SUE HEILBRONNER STARTED HER BUSINESS ACCELERATOR, MERGELANE, BECAUSE SHE NOTICED SOMETHING ABOUT FEMALE BUSINESS OWNERS: THERE WEREN'T MANY OF THEM.
"We were seeing a discrepancy in the concentration in leadership positions in important stages of the startup journey," says Heilbronner, who cofounded MergeLane with angel investor Elizabeth Kraus. "We got curious about why."
Heilbronner knew that it helps to have an accelerator like Techstars, a 12-week residential program that brings together technology entrepreneurs, mentors and investors who provide seed money. She runs a business consultancy, Boulder Ideas, and also serves as a mentor at Techstars in Boulder. She decided to start her own accelerator for woman-owned companies that were not necessarily technology related. "We wanted to create an accelerator that had more diverse teams participate," she says.
Heilbronner and Kraus launched MergeLane last year in Boulder. Hundreds of entrepreneurs applied for the inaugural 12-week session, which began with eight teams in February. Participants stayed on-site for the first two weeks, then returned to their homes and their companies and participated virtually. They reassembled for the last week, which took place in April.
The teams receive $20,000 in exchange for a 6 percent stake in their companies, and have the potential to receive more funding moving forward. MergeLane mentors include venture capitalists, angel investors, and founders or CEOs of national companies.
Among the important lessons was how to ask for capital. "What we saw in this class is that women are more inclined to do it themselves," Heilbronner says. "They have a bias toward taking the more challenging path, which is bearing the full financial burden and creating growth from current income."
That works for some early-stage companies, but others find they need capital to grow more quickly. That's what Elisabeth Saucier learned with her nut butter company Zaza Raw. The products have distribution in Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods and other stores.
Saucier soon realized more growth takes more dollars.
"Raising money was not something I thought I would have to do," she says. Retailers who agreed to stock her Pumpkin Cheezecake, Key Lime, Chocolate Ganache, and other dessert and snack items needed Zaza to produce enough product for 100-plus stores. That meant more expenses.
Saucier, who worked in restaurants before she started Zaza Raw in Boulder, says women approach investors differently from men. "I think men are more aggressive, as opposed to us saying, 'You're not interested--OK, no problem,'" she says. "Guys are not shy about the whole thing."
Elizabeth Sopher, owner of The QuickZip Sheet Company in Denver, says this reflects a difference in risk tolerance. "We started out more organic, raising capital from sales," she says. "Women feel like we have to show people we can do it ourselves." QuickZip sheets are made for cribs and designed to be easy to change because of the zipper. The company is currently working on new applications such as bunk beds, RV beds and other mattresses for close quarters.
Sopher adds the accelerator did more than offer her investment capital. "The community of people interested in helping us is huge," she says. "It's amazing. You can ask people for help and...