Until September 2014, Suelin Chen had spent her career in the sciences, attending MIT, working as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital, and working at Harvard.
So when she left the world of science and engineering to found her own startup, she didn't think she'd face any pushback. She'd had years of experience, training from one of the best universities in the world and an idea that she was 100% confident would succeed.
But she immediately found that the startup world was not as welcoming as she was expecting.
"There was always huge gender imbalance in my graduate program, but it’s so much worse in tech," Chen told Business Insider.
"There are so many biases that I’ve encountered and there’s so few role models for us. I have some great networks in Boston, and I have a lot of great entrepreneur friends, but most of them are men."
Chen began seeking out groups for female founders, which is when she heard about Project Entrepreneur, an accelerator for early-stage companies created by Rent the Runway founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss in partnership with UBS. She applied and her company, Cake, was one of three companies chosen to participate in the program.
'They still don't take me seriously'
Chen describes Cake as a platform for sharing end-of-life preferences. Upon signing up, users answer a series of questions from health care preferences to insurance issues to the music they want at their funeral, with the answers populating a profile that can be viewed by family members.
If you're wondering about the name of the company, Chen said it's named Cake because planning the end of your life should be like a piece of cake, rather than stressful and confusing.
As Chen worked to get Cake up and running, she asked for advice from friends in the startup world who have gone through some of the same things, like fundraising and creating a business plan.
But what worked for her male entrepreneur friends wasn't working for her. When she tried their tactics, she faced skepticism and a lack of respect.
"I have a Ph.D. from MIT. I was the director of the Lab at Harvard. It doesn’t matter. They still don’t take me seriously," Chen said. "No matter my credentials, no matter all the data that we’ve gathered about my company. We have partnerships with huge health care companies and are working with one of the largest insurers in the U.S. and it’s still not enough. I’ve been told I’m too nice, I’m too feminine."
That has changed after Project Entrepreneur, she said.
The six-week program — which involved three female-founded startups working out of at Rent the Runway's headquarters to build their businesses — wrapped up on June 30.
Chen said the best part of the program was not only meeting other women going through the same things she was, but also finding mentors in Hyman and Fleiss who could give her specific solutions to her problems, provide her with feedback she could use and help her build confidence.
Giving concrete advice, not platitudes
Being able to provide specific, meaningful feedback was one of the reasons Rent the Runway wanted to start an accelerator, Hyman said.
"Everyone in the world of entrepreneurship gives you these high-level pieces of feedback and advice that actually don’t translate into helping you answer a question like, 'How do I get my employees health care? What if I don’t know how to do graphic design? How do I design my first brand?'" Hyman said. "Those are the things that are the real roadblocks for you at the beginning."
As Hyman and Fleiss were working to launch Rent the Runway, they were lucky enough to meet with heads of some big, successful startups like Netflix, Spotify and eBay. While they were offered great advice, Hyman said they rarely received the practical tips they really needed.
That early experience is what made them realize they wanted to help others get their start, and to do that sooner rather than later.
"A lot of things had to go right for us to get to where we are today," Hyman said. "We decided that we wanted to start actively paying it forward right now while we still remembered all of the struggles of the early days. The other approach would be, wait 10 or 15 years, wait until Rent the Runway is a much, much bigger business, and then go out and start helping founders. But you’re kind of disconnected at the point from the everyday questions of how do you scale and how do you get traffic to the site."
Three companies in the accelerator are vastly different. Besides Cake, the judges chose Full Harvest, which connects farms to food companies in order to sell imperfect or surplus fruit and vegetables, and Komae, which allows friends and family to exchange babysitting through points in an app.
All three companies had already made some progress before joining the accelerator, and Hyman said they only accepted companies who could show they had a real and viable business model. Project Entrepreneur isn't looking to launch companies from nothing, and it also doesn't want to launch more companies along the same lines as Rent the Runway.
"My generation of female entrepreneurs has been isolated to consumer-facing businesses," Hyman said. "Some of the most successful female entrepreneurs like Katrina Lake or Julia Hartz or Payal Kadakia, we’re kind of in a similar space. So it was really important to us to break out of that and show that there’s diversity in gender and in background and interest."
And according to Hyman, this first round of Project Entrepreneur is just the beginning. She plans to ask her fellow female founders to participate and hopes to do an accelerator round every summer going forward.
Said Hyman: "I hope that we’ll incubate double, if not triple, the companies in our office next year."
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