Business: Women entrepreneurs aim to take on Silicon Valley


"Three percent of startups succeed. But why can't we be part of that 3%?" Ari Horie, founder and CEO of Women's Startup Lab, asked a group of eight entrepreneurs gathered for a recent two-week accelerator program for female startup founders.

Women's Startup Lab has completed its seventh program cycle, each providing eight female entrepreneurs with training intended to help them take on Silicon Valley's startup scene. Since its launch in 2013, 70 graduates of the program have raised a combined $12 million in seed funding and one has been selected for Y-Combinator, the highly selective seed accelerator program, said Ms. Horie.

A resident of Menlo Park, she said that she founded the accelerator program with the purpose of helping female startup founders gain access to the historically male-dominated Silicon Valley tech world. The business now has a core team of three employees alongside interns and consultants, said David Walling, partnerships and strategic adviser at Women's Startup Lab.

According to its website, women secure less than 5 percent of all venture capital funding.

Ms. Horie, who has experience in tech marketing and startup work, said Silicon Valley is much like the proverbial Wild West. It operates on what she calls the "Cowboy model," which favors the unattached man's capacity to drop everything else he might have in his life, "giddy up" and work around the clock to build out his startup as rapidly as possible.

For people who have family responsibilities and other factors in their lives to juggle, this all-encompassing work environment can be a barrier to entering the field, she explained.

"People who can't fit that model fail out," she said. "It's not that they're not talented."

She said one of her goals is to help the participants in her program see success in new ways.

"You don't have to be killing yourself and destroying (your) family," Ms. Horie said. "If it takes double the time to be successful, it's still successful."

Women's Startup Lab, she said, helps female founders foster networks and gain skills that will accelerate the development of their businesses. Instructors and advisers include Phil Libin, co-founder of Evernote; Fran Maier, co-founder of; and Bill Reichert, co-founder of Garage Technology Ventures.

The networking and training opportunities provided during the program, Ms. Horie said, could save founders up to a year and a half of hustling. Tuition for the two-week program is $10,000. Need-based scholarships of up to 50 percent of the program's cost are offered, Mr. Walling said.

The program's emphasis on collaboration revolves around the concept of "hito," which is the Japanese character for "human." The character is shaped with two lines leaning inward, like two people holding each other up, Ms. Horie said. Over the duration of the program, she said, each participant becomes familiar with the businesses of the others so that by the time they leave, they are prepared to collectively serve as business management teams for each other.

The female entrepreneurs Ms. Horie has worked with often pursue businesses with a socially driven purpose. She says her program encourages entrepreneurs to navigate the process of securing funding without compromising the mission behind their businesses.

A "disease of Silicon Valley," she said, is the notion that successful entrepreneurs need to do whatever venture capitalists recommend to maximize profitability. Instead, she said, entrepreneurs should ask themselves, "How does this reflect against the customer?"

It's hard to argue with customer satisfaction, she said.

In a clean, brightly lit waiting room with red couches, throw pillows declaring "believe in yourself," and portraits of the nearly 50 women who have completed the program, two recent graduates of Women's Startup Lab talked about the future of their startups and what they learned from the program.

Machi's Story

Machi Takahashi is a founder of a Japanese travel guide app and map platform that incorporates hand-drawn maps and content from community members. The app, she said, is for city or tourism organizations. She and eight employees have made 50 app series so far, and have 400,000 iOS and Android downloads. The service is currently in its alpha version. The beta version will be released in December.

Being at Women's Startup Lab helped her gain confidence and see new strengths in herself, she said.

"In Japan, being a female founder in a tech field is really rare," she said.

Ms. Takahashi said that Women's Startup Lab helped her see that what may at first appear to be disadvantages in the tech industry – being female and not a programmer, for instance – actually gives her a competitive edge. She said her gender has helped her engage with community contributors who tend to be more distrustful of men, and her gaps in tech knowledge have shifted her priorities to focus on user experience.

After completing Women's Startup Lab, she said, "I feel more confident in doing what I'm doing."

Catherine's story

Catherine Brown is the founder and CEO of Entourage Managers, which is, in her words, "a marketplace for busy executives to connect with the most compatible executive assistants and optimize productivity."

Entourage Managers, she said, completed its alpha app and will begin beta testing soon, with plans to start seeking angel funding in the next two months. Self-funded for the first 15 months, she now has a tech team, a vice president of software and a vice president of operations.

Ms. Brown, a survivor of ovarian cancer, was a career executive assistant before she founded Entourage Managers. She said that the emphasis Women's Startup Lab placed on helping founders define themselves on their own terms was important.

In a startup's early days especially, she explained, "you are your company." In other words, the founder's personal story becomes a key component of the business and its vision. She said that Women's Startup Lab helped her connect the seemingly disparate pieces of her identity – ovarian cancer survivor, yoga instructor, executive assistant and now CEO – into a cohesive founder story for her business.

"Support, nurture, love," she said. "This is why I do this every day."

She said she knew her confidence was on the rise when, instead of thinking as she had as an executive assistant, anticipating the voice of her boss in her head telling her what to do, she finally heard her own voice as the boss in her head.

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Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 25, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Having worked in high technology for 20 years, for both men and women, I found the women to be better at managing and the men to be better at outcomes.

It was a trade off between a focus on being treated fairly at work versus a focus on doing whatever it takes to make a great product.

I found the comfort and predictability of the former to be an indescribable relief after years of insane slavery to the deadlines and demands for higher and higher quality of the latter. But I was also indescribably proud of at least one of the product that emerged from all that insanity.

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