“The stories we’re telling are changing the startup narrative,” says SheStarts director


The second SheStarts cohort with program director Nicola Hazell (centre)

Named Australia’s ‘Accelerator of the Year’ at StartCon 2017, SheStarts returns for its sophomore series tomorrow (Tuesday, 30 January) with nine female founders, representing eight early-stage tech startups, taking part in the BlueChilli-backed program.

The second SheStarts cohort includes Dr Annie McCauley (Talk-i-Wear), Andrez Coco (Knowlly), Karen Hind (Recall App), Danielle Owen Whitford (Pioneera), Laura Simmons (Theratrak), Lily Dempster (The Neighbourhood Effect) and Deepthi Kulkarni (Reputationaire) as well as VitiVision co-founders Carolyn Deng and Dr Scarlett Liu.

Between them, they are working with a variety of technologies (e.g. blockchain, data analytics, machine learning, wearable technology and robotics) across a range of industries (e.g. AgTech, HealthTech, EduTech, HRTech and Smart Cities).

Nicola Hazell, the Director of SheStarts, spoke to Dynamic Business about the success, evolution and social impact of the accelerator program as well the qualities possessed by the women selected for the second cohort, and the value they will derive from the six-month initiative.

DB: Touching on BlueChilli’s vision, what impact is SheStarts having?

Hazell: When we launched SheStarts in 2016 we set out to change the ratio of male to female entrepreneurs working with technology. This was borne out of a belief that Australia will only truly fulfil its potential as an innovation- and technology-driven economy when there is greater gender diversity in leadership.

Our intention has been to achieve tangible results by investing in and accelerating high-potential female-led tech startups, and – in doing so – creating a new narrative about the role of women in this booming part of our economy.

We crafted a message that spoke directly to women and designed a program that would not only rip down barriers to their success but empower them to turn bold ideas into high-impact global tech companies. By doing so, we were able to have a huge impact on the lives of the founders in the first cohort – women who have gone on to raise their next round of investment, secure major corporate partnerships, grow their teams and win awards as emerging leaders in their various fields. For the founders and the program, this has been a terrific outcome.

Furthermore, the stories of the SheStarts founders – as told throughout the first season of our documentary web series – have provided an avenue for significant change.

At every SheStarts event we’ve hosted, women from all walks of life have approached the alumni (and our team) to share personal stories and explain how watching the journey of the women in SheStarts has spurred them on to get started or take the next step themselves.

With each weekly episode released during series one of SheStarts, our inboxes would flood with comments from viewers, eager to share the impact the stories had on them. Women who were inspired to start their own startup. Women who were grateful not only for the insights, but the honesty of the founders who let them know it’s tough for everyone and that’s ok. Parents who had watched the series with their children and were touched to see their own daughter suddenly considering a new future, laid out for her in the world of tech and entrepreneurship.

Role models can change lives and communication is our greatest tool in creating social change. Sharing the real and raw stories of phenomenal women building game-changing companies provides an opportunity for women and girls to see themselves in an environment that, until now had appeared to be out of reach. These stories are changing the face of the startup economy.

DB: Has the pipeline of eligible startups increased since series one?

Hazell: In 2016, the SheStarts program attracted 800 registrations, demonstrating that women had been holding out for an opportunity like this to come along. From 800, 50% were assessed as eligible for our program, with around one in seven making it through to full review – and 20 startups selected for bootcamp with the chance to pitch for a spot in the accelerator.

In 2017, we ran a much more targeted campaign, with events and promotions that gave potential applicants a clearer picture of what an eligible startup looks like. The aim was to increase founder-program compatibility and reduce applications concerning ideas that were not scalable or technology-focused.

Consequently, we not only saw higher rates of eligibility amongst the applicants for the second SheStarts cohort, we also increasingly high standards. All up, we had almost 500 registrations and one in three made it through to full review, with 22 startups invited into the bootcamp.

This combination of quality and quantity demonstrates there is no so-called ‘pipeline issue’ among women in Australia. There are literally hundreds of women with great ideas for amazing tech companies – they just needed the right runway to get started.

DB: Did you attract a different founder demographic for series two?  

Hazell: The founders in both cohorts come from a diverse range of industries and are solving problems in a variety of market segments.

Across hundreds of applications for the second series, we saw an increasing number of ideas in healthtech and wellbeing, as well as ideas that centred on solving problems specific to a female market. Our selection of a number of startups in these spaces reflects our view that there is strong opportunity for downstream investment in these verticals.

In terms of technologies, we’ve seen a shift from the dominance of two-sided marketplaces and e-commerce sites to an increasing number of applications using blockchain, AI and big data.

We’re also excited to have a number of hardware ideas in the cohort this year, which integrate software and hardware into their startups.

DB: Has the SheStarts program been reconfigured for the new cohort?

Hazell: We learn something new from every startup we work with, and our team is determined to take those first-hand learnings and continue to push the envelope to achieve global best practice in early-stage startup acceleration.

When we launched SheStarts, the program was intentionally curated on the principles of ‘design for diversity’, building on the foundations of the successful BlueChilli accelerator model. While we had strong infrastructure to build on and had invested significant time and resources in getting the design right for female-led teams, the first-time program was much like a startup in itself; constantly seeking founder and team feedback in order to iterate the model to deliver the best results.

We learnt a lot in year one about what worked and what didn’t. This year we have further refined the accelerator delivery, and have adjusted the development offering as part of a broader evolution in the BlueChilli model, which our CEO Sebastien-Eckersley Maslin wrote about in a recent blog.

These evolutions mean we will see products launching earlier, pilots secured sooner and increased investor-readiness across the second SheStarts cohort at the conclusion of the accelerator. Finally, they ensure the program continues to be the most inclusive and accessible for female-led, early-stage startup acceleration and investment.

DB: What entrepreneurial qualities does the new cohort boast?

Hazell: Each of the founders selected for our second SheStarts cohort demonstrate a clear passion for the problem they are working to solve.

These talented women have each identified a serious problem they are relentlessly focused on addressing, and they bring immense personal expertise and experience to the table, with the grit and determination to see it through.

These qualities will be key to helping them overcome the hurdles and setbacks on the road to turning a bold idea into a global tech company.

DB: What value will they derive from the SheStarts program?

Hazell: The participating founders will be supported throughout the accelerator program to build and launch their first product, secure their first customers and/or pilots, attract their first investment and hire their first team members to grow and scale their companies. Along the way, we will help them develop the leadership skills, resilience and confidence to become successful CEOs.

In terms of the specifics, each founder or founding team will receive a package of cash and services, including:

  • Access to a team of in-house experts to help them develop an MVP during the first 12 weeks and launch their startup.
  • $25,000 in pre-seed capital
  • More than $100,000 worth of software credits, accounting, financial and legal services from our partners at Microsoft, LinkedIn, MYOB, ANZ and HSF.
  • Education in startup methodologies and business development, guided by our team of entrepreneurs-in-residence and a who’s who of global startup advisors.
  • Access to pilots and partnerships with some of Australia’s and the world’s leading brands.
  • A sponsored trip to Silicon Valley and New York to open doors to international partners, customers and investors.

DB: What does BlueChilli gain from partnering with these founders?

Hazell: As the first investor and backer of these amazing female-led startups, we’re going on an exciting journey with them all, allowing us to realise our vision of supporting entrepreneurs to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

At BlueChilli, we’re passionate about investing in ideas that can change the world; in founders who share our ambition for impact at scale; and in startups that can become high-growth global tech companies.

We’re determined to prove that great ideas and great founders can come from anywhere – that you don’t have to fit the classic startup stereotype in order to start and grow a successful tech startup.

There is an incredible pool of talent that has previously been untapped, sitting outside the ‘traditional’ startup ecosystem. Founders with deep domain knowledge and expertise, who may not be technical, but who have amazing technical ideas. Founders who have great ideas for solving big problems, but don’t necessarily see themselves as an entrepreneur. Founders, particularly women, who might have looked at the startup stereotype and thought they didn’t fit the mould.

We provide the runway, resources and inspiration for such founders to get started, so we are well positioned to unleash hidden talent to the world – and demonstrate that you don’t have to be a bloke in a hoodie and sneakers to join the startup economy.

For more information, had to the SheStarts website. See also: Why the startup ecosystem needs more non-technical entrepreneurs, not stereotypes and Let’s Talk… Gender Equality.