Women Investors Are Finally Getting a Fair Shot
BY D.M. Osborne
Now female CEOs can strut their stuff before throngs of well-heeled investors at a series of venture fairs collectively called Springboard 2000, which spotlights nascent women-run companies in the life-sciences and technology sectors.
Since the first Springboard 2000 event, in January, investors have pumped $175 million into 20 of 26 presenting companies.At the forum, founders pitched to an audience of angels and venture capitalists packed into Oracle's gleaming conferencecenter in Redwood City, Calif. "Bringing 400 people into the room built this kind of frenzy," says Krishna Subramanian,CEO of Kovair Inc., a maker of business-to-business strategic-relationship-management software and the day's firstpresenter. "It cracked us into the network. Within two weeks we had multiple investment offers from multiple VCs."
"It's a rare event where you can get in front of that kind of audience and have them actually hear you," agrees LisaHenderson, CEO of LevelEdge.com, an online matchmaker for student athletes and college athletics recruiters. "It reallykick-started the company."
The Springboard 2000 fairs grew out of conversations that took place last year among Catherine Muther, founder of theWomen's Technology Cluster; incubator guru Jim Robbins; and Kay Koplovitz, founder of cable's USA Networks and thenewly anointed chair of the National Women's Business Council. Koplovitz wanted to sponsor a big, attention-gettingconference for female entrepreneurs, but Robbins suggested something more results-oriented: a vehicle for channelingmoney to the most promising women-led businesses. Working with Forum for Women Entrepreneurs' Denise Brosseau, thethreesome signed up such sponsors as Oracle and spread the word to everyone on their contact lists. Ads placed in businesspublications and on the Web drummed up additional interest.
A pool of 350 women-led businesses applied for the chance to make their pitch, and a screening committee of 35 equityinvestors winnowed the list to 26. "We were looking at the same exact criteria that an angel or a VC would look at," saysBrosseau. But selection was just the beginning. Pitch coaches groomed and grilled the entrepreneurs for their 10 to 17minutes in the spotlight. Brosseau, Robbins, and other veterans also spent long hours preparing the presenters. In all, 150professionals pitched in to help entrepreneurs and event organizers alike. And "nobody got paid," says Brosseau.
Those efforts showed, according to attendees impressed by the caliber of the pitches. "In some ways, it seems a littleforced. These people don't need a crutch," says Stuart Davidson, a managing director at Labrador Ventures, which ended upinvesting in LevelEdge.com. "But far and away the majority of the companies that we see are men's. So there is a place for aforum for companies run by women."
Springboard 2000 staged its second venture fair in Dulles, Va., in July, and there are plans for a Boston edition inNovember and a New York one in March 2001. But the organizers hope the demand will soon evaporate. "We're trying toput ourselves out of business in a few years," says Brosseau. "This is an awakening process, to help women get into all theother conferences. We have no desire to institutionalize it."