My business partner Elizabeth and I have written about our path to founding MergeLane – our new accelerator focused on women-led companies. You can read my origin story here and Elizabeth’s on this blog.
We have become very comfortable with our roles in birthing this new program, although we still experience some hiccups around the fact that – where we once (four months ago) routinely were asked to help companies of all kinds – we now field questions about women-led companies and women-in-business far more often. No surprise there.
There is one question I get, however, that I hadn’t planned for. It goes something like this:
“How are you going to manage prospective applicants’ concerns about applying to a program that might be perceived as second-tier?”
“Will companies exiting MergeLane have plentiful investment opportunities if the investment community thinks these companies had an artificial ‘leg up’ because they had a female leader?”
And, my personal favorite:
“How will you prevent this program from being viewed as the Junior League?.”
That’s right. The Junior League. I didn’t really know what the Junior League was when this question arose at a major investment event. I guessed at the presumption inside the question, but I dug deeper to check my judgments. Here’s the mission statement:
The Association of Junior Leagues International Inc. (AJLI) is an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable.
Before I go further – having educated myself on the matter — I want to say that I’m convinced that the Junior League is comprised of purposeful people doing important work. But I don’t think that’s what the questioner meant to ask. There was clear subtext in all of these inquiries.
I want to share my initial reactions to this genre of questions: they felt like gut punches. First, no one has ever spent more than five minutes with me and wondered about my connection to anything sub-par. Second, I couldn’t figure out how to answer these questions without appearing to be dour and humorless. So I felt caught.
And, although it is surely wise for Elizabeth and me to be mindful of these market perceptions, the assumption below these questions seems to be that women are somehow “less” than men in business; therefore focusing on companies with at least one woman leader will make our accelerator somehow “less” than others by virtue of our theme. I don’t imagine these questions are raised regarding accelerators or funds that focus on other themes like cloud technology, natural products, or biotech. Then again, there is no Junior League for biotech.
The reality of our program is that we intend to bring together eight extraordinary companies led by hyper-talented founding teams that contain at least one stellar female leader. We have written about the highly supportive investment thesis for focusing on diverse companies and women-led companies. We believe our “theme” is not only one for which we have passion but also one for which there is a clear economic argument.
Around these eight amazing companies, we have secured commitments from a diverse set of the most talented and sought-after business mentors and executive coaches in the world.
It would be unwise for us to ignore these judgments and perceptions. And we know that the only “proof” for our focus will come in the form of the quality of the companies and leaders who participate in our program, the experience they have as part of our early cohorts, the measurable achievements these companies make after their participation in MergeLane, and ultimately the investment returns the accelerator provides to its investors.
We are driven toward delivering those concrete results. As we’ve said, MergeLane is a purely for-profit initiative that overlaps with a passion. But unlike the laudable mission of the Junior League (and still hopefully somewhat laudably), we are not doing this as an act of volunteerism or charity. We are doing this as an attempt to narrow the gap for women at key stages in the startup ecosystem, and we also choose to believe that the very perceptions I speak of here actually multiply our market opportunity. While some are on the sidelines worrying about what tier we occupy, we believe MergeLane will optimize investment returns by identifying high-performing companies that are – for a host of reasons – not asking for or getting the recognition they warrant.
Time will tell. Be a part of the story. Apply to MergeLane now.