Equalizing Equity Access for Women CEOs

Springboard's current venture capital forum targets equity financing for media companies run by female entrepreneurs. We track its process

"Angie's List is our only competition," says former investment banker Elizabeth Franklin, the founder and CEO of The Franklin Report, a print and online guide that rates home-service providers.

Tech entrepreneur Sue Abu-Hakima explains how one of the mobile phone applications developed by her start-up—Amika Mobile—can save lives during a crisis, when getting information immediately could mean life or death.

"We're building a destination site for the 200 million Americans who are active or interested in social causes," says Amity360's CEO Susan Strausberg, who co-founded EDGAR Online[EDGR].

It's the morning of July 16, and Franklin, Abu-Hakima, Strausberg, and the rest of a carefully selected group of women entrepreneurs are going around the cavernous room at Google's Manhattan offices, introducing themselves and their companies on day one—"bootcamp day"—of a forum co-hosted by Springboard Enterprises and The Paley Center for Media. The forum is essentially a training, coaching, and networking program designed to improve the odds of its participants scoring an equity financing deal. Over the next three months, each participant's company will be paired with a coaching team that meets regularly, mostly over the phone, to shore up weak spots in their company pitch. The forum culminates on Oct. 30 when its participants make their pitches to a roomful of investors. Based on Springboard's impressive track record, most will be successful, despite national averages.

Tough Love and $4 Billion

Women own 50% or more of some 10.4 million businesses, about 41% of all privately held companies in the U.S., according to Juanita Weaver of the Center for Women's Business Research. But she says several sources show that only 3% to 5% of those companies receive venture capital funding. Springboard's mission is to even the playing field in the investing community for women who lead emerging growth companies. "It's the only program of its kind that operates on a national level," says Patricia Greene, provost of Babson College. "Beyond helping individual women, I think Springboard has made such a difference as far as reminding people in the investing community we're missing an awful lot of talent."

Now in its ninth year, Springboard has co-hosted or hosted 17 forums in eight markets, receiving some 5,000 applications and helping 360 women-led companies land over $4 billion. Applicants, who must head investment-ready companies and be willing to engage in Springboard's tough-love coaching process, pay a one-time $750 application fee, which is about a fifth of what most other venture capital forums cost, says Amy Millman, a co-founder and president of Springboard. The current forum focuses on the media industry—a choice sparked in part by USA Network founder and Springboard co-founder Kay Koplovitz, who says she wants to showcase emerging media companies to try to ensure that "what happened to the music industry doesn't happen to the media industry."

As the day progresses, the participants hear from an all-star cast of panelists, covering subjects that include presenting financials, deciphering valuation, and honing pitch-delivery techniques. At one point, Shoba Purushothaman, a Springboard alumna and president, CEO, and co-founder of The NewsMarket, interrupts her panel. "Work-life balance," she tells the audience, "isn't something you want to bring up when you're talking to potential investors. Don't tell them you started your company so you'd have more time for yourself. That's not what they want to hear. Besides, that's not going to happen, at least not based on my experience."

Her fellow panelists agree. "If you do find a way to make time, package it and sell it," one of them suggests, to laughter.

"People Invest in People"

Further highlights include remarks by Google's vice-president for content partnerships, David Eun, on Google's formula for growth ("Failure is just more data to refine your product") and some advice amid an informal chat on the state of the VC industry by legendary venture capitalist Alan Patricof, Greycroft's founder and managing director ("Venture capitalists are not the be-all and end-all of raising capital. There are all kinds of ways to get money that are less expensive and less dilutive." By the end of the day, the entrepreneurs seem elated. Most have exhausted their supply of business cards. They all seem to grasp the day's biggest takeaway: People invest in people. "Know how to articulate who you are, what your company does, and where you're going," Millman emphasizes.

To give readers a sense of how the Springboard coaching process works, BusinessWeek will follow one of the participating companies over the next several months in an online video and text series, starting when the coaching teams are assigned. Check our staff blog for updates.

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