Pipeline Fellowship Grooms Female Angel Investors and Entrepreneurs

4/18/12Follow @arleneweintraub

On March 30, Brittany Haas stepped before a firing line of 10 investors who were considering funding her New York-based startup, Happily Ever Borrowed, a website that rents veils, jewelry and other accessories to brides. Haas was part of a pitch event that couldn’t have been more different from a TechStars demo day—or any other arena where entrepreneurs set out to wow investors. For one thing, Haas was only given five minutes to describe her company, after which she endured 15 minutes of tough questions from the investors.

Perhaps most strikingly, all of the investors and entrepreneurs in the room were women. Sure, there were a couple of men there—co-founders of some of the nine companies presenting, for example—but they were under strict advisement not to speak unless specifically asked a question. That’s because this program, called the Pipeline Fellowship, is meant to provide a forum for female angel investors who want to support women-owned businesses.

The mission of Pipeline Fellowship, founded in 2010 by Natalia Oberti Noguera, is to train female philanthropists in the art of angel investing, and to give them tools for selecting women-owned business that they’d like to fund. The investors accepted into the program, which is held in New York and Boston, are given six months of training and mentorship in topics such as finance, due diligence, and portfolio strategies. (A condensed version is now offered to investors around the country, who travel to New York for weekend-long training sessions.)

At the end of what Oberti Noguera refers to as “angel investing boot camp,” each group of angels sorts through business plans submitted by female entrepreneurs, and then selects companies to invite to pitch events. After the pitches, the angel groups—each of which includes 10 investors—perform due diligence on the companies and then work together to select one in which to invest. Each angel contributes $5,000 towards the investment, for a total seed investment of $50,000. Pipeline Fellowship has held three pitch events in New York and one in Boston so far, Oberti Noguera says.

In addition to supporting female entrepreneurs, the Pipeline Fellowship is designed to foster “social” investing. So most of the of the companies the fellows invite to the pitch events have some sort of philanthropic mission, from helping cash-strapped brides save money (like Haas), to making maternity kits for impoverished moms in developing countries, to publishing books for military children. Most of the angel groups from the four events are still selecting their investment choices, Oberti Noguera says, though one company has already been chosen: PhilanTech, a Washington, DC-based startup that provides online tools to help non-profits manage their grants.

The unusual format of the Pipeline Fellowship pitch events—five minutes of presentation time followed by 15 minutes of Q&A—is designed to let the angels hone their new skills, Oberti Noguera says. “I’ve been to a lot of traditional tech events,” she says. Instead of positioning the entrepreneurs as the stars of the show, as those programs typically do, she says, she wanted her events to reflect more collaboration. So each female founder gets a brief chance to shine, but then engages in a conversation with the investors, so the angels can get to know her better and can get vital questions answered about her business plan. “Our perspective is that it’s all about group dynamics,” Oberti Noguera says.

Happily Ever Borrowed founder Haas says the format of the pitch event was jarring at first, but valuable in the end. She had originally prepared a longer presentation, with a Power Point, but then quickly reformatted it so she could get her main points across in five minutes. It was the first public pitch for Haas, who is still raising her seed round and working at her day job as a retail planner for Hermes of Paris. “It taught me how to get my message out fast,” Haas says. She says she’s now so confident in her newly slimmed-down message that she’s planning to attend a similar pitch event at the Hatchery, a New York-based organization for tech entrepreneurs.

Pipeline founder Oberti Noguera became fascinated with the idea of supporting female entrepreneurs shortly after getting her master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University. In 2008, she started a group called the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs (NYWSE) and grew its membership from six to 1,200 in two years. The group provided mentorship and education for female entrepreneurs, as well as an incubator. Through the program, Oberti Noguera met hundreds of women who all faced the same problem. “I kept having these conversations with members who were telling me how hard it was to secure funding,” she says. Many of them were starting businesses with philanthropic missions, she says, “but there were just not enough financiers.” In the summer of 2010, she started Pipeline Fellowship.

Anna Curran, an angel selected for the most recent New York Pipeline Fellowship, says she had always been interested in investing, but needed training in the financial complexities of startups. “It’s an experiential learning process,” she says of the fellowship. “The program gives us the opportunity to learn by doing and to learn from our peers.” Curran, who is the founder of CookbookCreate.com, adds that her group of angels has bonded to the point that they’ve discussed working together on other investments beyond the one they choose to fund in this round of the Pipeline Fellowship.

Although $50,000 may not sound like very much to get a company started, many of the entrepreneurs who have pitched to the Pipeline fellows say funding from the program could give them credibility they need to bring in more money down the line. “Pipeline could be the investment that makes other investors say ‘Let’s go,’” says Susie Hadas, founder and president of Coldfront, an Oceanside, NY-based company that invented a device to help women suffering from menopausal hot flashes. Coldfront closed a $500,000 round in November, but needs to raise more money to ramp up production, Hadas says. It will be a month or so before Hadas finds out whether her company has been selected for a Pipeline investment, but she says the experience has been valuable nonetheless. “Every woman in this group who we talk to brings her own perspective to Coldfront’s plate.”

Oberti Noguera says Pipeline Fellowship will announce its most recent investment choices in May and June. The organization plans to launch a San Francisco program in the fall.

Judging from the number of women clamoring to pitch their companies to Pipeline’s fellows, Oberti Noguera seems to have tapped into an unmet need in the entrepreneurship market. She says that the program is receiving between 60 and 80 applications from female entrepreneurs for each pitch session. “We’ve seen an incredible rise in the caliber of the applications, too,” she says. Oberti Noguera hopes the experience proves as valuable for the entrepreneurs as it has been for the angels. “We hope these women become more comfortable in this setting,” she says. “That way, they’ll shine in their future pitches.”

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