“Are you ready to empower some women?”
F-LANE is a six-week acceleration programme focused on making impact driven startups investment ready that leverage technology to empower women. Initiated by the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications, it is run in cooperation with the Social Entrepreneurship Akademie and Impact Hub Berlin with the goal of creating gender-inclusive technology and promoting women’s participation in education, workforce, entrepreneurship, leadership and ultimately, digitalization. The following is a thought piece by Clara Niedt, Programme Coordinator of F-LANE.
Earlier this month, the third cohort of F-LANE, our accelerator focusing on female empowerment, successfully pitched their ventures at re:publica. This moment when everything culminates that startups, partners and us have worked on throughout the last seven weeks is very special. With goosebumps we watched one finalist after the other walk on stage – and were positively surprised over and over again by their strong, coherent and thought-provoking pitches, all whilst having great fun on stage.
I keep asking myself what it is that makes the ventures thrive so well. It surely is due to their passion and hard work. But when comparing the pitches from week 1 to their final performance during the Demo Day, I realize that we can also attribute it to the programme we provide to them during the 6 weeks, that evokes such a steep learning curve within such a short time frame.
Looking at the programme, it entails two main areas: On the one hand, F-LANE offers input that can be summarized as “hard skills”. This initially includes a tailored curriculum, specifically focusing on challenges the selected startups experience at their respective stage of development. On the other hand, F-LANE builds the “soft skills” of the startups. This is where Impact Hub Berlin steps in with their unique ecosystem of innovators and seasoned industry leaders as well as experience in community building to design an experience programme that includes tailored mentoring, community building, peer2peer learning and introductions to experts, potential business partners and funders.
But it is especially this activation of our network and opening of doors for the startups that fascinates me. Where a startup would usually need to invest much effort and time, we use our global and local network of innovators, mediators and investors to make strategic introductions to assist each startup in growing their business much more quickly. While it can be as easy as me shooting an initial email to a contact of ours to connect two bright minds, the power of this connection is really only visible months later to us when you hear over a coffee from the startup how the relationship developed further.
The story of Good On You from Australia, finalist of batch #2, perfectly illustrates this for me: During the acceleration phase, we introduced them to a contact of ours at Zalando. 6 months later, Sandra, co-founder and head of development of Good On You, shares with us how Zalando has turned into a major partner of theirs and acts as a gateway for them to enter the European market. “It is really important to make the effort of meeting those people whilst in Berlin, being concrete about what you want and then investing the time and cultivating these relationships. You never know how great the potential of an introduction might be. For us, it was really successful, we secured our first big corporate client from one of these introductions!” says Sandra.
Also this time round, for our third cohort, the networking introductions were an important element of our work.
In total, 20 introductions were made, out of which 60% are ranked as possibly high potential by the startups. This time the contacts were mostly in the field of banking, healthcare and development projects. We took both requests from the startup side into account, as well as evaluating ourselves, who they should meet with whilst being in Berlin. Most introductions immediately led to meetings and follow-up introductions.
For example, Free-D – a startup supporting women at risk, giving them long-term, high-value employment through 3D printing training – an introduction to Adidas, was highly promising. The co-founder Katherine is enthusiastic: “At the beginning of the six weeks I wasn’t quite ready to speak to them, but F-LANE has helped me redefine my business model and storyline. I was especially excited to learn that the contact has experience working in the impact space and I expect we’ll have lots to talk about.”
Of course it is not all as simple as it sounds. For the startups there is a considerable amount of follow-up work involved. To turn an introduction into a sound deal takes a lot of valuable time to nurture and sometimes the contact even turns out to be a dead end. Therefore, communicating the value of those networking efforts is not always easy, especially considering the long timespan until the effort pays off. But when it does, the reward is visible for all parties. Impact Hub enriches its network with fresh minds and ideas, and the ventures can lay the groundwork for promising growth and business development.
Fostering the right mindset among the ventures to make the most of the six weeks in Berlin is therefore crucial. This is why stories like Sandra’s are important to tell as they inspire and motivate. Not only the startups but also us – they show the incredible potential that sending a simple email has, that it is worth to invest in building a strong network and that our work – the “soft” side of the accelerator programme – results in an outstanding learning curve for the participants that really creates impact.