Carolyn Rodz was an investment banker when she got the itch to do something more creative. So she ditched her successful banking career and started a home gift line that was eventually carried by prestigious retailers in 400 stores. As a first-time entrepreneur, however, she ran into some unexpected challenges and the company closed down after four years. Her next venture was an interactive branding agency, where she worked with large corporate brands.
Missing the excitement of the startup space, Rodz began working with young companies on a pro bono basis and even investing in them. That's when the patterns started to emerge. “I kept running into the same problems I had run into with my first company over and over again," says Rodz.
She quickly realized that her experience as a first-time entrepreneur was not unique, and that many capable and successful individuals, especially women, stumbled when it came to starting their own businesses.
“It was a matter of not knowing the entrepreneurial ecosystem and not being able to pull in the right resources," she recalls. Her young charges were not building out their teams, assembling advisers and partners and raising capital early enough. The last piece—raising capital—was especially true of women, Rodz observed. They weren't asking for capital early enough and they weren't asking for enough to grow their businesses.
As a result, she says, “their vision was being compromised and they were shifting the path of where they were trying to go."
So Rodz followed her entrepreneurial instincts once again and, in 2015, launched Circular Board, an accelerator for women entrepreneurs that aims to intervene at early stages and help women live up to their potential as business creators.
An Entirely Virtual Accelerator
Circular Board is based in Houston, but unlike many accelerators, it is entirely virtual. That, says Rodz, allows the company to scale. It also suits the needs of many female entrepreneurs, who may have full-time jobs or families to juggle, and allows women from around the globe to participate. The investment of time varies, but participants are encouraged to spend a minimum of five hours per week on the program, says Rodz.
The accelerator offers a 12-week curriculum covering topics such as crafting your vision, building a revenue model, establishing partnerships and preparing your pitch. Each class, or cohort—Circular Board is now on its third—is made up of 60 women, who are divided into groups of ten, called “circles," specifically paired to complement one another's skills and experiences. The circles form a peer support and advisory network that is a centerpiece of the program.
—Carolyn Rodz, founder, Circular Board
The entrepreneurs also draw upon Circular Board's network of mentors, who run the gamut from CEOs and venture capitalists to lawyers and other professionals—many of them women that Rodz has met in the course of traveling and speaking about women and entrepreneurship. Once they are introduced to Circular Board and the work it is doing, "the conversation almost inevitably leads to their engagement in our accelerator," she says. The program culminates with a virtual pitch day, where the entrepreneurs upload video and pitch decks and receive feedback.
Circular Board does not take an equity stake in its participants' companies, as many accelerators do. Instead, Rodz sees the accelerator's role as preparing entrepreneurs to raise money and connecting them with investors. (Entrepreneurs pay $1,200 for the 12-week program, which is partially subsidized by sponsors.
Recreating the Startup Ecosystem
Women entrepreneurs have long been at a disadvantage in a startup ecosystem that, consciously or not, favors men. Between 2010 and 2015, just 12 percent of venture rounds and 10 percent of venture dollars globally went to startups with a woman on the founding team, according to the 2016 CrunchBase Women In Venture report, which looked at data from the top 100 global venture firms.
“We're trying to recreate the ecosystem for women entrepreneurs," says Rodz.
Young companies that bring in partners, co-founders and advisory boards are statistically more likely to succeed, she notes. So Circular Board's emphasis is on what she calls “the core pillars of people, purpose and profit," and helping women get the resources they need to grow quickly while staying true to their visions.
Circular Board is also designed for the unique needs and style of women. For example, participants are taught to ask for what they need, in very specific terms. Every week, there is a 'give' and a 'get,' where the women ask their peers for something they need to accomplish a goal—whether a particular partnership or a mentor with a particular skill. Over the course of the program, says Rodz, women learn to be very deliberate and specific in their asks—and get results.
So far, the results are promising—especially when you look at measures that indicate a solid foundation for long-term sustainable growth, as Rodz does. Less than 25 percent of participants had an advisory board or mentors at the start of the last 12-week program, she notes. By the time they finished, more than half did. Similarly, more than half of the most recent cohort is actively fundraising or planning to, which is double the number that intended to raise money at the start of the program.
“There's a definite mindset shift," says Rodz.
Big Steps to Future Growth
With just two years and three cohorts under its belt, Circular Board is growing fast, which Rodz believes speaks to the vast, unmet needs of women entrepreneurs. Her goal: “to reach every woman on the planet who has a desire to scale her business and impact the world in a sustainable way."
She'll take a significant step towards that in September, when the incoming cohort will reach 500 members.
Rodz is adept at helping entrepreneurs manage growth, but how does she do it herself? For one, she designed Circular Board to scale. The 500 entrepreneurs will be grouped into circles of ten, like previous cohorts. Rodz is also creating an algorithm that will sort through things like funding stage, years in business, prior experience, skills and industry to help automate the process of matching complementary peers.
She also practices many of the principles that Circular Board preaches: creating a clear vision and staying true to it, and establishing strategic partnerships to help scale. Still, she says, “It's all hands on deck right now!"
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