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Prosper Women Entrepreneurs (PWE) Startup Accelerator is always working to support woman-led businesses through investment, mentorship and networking. Startups that go through the program receive $50,000 equity, a curriculum specifically designed to advance their unique business and guidance and exposure to a network of experts and leaders in the fields of technology, healthcare technology, and consumer products. PWE is currently accepting applications for their Fall 2016 cohort until June 3.
Carol Matthews, an expert in technology, engineering and startup business, currently serves as a Managing Partner and Mentor for the PWE Startup Accelerator. She co-founded CDM Fantasy Sports (CDM) and served as President until its successful sale in 2006. She has also co-founded three additional companies that went on to be sold to publicly traded companies: Primary Network, Primary Webworks and IntralSP. Carol is an owner of River City Internet Group, and she is the SVP of Operations at LockerDome. We spoke with Matthews to get a better sense of how the PWE Startup Accelerator works and to learn what businesses can look forward to if they are selected to participate.
Prosper Women Entrepreneurs is geared towards assisting female-led companies grow and succeed in the startup space; as a woman who has headed up her own companies, what are some of the biggest challenges you encountered, what challenges do you see female entrepreneurs tackling right now?
I haven’t experienced many challenges by the fact that I am a woman, I never viewed it that way. Now, granted when I did Fantasy Sports the environment was very different, and we bootstrapped our ventures and didn’t try to raise money like many of the women entrepreneurs are today. I think that’s one of the big challenges that current women entrepreneurs do face, presenting their business ideas to a VC culture that’s dominated by men. There’s unexpected bias in that arena. By having their companies and ideas go in front of the PWEteam, we see different perspectives.
As other women present their business plans, I can’t help but bring a different perspective to the table.
One thing that is really important about our team on the accelerator side is that we do have two managing partners that are men. And this all goes back to, it’s not all about having a business that is run by women, and dominated by women. It’s the fact that you want diversity in your C-suite. That is what truly leads to greater success. In my own Fantasy Sports company, we had four co-founders and three were men. We all had various areas of expertise. We attribute a lot of our success to having those different strengths in our C-suite.
What was it about PWE that made you want to get involved as a managing partner and mentor?
I met Jennifer Ehlen shortly after she launched the Prosper Women Entrepreneurs initiative on the non-profit side in January 2014. I was very intrigued by her plan and by all of the research that she had pulled together. She talked with women in leadership positions to gather their input and perspectives. It was very obvious that there had been a lot of thought. However, the timing just wasn’t right for me to become involved.
Later that summer, PWE started thinking about how they could help get more financial capital into women-led companies. That is when the idea for the accelerator was generated. They needed managing partners to drive the initiative. Jennifer, Mary Jo Gorman and Maxine Clark were serving as the core team developing the Startup Accelerator side. The three of them invited me to be the next managing partner on the team. It was very flattering and the opportunity to work with those successful and knowledgeable women piqued my interest.
From your point of view, what makes the PWE programming unique?
I think the uniqueness is the dominance by women professionals—it’s very important that it’s diverse. And in fact, in the very first cohort an entrepreneur mentioned that it wasn’t just that they wanted advice from women, they want the best advice possible. We bring a unique balance of the female perspective as well as tapping into all of the expertise that is available in the St. Louis community and startup community right now. We’re bringing the best to the table.
Another thing I like about our program is that we host at least five extra curricular programs as a group. We’ve done various things, like a chef experience at Scape, private dinners, wine tastings, just fun activities where we’ve gathered mentors, investors and the Startup Accelerator entrepreneurs to offer an informal opportunity that allows time for everyone to get to know one another.
Walk me through your role as a mentor as a new accelerator class comes in.
Anywhere between four and five managing partners will participate as mentors for the cohorts. We also have lead mentors that we’ve brought in. Most of them are limited partners who invested in the fund itself, so they care very much about the success of these companies and are willing to spend the extra time with them. We have a couple of lead mentors who are not investors, but they really care about helping the startups and supporting women.
We all have different backgrounds. As we look at the companies in our cohorts, we figure out the best matches based on those companies. We don’t have anyone pigeon-holed, who will automatically get specific types of companies. However, for example, Mary Jo Gorman has a lot of experience in the healthcare industry, so if there’s a company coming in and that’s the best fit, she’ll gravitate towards them because that’s where her interest lies and that’s where she can make the biggest impact with her knowledge and with her connections. It’s kind of like a puzzle. For the lead mentors it’s also based on which companies they’re passionate about. We’ll try and make that work, because if you have an interest in it, like anything in life, you’re going to do it better.
Talk a little bit about the mentor/mentee relationships you’ve experienced.
At the beginning of the program, we ask each company what their goals are for the accelerator—what they hope to accomplish in the next three months. As mentors, we use that as the template. If they say their goal is to raise money, then we need a good understanding of what they’ve raised, what their terms are and who we should try and approach for funding while they are in the program. Others will say, “I really need help with my sales and marketing; can you help me take the next step?” Taking direction from them as to what they need and want to accomplish is the first step to creating their unique plan.
And then as we meet, sometimes issues will come up that the company didn’t set out to address, but those issues are holding them back. If every time I ask about your financial plans and you aren’t presenting them to me in a way that I understand, I’ll show you how to refine that message. We need the entrepreneurs to evolve, even though that wasn’t one of their initial goals. So we’ll take time to work on that. It’s very fluid.
Has anything ever surprised you in your work with these companies?
This is the first time I’ve been involved in having a formal mentor role. So certainly, the very first company I mentored I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in saying exactly what I thought and giving information and advice from my background. I knew it was my role and I thought what I was saying was valuable. Really, any nuggets you drop along the way really do have an impact, whether or not you can see it on the entrepreneur’s face when you share the information or whether it’s later on you find out what the impact was.
I also like seeing the companies helping each other out. If they’ve made it to the PWE accelerator, they’re past the idea stage and they have traction, customers and maybe even revenue, so they’ve already gone through a lot of experiences. Especially the year we had three healthcare companies in one cohort. Those founders had so many ways they could help and network with one another because they weren’t direct competitors, but they knew things in the space. That’s another level of the program. It’s not mentorship, but it’s networking and advice from your peers that I know they’ve all found very beneficial.
As we’re looking ahead to the next class, what should a company be prepared for if accepted?
How hands-on the lead mentors are. We really do care and continually make ourselves as available as possible during the three months. The feedback we’ve received from past participants is that they’ve been surprised at how helpful and involved the lead mentors are and the fact that they will go on meetings or participate on calls with them and do all of these introductions.
And it’s not only the lead mentor that’s assigned to work with them, it’s the other lead mentors. If I see a way I can help another company in the cohort, I will go out of my way to make an introduction or take another meeting with them.
And, the help doesn’t stop when the program ends. We care about each participant’s success and overall success of the company.
Applications are open until June 3. Register here