What does it take to discover, accelerate, and invest in exceptional women entrepreneurs?
Even though data shows that venture-backed, female-run companies produce higher returns, there are too few women in startups. Sue Heilbronner and Elizabeth Kraus are the founders of MergeLane, an accelerator focusing on women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses. The two founders are successful entrepreneurs and investors.
Sue has been a CEO, President, or Chief Marketing Officer for digital marketing and ecommerce companies since the earliest days of the internet. She began her career as an attorney and transitioned to business by founding an online baby gift company in 1999, which she later sold when she joined Discovery Communications, the parent company of Discovery Channel and 15 other international networks.
Elizabeth ran her own startup, myUsearch.com, and has been founding, working for and consulting for startups for her entire career. Both Elizabeth and Sue had contributed to the following interview.
Success Harbor: What were your reasons to start a women-led company accelerator?
MergeLane: We increasingly experienced an interest in narrowing the gap for women and women-led companies at key milestones in the startup ecosystem.
We also both began to see signs of success with the investments we had made in women-led startups.
This was consistent with data that indicates that gender-diverse and women-led companies produce better returns.
As we wondered about how we could make the biggest impact and considered our financial goals and the skills we bring to the table, we determined that an accelerator focused on women-led firms would be the perfect marriage of our interests, abilities, and network.
Both of us have years of experience as angel investors and mentors, and we both have a specific interest in and acumen for mentoring women leaders.
Success Harbor: In what ways does an accelerator have to be different to stand out from the hundreds of other accelerator programs out there?
MergeLane: We think that the most critical factor is the quality and commitment of a network of superb mentors who are highly conversant in early-stage company issues.
In the case of MergeLane, we also have decided to offer each participating company CEO a personal, executive leadership coach that will be available during each week of the program.
Last, having an accelerator that is highly connected to angel investors and angel investor groups offers a tremendous advantage to the companies interested in and qualified to raise post-program follow-on capital.
Success Harbor: How do you further differentiate yourself from Springboard, Astia and similar accelerators?
MergeLane: I think that having a program that is only partial residency (three of the 12-week program), having stellar mentors, having a great investor fabric, offering CEO coaches, and having two managing directors who are devoted to helping participants build strong companies all set MergeLane up for success.
As to differentiation, I don’t feel that’s necessary. The programs you mentioned share our vision of narrowing the gap of women in business. We support those organizations, and we believe they will support us.
Our goal is to become obsolete – for there to be no gap. As such, we’re thrilled to have as many people thinking about this issue, and investing time and money where it matters most.
Success Harbor: At what point should entrepreneurs start thinking about applying for a spot in an accelerator?
MergeLane: We use the concept of “traction” to define what’s needed to apply to MergeLane.
This concept applies differently to different industry sectors. For most programs interested in investing up to $120,000 in early-stage companies, having more than an idea is critical.
Having a “team” also minimizes investor risk.
And being at a place where the company and leadership team can benefit enormously from an infusion of intellect and commitment from a program and mentor network also matters.
We are focused on finding companies poised for a real step-up in their potential and growth.
Success Harbor: How is your program different from others?
MergeLane: Only three-week residency requirement out of a 12-week program
Provision of CEO coaches for each company at no charge to the company
Focus on core startup and early-stage issues in curriculum as well as some focus on issues that uniquely affect women in reaching their potential
Success Harbor: What is the program format?
MergeLane: Two weeks in Boulder at program start. Nine weeks of remote curriculum, mentoring and coaching, as well as potential connections to mentors in their place of residence. One week at end of program for culmination event
Success Harbor: What are the most common reasons women would not apply to accelerators?
MergeLane: Our research suggests that women (and lots of people at later stages of their careers) struggle with being able to leave their local community and travel to an accelerator city for 12 weeks. We also believe that women are highly accustomed to an “I’ll carry the load” mentality.
Women tend to do more on their own, delaying support of investors, colleagues, and potentially accelerators.
Last, although we don’t necessarily believe this, we have heard that some women are hesitant to apply to accelerators because they imagine that accelerators offer a “bunker” or “fraternity” mentality that feels alienating to them.
Success Harbor: What do you look for in the startup team to determine if it is a good fit for your program?
MergeLane: First and foremost, we are looking for awesome teams who can make meaningful progress during our program.
We look for tenacious entrepreneurs who can break down walls to make things happen.
We want to invest in entrepreneurs who are deeply passionate about their business and have a proven ability to execute on their passions.
Success Harbor: What do you look for in the business or business idea to determine if it is a business you want in your program?
- We want a business that has exhibited some type of traction.
- We want companies that are capable of scaling.
- We like big markets.
- We focus a tremendous amount on the team – the quality of the individuals, complementary nature of skills, and gelling of the team itself.
Success Harbor: If someone is out there thinking about applying to your accelerator program, what would be the greatest value to them?
MergeLane: They can join either one of our two currently planned remote info sessions.
They can get the information and RSVP at Eventbrite.
These sessions will summarize the core offering, give listeners a sense of goals and feel for the managing director(s), and offer space for Q&A.
Success Harbor: How many businesses do you accept into your program?
Success Harbor: How can Startups apply for your next program?
MergeLane: Thanks for asking. They should visit mergelane.com, where they can learn more about the program and see the links for “apply now,” which lead to the online app.