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Would You Rather Swim With Dolphins or Sharks?

A collaborative approach is helping female entrepreneurs to get funding for their companies.
February 27, 2012

Several women willingly jumped into a dolphin tank last June at an event for women entrepreneurs in Rio de Janeiro. Participants at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurial Network (DWEN) learned something from the exercise about an approach to finding funding.

The dolphin tank exercise was led by Amy Millman, the president of Springboard Enterprises. The company helps women entrepreneurs get funded.

Springboard developed the Dolphin Tank approach as an alternative to traditional pitch sessions. The prevailing view, as depicted on television’s Shark Tank “is that entrepreneurs need to be ‘toughened up’ to deal with the rough-and-tumble world of high-risk, high-stakes venture creation.”

We’d all rather swim with dolphins than sharks. "We like to say that we 'swim alongside you,’" says Millman, emphasizing that the Dolphin Tank is about collaboration and positivity.

"Our vision is to get women to share their vision and challenges and, in return, get receive friendly feedback and actionable suggestions from the other entrepreneurs and experts we bring to the session.”

Springboard is “a pipeline to investment opportunities for women-led companies," says Millman. "We work with women entrepreneurs and help them ‘speak investor.’”

In 1998, when Springboard started, investors “doubted there were women leading venture-backable companies," said Millman. "We felt we could facilitate the connections.” Women entrepreneurs who were launching technology companies had difficulty attracting investors.

Dolphin Tank sessions are now part of all Springboard programs, and are being adapted by other organizations.

This approach is not just for women. Millmans says the method “works for all entrepreneurs wishing to think differently about their personal brands and innovations.”

The success of the Dolphin Tank method lies in its focus on positivity. That was evident at the DWEN event in Rio. The women who participated were asked tough questions about their businesses, and their goals, but weren’t attacked or subjected to ridicule.

It’s the proverbial "you get more from sugar than from vinegar" approach

And it’s making an impact. Millman reports that the funding environment for women is improving, particularly for Springboard companies. In the last decade, “the nearly 500 women-led companies raised over $5.5 billion, including 10 high-profile IPOs.”

“As the market becomes more familiar with seeing women in CEO and founder positions, [there’s been] a significant change in acceptance and interest in women-led businesses,” she says.

The gender divide that exists for entrepreneurs who are trying to raise money has not disappeared, however. Millman says women are still not educated about the right sources of capital for their businesses, or they lack access to those sources.

Another factor is that women want to stay in control of their companies, instead of letting “strangers decide how best to run them.”

“Filling the pipeline with women investors," is the key to more funding for women-owned businesses, according to Millman. "Once we have a critical mass of women investors, there likely will be greater parity in venture investments.”

Millman points to a study the Diana Project published titled “The Gatekeepers of Venture Growth: The Role and Participation of Women in the Venture Capital Industry.” (.pdf)

Because there are so few women decision makers in the venture-capital industry, women are missing an opportunity to vote with their investments for the next wave of technology. [They] are not in a position to identify and support the next set of entrepreneurial leaders. In many ways, these are decisions that affect the entrepreneurial progress of our country, and women are being left out of this important process.

Women entrepreneurs need to scale their goals. Deciding to build a company is not a “lifestyle choice," it’s a business decision. And for those who’ve succeeded (like many of the women who were in the Dolphin Tank in Rio), think about taking the next step and paying it forward.

“This is our next frontier—to build the bench of women investors,” Millman says.

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