One of the most encouraging responses to gender inequities and bias (intentional or not) in Silicon Valley and venture capital has been the rise of an alternative network of angel groups, incubators, accelerators and networking and mentoring organizations that focus on women entrepreneurs. Beginning today and continuing through Friday, ID8 Nation will publish interviews with four women helping to build this alternative ecosystem. Here’s the lineup:
Tues., Feb. 24 — Sue Heilbronner of MergeLane in Boulder
Wed., Feb. 25 — Dr. Mary Jo Gorman of Prosper St. Louis
Thurs., Feb. 26 — Vicki Saunders of SheEO in Toronto
Fri., Feb. 27 — Amy Millman of Springboard Enterprises in Washington D.C.
Sue Heilbronner has one of those resumes that makes you think she must be a lot of fun to sit next to at a dinner party. The former assistant U.S. attorney has founded or worked for a number of startups, including an online baby gift service and a vegan condom company. She’s a lead mentor at Techstars and is Chief Catalyst at Boulder Ideas, a venture strategy and marketing firm.
She’s also CEO and co-founder of MergeLane, a new accelerator in Boulder for women-led companies. It will launch its first class of in February.
She talks about her initial reluctance to be identified with a women-only venture and why she hopes MergeLane becomes obsolete.
Her concerns about being identified with women-only anything:
“Both my partner (Elizabeth Kraus) and I . . . when we started talking about this, had a lot of resistance to identifying ourselves as female (insert noun). That was pretty challenging for both of us. I’m 48 years old and I’ve had a career where I don’t know if I’ve identified myself that way more than two or three times. I’ve done extremely well in rooms where I was the only woman. In those cases, I’ve never had any complaints about discrimination. I’ve had an enormously productive and successful career.”
Why she started MergeLane:
“I was at a conference and there was a panel discussion on strategic partnerships between startups and large companies. And it was six men. And I was stunned by it. Because this was not a panel discussion on how to use the urinal. There are tens of thousands of women who could speak with great eloquence on that panel.
“And my first reaction was a little bit of anger. Then, I realized this was just sad. I knew the people running that event. It wasn’t discrimination. If anything, it was just not noticing or not paying attention that led to that. And then I thought, “OK, if this is bumming me out, what that I can do to make a difference?” And the idea of an accelerator came up because I have been mentoring leaders with a high focus on women organically for most of my women and I’m a mentor at Techstars.”
Women and aggression:
“I do believe that Sheryl Sandberg’s thing about opting out yourself is a big part of this discussion. I think a huge factor is that women are less inclined to move aggressively forward with funding or application to an accelerator for a host of reasons. Maybe the No. 1 reason is that they don’t necessarily feel “ready.” That women just aren’t as aggressive. They’re more conservative about how much money they raise. And they’re very hesitant to bring things they regard as incomplete to anyone.”
Why women-inclusive companies outperform others:
“When you look at the data, investment returns are better for companies that are diverse and have women in leadership. Because if you look at the pool of investment-worthy companies or companies that have received funding, I think women are working quite a bit harder to get into that pool, so there’s a selection bias.
“Part of our mission is to become obsolete. What should happen with more accelerators focusing on more women-led companies is that these companies become more typical. Whereas, right now those companies are outperforming the cohorts. One of our goals in the long run is to make companies that are run by women, more typical or more average. In the short run, our goal at MergeLane is to deliver superior investment returns because of this gap.”
Why MergeLane should not be mistaken for a charity:
“I want to build a for-profit, lucrative enterprise. And I’m delighted that non-profits are trying to close the (women in entrepreneurship) gap. The more people working on this, great. But from our perspective, we’re running a business. And this is not charity, it’s not a handout and it’s not running on the assumption that women are less in any way. We’re not here to pull people up. We are simply trying to find superstars. And we think they’re out there.”
What MergeLane can do for women entrepreneurs:
“I just talked to a woman CEO of a company doing $1 million a year on a manufactured product business. I asked her what she expected to do in 2015. She said $2 million and $4 million for 2016. Now, that woman will run a nice business. But I believe if she got into an accelerator and positioned herself to raise real capital to grow a product business that she has a better chance of doing $5 million in Year Two and $30 million in Year Three. Plenty of entrepreneurs have a blind spot for not thinking big enough. And this is something that men and women experience. We just think it’s more common among women.”
Whether MergeLane should be a part of the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem:
“We will consider ourselves successful only if MergeLane and the companies that graduate from it are part of the overall ecosystem for startups and funding. We are not here to create a parallel path. We want more diversity and more integration and a more typical layout in this ecosystem.”
Whether “women-only” accelerators carry a stigma:
“I hate to acknowledge that, but I definitely think that some people might think that. We consider ourselves to be A players. Everyone we’re bringing into this organization is an A player. We believe we’re going to generate fantastic returns. So if people want to wonder whether this will be a second-tier program, let them wonder. We’ll be busy proving that we can build a great business this way.”