Q&A with Amy Millman of Springboard Enterprises
Amy Millman has been fighting for women entrepreneurs for decades. In the 1990s, she was the Executive Director of the National Women’s Business Council. The 90s were heady days for women, who joined what was then an entrepreneurial revolution in record numbers.
Back then, many commentators were making predictions about women—for example, some predicted that women would own half the nation’s businesses by the year 2000.
That didn’t happen. Women currently own over a third of U.S. small businesses, while Amy is still advocating for entrepreneurial women in her role as co-founder and president of Springboard Enterprises.
Springboard, a nonprofit, is a “highly-vetted expert network of innovators, investors, and influencers who are dedicated to building high-growth technology-oriented companies led by women.” Since its founding, 730 women-led companies have participated in Springboard’s accelerator programs. The accelerator programs have raised $8.6 billion, created tens of thousands of new jobs, and generated billions of dollars in annual revenues. 82 percent of Springboard companies are still in business, including 17 IPOs.
According to Amy, Springboard started in 2000 when its founders realized that, although women were creating businesses at a faster pace than men, and that access to capital had improved, “women were not accessing the equity capital necessary to finance non-traditional businesses ([like] finance, manufacturing, and technology).”
Read on for our Q&A with Amy, where we talk about the ups and downs of operating her business, plus her observations and advice for entrepreneurs.
We’ve been fighting a battle for equality and access to capital for women entrepreneurs for years. Progress has been made, but not as much as I expected back then. Are you disappointed?
Amy Millman: Not disappointed. I’m a glass half full kind of person. But, I’m not in the small business world anymore. I’m in the shooting-for-the-stars world. I’m no longer sitting in meetings talking about access to capital, listening to the same thing. I don’t believe that conversation will ever change.
Running a small business, [such as a clothing store, restaurant or services firm, etc.] is like pushing boulders uphill. It’s an incredible challenge. We don’t work with those types of businesses. We work with women who are leaping off the cliff with no safety net. Maybe it took a generation more than we thought it would take to get there. We were aspirational. It’s like the pioneers. They moved west. Established themselves. And that helped the next group of pioneers go further.
How have things changed for female founders since Springboard was founded?
AM: Women have known for generations how to do things. But, for years, we tried to fit ourselves into [someone else’s] model. Instead, how about if we design something for the way we are naturally oriented? Women are happy to collaborate, to share. We don’t have to own all the pieces. And we started asking, “How do I get around the barriers because I don’t fit the model?”
We work with a small, elite group of women. And there’s been a major change in behavior, which I believe is generational. Women now understand how they want to participate in the system, as opposed to us who were indoctrinated into the system. They’re reinventing it, making it in their image. The women we worked with years ago—we’re seeing them invest in other women.
There’s been a great deal of change in terms of getting funded. When we started, we couldn’t get consumer product companies funded, since it was so hard to reach scale. We worked with SaaS [software as a service] and biotech companies.
Today, women are starting funds with a consumer or social venture focus. They’re open to early-stage consumer product companies and food businesses. This has all happened in the last five years.
We have adapted. If the first idea doesn’t work, get back on the horse. Take Julie Wainwright. She founded Pets.com in the 90s, one of the first e-commerce startups. People threw money at her. Then, the market crashed and they had nothing. No economic infrastructure. But over the years, she learned what it takes to be successful. And then she found the right thing for the market and for her—The RealReal. She’s raised $150 million. She gets the process. Julie’s the perfect example about [the importance of] learning new markets and new structures.
Are you saying the financial system hasn’t worked for women, so we have to create our own system?
AM: To grow, entrepreneurs have to go to a bank. But, you’re not going to get funded. It’s not [the banks’] model. But, if women run the fund, it’s a different dynamic. We need to start investing in what we believe in. Find someone else’s money to invest. We have to ask for it.
We women don’t do that. Shame on us. We talk about it. We need more doers. No one else is going to solve our problems for us. We have to do it. We have the wherewithal. We have the ability.
How should women face the challenges in starting and growing businesses?
AM: What does it take? It doesn’t take whining. It’s not enough to want something to change. Do it yourself. Build a community that supports what you believe. That’s why women do well with crowdfunding.
Stop trying to play in their sandbox. They’re not going to invite you in. The women we work with at Springboard are disruptors. They will be transformational. They’re forming networks and sharing. Tons of women are applying to Springboard. It used to be one woman and her team. Now, groups of women are coming together [and forming businesses].
Stop fighting to get into their world. Create your own world. Talk about market and strategy. Invite people to participate. Provide connections.
How is Springboard helping?
AM: Springboard is a breeding ground where women can meet, learn, and help one another. We’re putting teams around helping them get to the next point in scalability. It’s not about the ultimate goal, but about what milestones you need to achieve.
We ask, “How can we help you? Tell us who you are, your vision. We ask lots of questions. And it’s magical. We’ve seen entrepreneurs change their approach. You can’t just have a product; you need to hear from people that they’ll sell your product.
You have to dig deep into your assumptions. This is how women learn. [We look for women] who are going to be sponges, who give back and offer their expertise to others. Springboard values the human capital part more than financial capital part. This isn’t about being warm and fuzzy. It’s having a real understanding of the value of people and engagement.
What lessons do you believe women entrepreneurs still need to learn?
AM: There are financial lessons, of course. If you have a product, get out of self-financing. There are tons of ways to finance your ideas. Collaborate with manufacturers. That’s better than dealing with strangers with no stake in your business.
More universally, we see the same thing with women who start the program. They’re achievement-oriented. Women with PhDs, doctors…and they still can’t talk about themselves. So, in the program, we make them do it. It can take hours getting through that barrier, to understand who you are and how you lead.
Women need to start with that leadership stance. Don’t try to impersonate anyone else. Believe in yourself. Ask yourself, “What is it you think you should be doing?”
But you need a posse, a cheering squad, no matter what type of business you have. Many women don’t have peers who are women. Find them. Build your personal advisory board and keep replenishing it. Then you have a cheering squad, and you’re emboldened.
Do you believe that women entrepreneurs lack confidence?
AM: They don’t lack confidence; they often lack the power of their convictions. You need to embrace your own vision and skills. It doesn’t matter what your goal is—it’s how you approach that goal. Walk in with conviction. Make yourself someone people want to know.
Peering into the future, what do you see?
AM: If we do anything, we need to show girls how to own their own stuff. Don’t tell them what they can’t do. Ask them what they can do.
As I said, I’m a glass-half-full person. It’s been a wild ride. But progress has been made. And now it’s time for us to own it!
About Springboard Enterprises:
Springboard Enterprises is a nonprofit that acts “globally to accelerate women entrepreneurs’ access to growth capital.” Springboard educates, sources, coaches, showcases and supports high growth companies seeking equity capital for expansion. Opportunities to are posted on the Springboard website at various times during the year. Check in December when applications will launch for the 2019 Life Science program. You can also follow Springboard on Linkedin.
Springboard also produces Dolphin Tank® programs, which are “helpful feedback-driven” pitch sessions for entrepreneurs to receive constructive insights from knowledgeable professionals. The objective is to provide connections and advice to enable entrepreneurs to overcome their challenges and capitalize on their opportunities. Check here to learn when a Dolphin Tank program is coming to your city.