s an opportunity for them. I looked at what was out there and all I saw was a sea of men. I postulated that the reason was that the women just either didn’t know it was happening or they needed somebody to open up a door to that opportunity.

“I figured if the women are doing things that would lend themselves to building billion-dollar businesses, everybody’s going to want to know about that. And they’re going to want to know them. So we’re going to make it possible for people to get to know them and come up with a way to make that happen.”

Impetus and women entrepreneurs:

“I call them Women Who Dive Off Cliffs. A lot of us didn’t do really well inside a corporation, felt really restricted, but there weren’t other options. Then, all of a sudden, this technology and this internet and mobile world comes in and the creative aspects of who we are seem to come out.

“Maybe men don’t need that kind of impetus, but the women seem to need it. Or maybe because of bias or because people led us in certain pathways, we just didn’t think of those options. My father thought I should just be married. And, you know, that would have been a big success for him.”

Overcoming the Tall Poppy Syndrome:

“We do a program in Australia and when we went down there people said we were going to have to modify our program. They said we have something down here called a Tall Poppy Syndrome. It applies to men and women, but the women really embrace this. The minute that you’re a little more visible than normal, than people feel comfortable with, they lop off the top of the poppy. It’s like chopping your head off.

“I find that most of the women — I don’t care if they’re astronauts, I don’t care if they’re double Ph.D.s — the brilliant women that we work with, they don’t like to talk about themselves. And the thing about business is we want to do business with people that we’re either impressed by or that we can relate to. If you don’t come out with who you are and why you’re the one who’s going to be successful, then how do we know who you are?

So we assume that we need to work on that confidence level and come up with a way that makes it comfortable for them to declare their credentials.”

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Women and investing:

“Traditionally, the angel investor groups were all male, guys who knew each other socially or from business. There were women investors, but they weren’t organized. Around 2005, we helped Stephanie Newby start what eventually became Golden Seeds. And we fed our women into Golden Seeds. I think the first seven or eight investments they made were Springboard companies.

“It’s not that they investing in companies differently; they just like to invest together. And they have a little bit more of a kinship with each other in this process, and I think that’s the same thing as the male-run angel networks. It’s just people like to invest together with people that they know. It’s just a natural evolution of where we’re going and the whole women’s understanding that they, too, have the expertise and wherewithal to make these investments.”

The future of women-focused groups:

“I think that there are aspects of each of our lives that lend themselves to affinity groups. So I don’t look at this as a remedial exercise. I look at it as a model. And it may not work for everybody, but it works for the people that participate in our program. It’s not that there aren’t men that are very involved with us. We just happen to have now more women investors that are engaged.”

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How Springboard differs from other programs:

“Our demographics are older. The women tend to be somewhere in their mid-30s to mid-40s. And everyone’s not going to live in a house together for two months. Our program is much more virtual. And most of the women have had significant experience in their fields. And most of them are married, most of them have children or are having babies.

“We look at this as much more of a network. We don’t make equity investments in these companies. It’s a network you’re going to be involved with forever because your expertise is going to be valuable to somebody else.”

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Giving back:

“You’re expected to participate. You’re expected to invest, either your intellectual, human or financial capital, in each other. There’s that old thing about women not helping other women. Well, that’s the whole premise for starting this.

“All our women are members of other trade associations or groups or participate in other accelerator programs relevant to their industries or interests. But they still stay connected to us because it is one of those areas that they will always tap in, sort of like a college alumni network. It’s much more of a network than it is an accelerator or a program.”

Why dolphin tanks are better than shark tanks:

The shark tanks and all those pitch sessions, they’re basically for sport and entertainment. They’re not to help entrepreneurs. I have arguments with my male friends all the time about this. I think you get a lot more with sugar than you would otherwise. And I find that the people we work with are much more open to thinking about new pathways or solutions when people are helpful.”

Whether women entrepreneurs need an alternative ecosystem:

“The whole idea of do we really need a separate women’s anything is the wrong pathway to go down. People find inspiration in their engagement in all of the different aspects of themselves and their interests, whether it’s an industry trade group or a community group. And so we tend to gravitate toward affinity groups. I’ve been arguing with people for 30 years on this. We are not going away. We know what our mission is, we know what our focus is, we are not planning for obsolescence. We’re just trying to get better and better and better at what our model is.

“Maybe a lot of other people will adopt our model instead. Maybe in workplaces, where you see things really changing in terms of less hierarchy and more team building, maybe you’ll see things modifying in those ways.

“We started the dolphin tank because women didn’t like the shark tank. They weren’t showing up. But they come in droves to us because they feel they’re getting something tangible. And now tons of men are coming in and they love sitting in the audience and providing support. It’s a model and it could be applicable for anybody.”

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