The Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, the only city-funded, women-focused business incubator in the country, has had a packed 2018 thus far — accepting 15 women into their second cohort, forging partnerships with many of the women-focused venture capital investors in the region, and putting a stake in the ground for Atlanta’s women founders.
Theia Washington Smith, WEI’s Director, says that even before they decided on this year’s cohort, they did some serious thinking about who should be in their corner as partners.
“There was a lot to learn about not only what we were doing and how we were doing it, but also really the ‘why?’” says Washington Smith. “So I think that’s probably been the biggest revision to the WEI process, is we’ve really thought through how do we work with our entrepreneurs to make sure our focus remains on the why.”
These investors, along with other angels and VCs, helped vet and choose the new WEI cohort. Out of 100+ applications, 35 women were invited to pitch in front of a judging board to narrow down the final 15. The companies accepted range from tech startups to marketing agencies to a unique coffee product.
In addition to education and mentorship, the entrepreneurs get perks from technology partner Microsoft and free workspace in downtown’s FlatironCity building. The program, which began as an idea of former Mayor Kasim Reed’s to provide women with a safe place to grow their businesses successfully, also aims to spur economic development in Atlanta.
“We want to make sure these women are coming in with 15 months of runway to really think about the why of entrepreneurship, why are they doing this, because we want them to go from being often a one-women show to a company-building entrepreneur,” says Washington Smith.
“In order for us to be a good steward of that, we have to help them think through what are you saying about your business, what matters to you, what kind of culture are you creating, and what is that narrative about, because we want to make sure these are women who are creating strong pillars of entrepreneurial success so they’re creating jobs and companies that people want to be a part of.”
WEI’s partners will hold regular office hours for the entrepreneurs, which may serve as a precursor to an investment partnership. JumpFund partner Kim Seals says “We will be monitoring the progress of the companies throughout the course of the 15 month program to determine which companies we should encourage to apply for JumpFund investment.” Existing JumpFund portfolio companies from Atlanta include Partpic (exited to Amazon), Rimidi, and DEV/CON.
“They can help them think about what is your worth, not just your valuation on paper, but what is the overall substance of this business,” says Washington Smith. “What is your value in terms of how you’re going to build a company that we can be proud of in this city? There’s been a shift in accountability — we’re seeing women with a very high level of responsibility and who are going to be very intentional about why they are starting businesses.”
Seals explains that programs like WEI have already shown an effect throughout the Southeast in terms of changing demographics of successful entrepreneurs and generating economic growth.
“The success stories coming from WEI’s first cohort of 15 entrepreneurs who graduated in September 2017 are further evidence of the power of female-led teams to produce economic returns and create jobs for Atlanta and the Southeast,” she says. “We have seen real validation of the benefits that can be derived for these startups from the structured framework WEI provides, including their ecosystem of educational resources, access to funding assistance, and mentorship to women business owners.”
Washington Smith has a broader goal for WEI in mind as well. She says their new partners, and a demonstrated growth of these businesses, will help bolster the entire startup ecosystem in Atlanta.
“Ultimately what we hope it will look like is an opportunity to see some equity flow, not just into WEI, but the city of Atlanta. To have them [The JumpFund] be involved in an ask we’re making of Invest Georgia to be mindful of women’s entrepreneurship as a need from an investment standpoint is something that will add a lot of horsepower to that conversation,” says Washington Smith.
Photos via Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative