The disparity in the amount of venture capital funding invested in male-led companies compared to female-led companies has been well-chronicled over the last few years, but if you’ve missed it, research has found that in VC-financed, high-growth tech startups, only nine percent of entrepreneurs are women.
While funding is a significant problem, one of its root causes – lack of access or entry to powerful networks, usually dominated by men – can set female-led businesses back when it comes to finding partners, suppliers, team members, advisors, clients and more.
Established in 2010 by five women to combat this issue directly was Head Over Heels, a not-for-profit organisation focused on providing female entrepreneurs with a platform to “achieve outstanding results in growing their businesses”.
Now run day to day by head of marketing and partnerships, Alison Lee and CEO, Fiona Boyd, the organisation runs events during which a selection of female-led companies pitch their business plans and requests to a group of senior business and community leaders. Male attendance at these events is at least 40 percent.
These leaders then, in turn, will look to assist the women in achieving their business goals directly, or introduce them to others within their networks who can lend a hand.
“Heads Over Heels accelerates the growth trajectory of these women by providing access to the ‘game-changing’ business connections they need to scale and grow. The connections include direct introductions to potential new clients and revenue opportunities, distributors, strategic partners, advisors and investors,” Boyd explained.
Rather than running a straight pitching event focused on raising funding, Head Over Heels believes the wider connection piece beyond simply enabling access to investors is critical.
“Heads Over Heels believes that one of the most important determinants of business success is an entrepreneur’s access to critical business networks, and that women are less likely to have access to these networks for a range of reasons,” Boyd said.
“Heads Over Heels addresses the imbalance by opening up the networks of both men and women volunteer connectors to a group of selected female founders. This dramatically improves the probability of women entrepreneurs being able to grow and lead successful businesses.”
The organisation began “quite organically”, with the founders inviting a number of female entrepreneurs to pitch their businesses to a group of leaders they knew personally.
The ‘Connector’ network, as Boyd put it, has now grown to number more than 1,000, with over 2,500 offers made to the female entrepreneurs who have pitched at events over the years.
Key achievements include the raising of a combined $23 million in the Head Over Heels portfolio companies, this raised directly through the connectors in the Head Over Heels network.
Of course, it’s not all about funding; according to Boyd, Jessica May of Enabled Employment acquired her first corporate contract after presenting at a Heads Over Heels event and secured over $1,000,000 in revenue from new clients, Modibodi founder Kristy Chong began distribution relationships with two of the largest vendors in the US, and Noelle Sunstrom of biotech company Neuclone secured a 10-product deal with a vaccine producer.
The organisation assesses potential portfolio companies according to a core set of criteria ahead of an event. Above all, they must have innovative new products or services, and high growth potential.
“When assessing applications, we look for businesses that have plans and ambition to scale globally. They need to demonstrate they are solving a real problem or addressing a significant opportunity, with proven product/market-fit and a solution that can be rolled out in multiple markets over time,” Boyd said.
“Not all the businesses in our portfolio may go on to achieve that, but we want to work with women who have big dreams and ambitions.”
Having seen the growth of the community over the last seven years, Boyd believes the Head Over Heels model benefits all participants, from the organisation’s corporate sponsors to the connectors, and of course, the female founders.
“[Our sponsors] make such a huge difference in helping create an entire cohort of successful women entrepreneurs, who in turn inspire others to step up and take risks in establishing new businesses. The benefits that then flow through to the broader community and economy, are enormous,” she said.
“For influential connectors, they can directly support female entrepreneurs, creating maximum impact with a limited investment of time. For our portfolio CEOs, the connections and introductions they receive through the Heads Over Heels network, will often take their business on a dramatic new growth trajectory.”
Other participants too, Boyd said, are inspired by the positive role models and “spirit of generosity…radiated throughout the entire Heads Over Heels community”.
Though it has always had a national focus, the organisation recently ran its first event in Melbourne as it looks to help more entrepreneurs.
To further enable this, Heads Over Heels will also be expanding its information session program, designed for women with startups at various stages.
These sessions cover topics including capital raising and investor preparation, media skills training and social media and marketing strategy, the R&D tax incentive, governance and board selection, and more.
Image: A Heads Over Heels event. Source: Heads Over Heels.