Less Pizza and Beer: Why We Need Accelerators for Women

November 17, 2014

11:00 am

Are traditional accelerators too male-centric?

On November 5, Philadelphia accelerator DreamIt Ventures announced the launch of its DreamIt Athena program for women. DreamIt Athena is actually an accelerator within an accelerator: women founders will go through the program alongside the regular cohort, but get extra resources and programming targeted at their particular challenges. DreamIt is aiming to find at least four female-founded startups out of the 10-15 they accept.

But why isn’t a traditional accelerator enough for women? We sat down with managing partner Karen Griffith Gryga to find out more.

Male-dominated accelerators

In a Medium post called “Y Combinator + Being a Mom,” Women.com CEO and Y Combinator grad Susan Johnson talked about her experience trying to survive an intense accelerator and still see her kids now and then. Her narrative revealed some of the reasons why accelerators attract so many (young) men: not just the long hours and the requirement to move to a new city, but also the image of what your typical accelerator participant looks like:

startup_boysclub

Y Combinator, who’s trying to be increasingly inclusive of women, still reported that 80% of their startups funded this year don’t have a woman on the founding team.

“The overriding majority of participants tend to be male, so you have this very dominant male group of people and then you put in these activities that tend to be more male-oriented,” says Gryga. “Some of [our female graduates] were like, ‘You know what, enough of the beer and pizza and ping pong.’”

The issues accelerators don’t talk about

A recent study by researchers out of Harvard, Wharton, and MIT found that a woman giving the exact same pitch as a man is much less likely to get funded: 32% compared to 68%. Regular adults were judging the pitches, but the experiment was set up so they had a financial incentive to pick the businesses that investors would fund. This study included only a male or female voice giving the pitch – their appearance wasn’t shown – which has led Gryga to consider workshops on voice coaching for DreamIt Athena.

“If the reality is that having a higher-pitched voice for some reason engenders less confidence, let’s address that and lower the voice register as long as it doesn’t cause physical damage,” says Gryga, who is quick to acknowledge her high-pitched voice and 5’3”, 115-pound frame.

DreamIt Athena also plans to bring in more female speakers, advisors, and mentors. Their mentor program is pretty serious – mentors spend 3-5 hours a week with companies – and having that support network of women mentors and other women founders could make a difference.

“There is a lot of research around how men tend to have more bravado than women do. And so it’s that shoring up through the mentors and the advisors that you’re going down the right path, you’re doing the right thing – just making sure that the confidence and the energy stays up,” says Gryga. 

And, of course, these mentors will surely have something to say about the problems that participants might not feel comfortable bringing up in a typical accelerator setting. One of DreamIt’s female graduates talked about “suggesting an idea, it passes in silence, and then later in the discussion someone else brings it up and it’s accepted as his,” an experience Gryga has had herself. “We don’t talk about this stuff in DreamIt’s traditional program,” she says.

The Athena program will run for at least two cohorts, and it’s still a work in progress. “We don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Gryga says. “We’re going to try stuff, see if it works.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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