Astia: Knocking Down the Hurdles for Women-Led Startups

2/9/11Follow @wroush

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what other advisors the company might need. We keep adding experts as the business grows and its needs change. What we’re really proud of is that we are able to deliver meaningful support all along the way.”

The proof of the Astia approach is in the funding. As I said at the top, 60 percent of the admitted companies secure venture financing or exit though an acquisition within one year of joining. “We think that’s unparalleled in the market,” says Vosmek. “Y Combinator has that level of success, but they also have a fund.”

Unlike true venture incubators in the Y Combinator or TechStars mode, Astia doesn’t have cash to hand out to startups. The main benefits are training, advice, and a really great Rolodex. The differences are deliberate. In fact, if you ask Vosmek whether she thinks Y Combinator ought to be putting half its money into women-led startups, she says that would be beside the point. The whole venture incubator model, she thinks, is wrong for women.

“Number one, most incubators require you to be on site, at least part of the time, for several months,” she points out. “Vivek Wadhwa has done research to show that the average entrepreneur is 35 and has 1.2 children. I don’t know many adults with children that will relocate to an incubator with the Y Combinator model. Society doesn’t support that yet, so that women can up and move for three months.”

In addition, the weekly guest lectures and networking dinners that are a hallmark of programs like Y Combinator aren’t as meaningful for women, Vosmek says. “Women are very different. We won’t prioritize a networking event on our calendar, but we will prioritize something that provides business value,” she says. In fact, Astia stopped holding networking events several years ago for this exact reason, with the exception of its annual awards dinner, Vosmek says.

Finally, the equity stake of six percent or more that most venture incubators demand in return for a $15,000 to $20,000 stipend is seen by many women as a very expensive proposition. “The terms of engagement for most incubators are problematic for most women entrepreneurs,” Vosmek says. “I think they believe they can find better terms.”

This kind of stinginess may serve women-led companies well as they evolve. Research by Cindy Padnos, the founding partner at Illuminate Ventures, a women-focused venture firm in Oakland, CA, shows that firms owned or led by women grew at five times the rate of the average new firm between 1997 and 2006. Firms with women in top management positions earned a 35 percent higher return on investment than firms with all-male management.

Judging by that data, it’s a wonder more investors aren’t reserving funds for women-led companies, or at least demanding that early-stage startups add women to their teams. But that may not happen until venture capital firms have more women partners. And there won’t be more women VCs until there are more successful women entrepreneurs ready to make the switch.

Astia is working on that—not just here in the Bay Area but in New York, London, and India, where passionate women entrepreneurs have volunteered to lead local versions of the program. Vosmek says she thinks gender equality is achievable in the high-growth startup world over the next decade. “I am firmly committed to the idea that Astia should not need to exist in 10 years,” she says. “I believe it’s possible.”

The more companies that go through the Astia program, in fact, the faster things could change. Vosmek points back to her husband’s experience after leaving Netscape. “For this core group, just because they could say they were early engineers at Netscape, so many doors were opened for them. Not in any way to diminish that, but a great deal of that is who you know, and do you know them in a way that they will invest in you. We are just now getting a generation of women who have that pedigree.”

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

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