Women’s Founders Forum Offers Moral Support for Startups Across Harvard
There was a set of startup presentations happening in the Boston area this week, and unlike the demo day events for incubators like TechStars or MassChallenge, the goal wasn’t to get money.
“Don’t think pitch and tell,” says Harvard Business School senior lecturer Janet Kraus. “The purpose is to help them understand what the next steps are.”
These events were the culmination of a semester-long program at the Harvard Innovation Lab called the Women’s Founders Forum, put together by Kraus, a serial entrepreneur who joined Harvard in 2010.
Kraus—who co-founded and sold Circles (to Sodexo in 2007) and led and sold Spire (to Perfect Escapes in 2010)—says she participated in a similar forum of venture-backed CEO founders earlier in her career. “It was literally the most valuable grouping that I had professionally,” she says. “There’s nothing like another founder, CEO, to help you grapple with questions.”
The Women’s Founders Forum consists of about 20 entrepreneurs spread across Harvard’s different schools. They are split up into two groups that met for two hours every other week this semester, Kraus says.
In each meeting, founders bring the rest of the group up to speed on what’s been happening with their companies, with a few of them highlighting very specific challenges they need advice solving. “By getting the founders to scope the problem, that in and of itself is really clarifying,” Kraus says. Time permitting, the group will also discuss a more general set of issues faced by early stage companies, like hiring or fundraising, she adds. The plan is for the program to continue with new sets of founders in upcoming semesters.
The Women’s Founders Forum builds on the entrepreneurial energy that has building up at Harvard, with a growing faculty at the business school focused on entrepreneurship, and the creation of the Innovation Lab last year. “I’d see startup after startup, and I knew them but they didn’t know each other,” she says. “They weren’t taking advantage of each other and cross pollinating.”
The program’s all-women focus helps the entrepreneurs see there are others out there like themselves. “The big companies that we read about are more often than not run by men,” Kraus says. “This program shows them we’re in this together, we can do this.”
The Women’s Founders Forum culmination events this week more or less open that process up to the local entrepreneurial community. The four sessions—with two focused on fashion startups, one focused on consumer tech, and a fourth dedicated to social, education, or health related startups—each put the students in front of a panel of entrepreneurs and investors experienced in the relevant industry. Women’s Founders Forum companies include e-commerce wine subscription service FirstCrush; Townhall 140, a video platform for connecting politicians and constituents; and Topshelf Clothes, a website for creating a virtual closet for personalized style advice and purchase recommendations.
Rather than looking to woo investors, startups paint a picture of their company to the audience and get feedback on places to go for help and resources. “It’s really intended to be intimate and collaborative, creating some relationships that will help them going forward. Not the meet and leave,” Kraus says