Astia: Knocking Down the Hurdles for Women-Led Startups

2/9/11Follow @wroush

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the likelihood that their leaders will give back later on by mentoring the next generation of Astia startups.

“We are, at the end of the day, a network of individuals,” says Vosmek. “The model is built on give-back and the notion of rich relationships.”

In fact, one of the two “dirty little secrets” about Astia, Vosmek says, is that it’s partly patterned after the microlending phenomenon in developing countries, where committees of community members, not bank executives or NGO officials, decide who gets a loan. (Vosmek’s graduate work at the University of Wisconsin focused on international microenterprise. Incidentally, she says women qualify for microloans at a much higher rate than men: they’re considered to be more reliable.)

The other dirty little secret? That when Vosmek rebooted Astia after becoming CEO in 2007 (more on that in a moment), she paid close attention to the experiences of her husband, Timothy McClarren. Currently chief architect at San Francisco-based Idle Games, McClarren was one of the first software engineers hired by Netscape in 1994. He left Netscape in 1998 “with one of the most robust networks you can imagine,” Vosmek says, “and whenever he came up with an idea after that, he could raise whatever money he needed to.”

Vosmek says this showed her that raising startup funding is not a matter of “how good is your slide deck, or how slick are you on stage. It’s can you find the right introduction and the right relationship.” And in a world where the relationships that lead to investments are almost always between men—only 10 percent of venture investments go to companies with female CEOs—Vosmek is determined to even out the balance. “I would like to see half of all high-growth CEOs be women,” she says. “If we are 50 percent of PhDs and MBAs, we should also be present and participating in these positions of innovation and wealth creation and real leadership.”

Astia was born in 1999 as the Women’s Technology Cluster, a project of the Three Guineas Fund, established by former Cisco Systems chief marketing officer Catherine Muther to foster economic opportunities for girls and women. When Vosmek was promoted from chief operating officer to CEO in 2007, one of the first things she did was change its name. While most rebrandings are cosmetic, Vosmek says this one had some interesting rationale behind it.

First of all, by the late 2000s, the Women’s Technology Cluster was no longer just about women: half of the mentors active in the group were men. Also, it was no longer just about technology, in the commonly used sense of information technology: it had grown to embrace companies working in cleantech, media, and “anything venture-backable,” Vosmek says. And finally, it wasn’t really a cluster, a term sometimes used for incubators with resident startup companies.

“It was important to find a name that men could embrace and that was about an inclusive environment,” says Vosmek. “Astia,” a feminized version of the Latin astrum, for star, fit nicely with the group’s aspirational mission. (Astia is also a genus of Australian jumping spiders, but Vosmek says she didn’t find out about that meaning until it was too late.)

Astia’s official mission is threefold: to ensure access to capital for women-led companies, to boost the chances that the client companies that do raise capital will achieve high growth, and to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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