The numbers stacked against women and non-binary startup founders are pretty staggering: women own only 5 percent of venture-backed companies, and for every $1 of venture capital a man raises, a woman raises only $.02. The Female Founders Alliance (FFA) is working to improve those odds by accelerating the success of scalable companies founded by women and non-binary people.
We spoke with Female Founders Alliance Founder and CEO Leslie Feinzaig, Director of Operations Rohre Titcomb, and Vice President of Business Alliances Samantha Agee about FFA’s accelerator program Ready Set Raise (which is now seeking applications), everything that FFA has achieved so far, and their approach to achieving equity in the business world.
Tell me how the Female Founders Alliance got started.
Leslie Feinzaig: FFA started as a Facebook group two years ago. At the time, I was fundraising for my last startup, which is in the education/technology space. I had a long career in tech, had very senior roles at other well-funded, renowned local startups. But when I went out on my own, the experience was very different from what I had experienced when I was an executive reporting to others, and I wasn’t sure why. It felt like I was in a dark room and I needed somebody to turn on the lights and explain what was happening and why.
Out of sheer frustration, I started a Facebook group. I added all of the women in my network that were on that same trajectory. We had 20 members join that first month, almost all Seattlites. We put on a single event in the spring, got a little press from GeekWire, and then all of the sudden, women started coming out of the woodwork and applying to be part of this very loose, undefined community. Even though it had no brand, no value proposition, no budget, no employees — and still people wanted to be a part of it. It became really clear from that demand that there was something really special there.
Over the following year I incorporated FFA as a Social Purpose Corporation. It was a very intentional decision to not file as a nonprofit. We don’t want to be seen as a charitable cause—because the women in our network are not a charitable cause. Last year we kicked off our programming and this January I hired our first full time employees. We have a great team, and it’s a dream come true to have a job where you get paid to do something that will actually change the world together with the most amazing group of people.
Can you tell me about what being part of FFA means for members?
Leslie: Part of what we encourage members to do is actively open doors for each other. We want to break the paradigm that success is a zero-sum game and that there’s only room for one of us. We actively encourage members to do things like introduce one another to investors, or pay forward their speaking opportunities. There are about 10 women in Seattle who get asked to speak at events all the time—so to just give those out to other people who might need the exposure more. Recently, I heard a story about two of our members who went through Ready Set Raise, our accelerator. One of them introduced the other to an investor, and that introduction led to this second company being admitted to the best incubator for her space. That never would have happened if that personal, legitimizing introduction hadn’t taken place. We have lots of examples like that.
You make it clear on your website that FFA is inclusive of trans and non-binary founders. Do you have much membership in those communities? What does that space look like?
Rohre Titcomb: We recently revamped our language because we wanted to make sure that we were being inclusive, that we weren’t perpetuating this idea that you have to check the boxes for being being a white, cis-gendered, straight, abled woman. After that update, we received a message from an applicant saying, “I applied to this community because your language is inclusive, and I have not found anywhere else that is inclusive.” That was a pretty remarkable thing, to have that immediate yes, there are people out there who aren’t feeling like they belong. And I’m hopeful that that will happen more and more.
Leslie: We can’t promise perfection, but we can promise that we’re actively learning how to be more inclusive, and actively trying to do right by all people.
Do you think the numbers behind women-led startups will ever be made equitable?
Samantha Agee: When we first started, Leslie told us we had 20 years, because that’s when her daughter will graduate from college.
Leslie: Right, this all started with my first daughter. Our stated vision is that we will see a world where business leadership is reflective of the world it serves. So it’s not specifically about being 50-50 or 90-10, it’s about my daughter graduating from college and having the same opportunities as a white male non-immigrant will have. And it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s about the world we are creating for all of our kids.
Tell me about the first year of your accelerator program, Ready Set Raise.
Leslie: When we designed Ready Set Raise, we thought a lot about why traditional accelerators fail women and looked into what our members really need out of it. Our program is mostly remote, so you can work flexibly and not fall into the “facetime” trap. For the portions of the program that are not remote we offer childcare. We’re also focusing on much earlier stage companies, because most people don’t bet on unknown founders that early, and most women and non-binary founders are first-time, unknown founders. We wanted to de-risk them very early.
Last year was our first cohort, but somehow it really hit a nerve. This year, we have a very solid foundation that we can build from. With new partners and sponsors and with a proven, tested program, I’m very excited to see what we can do. We’re running the second cohort again through September and October, with applications due on June 23.
What are you most excited about working on in the next year with FFA?
Samantha: We host three completely different events. We have our Access series, which is amazing for every one of our members, we created the Champion Awards to celebrate the community that makes us possible, and we do Ready Set Raise. It’s hard to be most excited about one of them. I’m most excited to be working with Leslie.
Rohre: I think I’m most excited to get to see the work that comes from our membership, those good news stories. I feel so privileged to get to work in this space that’s focused on gender equity and making a tangibly better world.
You can learn more about FFA on their website, and keep up with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Female and non-binary founders are encouraged to apply for Ready Set Raise now through June 23.