When it comes to building a business, research suggests more women in the executive suite translates into more cash in company coffers. One 2012 study, for example, found the more gender-balanced a company’s senior management, the greater its return on equity, return on assets, and annual sales growth. This is precisely the idea driving Boulder’s MergeLane, a new accelerator for startups with at least one female leader. Launched by former digital marketing execs Sue Heilbronner, head of Boulder Ideas and a mentor at the Techstars Boulder accelerator, and Elizabeth Kraus, who co-founded an investor network since absorbed by Investors’ Circle, MergeLane welcomes its first class this month. “I started looking around and saw things were predominately male,” Heilbronner says. “That’s not what I want to keep seeing.”
It was difficult to miss in Colorado, where only about a tenth of execs at the 10 largest public companies by revenue are female. The problem begins with startups, as women get only 15 percent of venture financing, Babson College researchers say. “I don’t think it’s intentional,” says Colorado’s Carly Gloge, who raised $3 million for her startup, Ubooly, in 2012. (She sold the Boulder business, which makes interactive toys, in October.) “The perfect, unicorn entrepreneur is a young, male MIT grad—a younger version of who’s investing. They remind them of themselves.”
MergeLane is looking to create a new kind of unicorn. The eight companies accepted into its 12-week program will each get $20,000 of seed capital, an executive coach (a business with solid financials but weak marketing, for instance, might get a branding whiz), and three to four mentors. In exchange, startups will give Heilbronner, Kraus, and MergeLane’s other investors six percent equity at the beginning of the program; upon graduation, MergeLane may inject up to $100,000. This is standard for accelerators. But MergeLane differentiates itself with its diversity. While Techstars Boulder has seven female mentors out of 89 total, MergeLane’s coaches are split equally across gender lines, and all have experience guiding female entrepreneurs through the unique challenges they face. MergeLane also doesn’t require relocation, which can be a roadblock for those with families. The first two weeks and the last are in Boulder; the bulk of the curriculum is presented online.
By late December, MergeLane wasn’t ready to release its selections but had received applications from companies in 10 states representing a range of industries, from fashion to bioscience. “We think accelerators should be accommodating to a diverse set of leaders,” Heilbronner says. And like any entrepreneur, when Heilbronner sees a market opportunity, she takes it.