Here’s How Startup Accelerators Can Attract More Women by Anne Field

Here’s How Startup Accelerators Can Attract More Women by Anne Field

Women tend to be under-represented in startup accelerators and incubators, especially tech programs. No secret there. Consider this: A recent survey of eight tech programs by JP Morgan Chase & Co. and the Institute for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) found that just 20% of the businesses were women-owned.

What to do? One approach is to create accelerators for startups that are women-owned or that have women in leadership positions; there’s a growing number of programs doing just that.

But Afua Osei has suggestions for accelerators, in general. While, as the co-founder of the She Leads Africa Accelerator, she obviously sees a need for women-only programs, Osei thinks there are steps all programs, especially those targeting tech startups, can take to recruit female founders.

Here are some of Osei’s ideas:

Watch your language. To find recruits for She Leads Africa Accelerator’s first three-month program, which launched in July with 10 women, Osei and co-founder Yasmin Belo-Osagic employed images and language that, she says, “Reflected the type of people we were recruiting with a diversity of everything from religion to skin tone.” That also meant not focusing only on technical skills but also highlighting such characteristics as passion, integrity and ambition, in an effort not to turn off potential candidates with, say, an operations background. “It’s not just about skills,” she says. “You can teach those skills, so it’s more about an ability to hustle and make things work.”

Build in flexibility. For women with children, that’s essential. They need a way to make sure their kids are taken care of. What accelerators can do, says Osei, is to allow founders to pick and choose the content and activities they need the most–say,when to schedule a coaching session and with whom. Then they should highlight that benefit prominently.

In fact, she says, people enter accelerators for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one entrepreneur wants access to mentors, while another seeks help with product development or distribution. “You have to think more broadly about what wold appeal to different groups,” she says.

Don’t only use the usual suspects for publicity. Certainly, accelerators need to reach out to potential recruits at tech conferences, blogs and the like. But they should also branch out to other venues where founders and influencers frequent, according to Osei. She Leads Africa, for example, advertises on an online magazine called Motherhood In-Style, which attracts ambitious women who are mothers. According to Osei, many recruits to her program reported hearing about it through such sources.

Focus on partnerships. “You’re building a broader entrepreneurial ecosystem through which you demonstrate your value,” says Osei. It’s all about building long-term relationships with other complementary groups by, say, inviting such people to attend and speak at events.

She Leads Africa Accelerator’s first cohort targets entrepreneurs in Nigeria. It’s run by She Leads Africa, a three- year-old social enterprise that aims to create a community and platform for African women in partnership with Guaranty Trust Bank and the Work in Progress! Alliance, a consortium of Oxfam, Butterfly Works and VC4Africa, which focuses on boosting employment and entrepreneurship among young people in Egypt, Nigeria and Somalia. There’s a one-week a month residency in Lagos; the rest of the time, entrepreneurs have access to a dashboard connecting them to mentors and other content.


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