A Competition for Female Founders Tackles Tech’s Gender Gap
Rent the Runway—the popular online service that lets consumers borrow designer dresses and accessories and get everything delivered to their doors—has had some time to grow up after six years in the startup world. The company is older than Snapchat. It’s older than WeWork and Pinterest. Now, says co-founder Jenny Fleiss, the company thinks it’s time to pay some of its success forward.
Today, Rent the Runway, in partnership with financial services company UBS, is launching Project Entrepreneur—a venture competition for aspiring women founders in the early stages of building their businesses, and hope to take them further. “We’re at a moment where we can focus some time—and really, where we also feel a sense of responsibility–to support female entrepreneurship,” Fleiss tells WIRED.
Fleiss explains that the idea emerged when, during a brainstorm meeting with UBS, some startling statistics came up: Women start companies at a rate 1.5 times the national average, yet they still account for less than 10 percent of founders at high-growth firms, according to a 2014 report on the state of women-owned businesses. What’s more, according to the same report, only 4 percent of these women-owned businesses are generating $500K or more in annual revenue. After seeing that stark imbalance, Fleiss says the team had to figure out a way to help mitigate it.
A Natural Next Move
Project Entrepreneur is aimed at candidates who have an existing business plan, prototype, or beta technology; applications are open until early next year. The top 200 finalists chosen from the competition will be invited to attend a two-day workshop weekend in New York to work with Rent the Runway. At the end of the weekend, competitors will pitch their businesses live. Three winning teams will get $10,000 in funding plus a spot in a five-week accelerator program hosted at the company’s New York City headquarters. Beyond the actual competition, the company has also launched a digital resource hub that includes training for would-be entrepreneurs.
For now, Rent the Runway has committed to at least three years of running the competition. Fleiss says an important aspect of the project was targeting women from underrepresented minority groups. To that end, venture capital execs Ramona Orteaga, co-founder of the Latino Startup Alliance, along with Monique Woodard and Nnena Ukuku, he co-founders of Black Founders, are memebers Project Entrepreneur’s advisory council, which also includes big-name VCs like Cowboy Ventures’ Aileen Lee.
In the end, Fleiss says Project Entrepreneurship was a natural next move for Rent the Runway as it continues to mature and evolve. Fleiss is grateful for the mentorship and guidance from other female entrepreneurs as she grew her company, she says. But she says the project also hews close to the spirit of the Rent the Runway brand. A few years ago, the company held a focus group where she was surprised to hear that getting behind the company’s founders played into their decision to use Rent the Runway in the first place:
“Totally unprovoked, they would tell us, ‘When we shop at Rent the Runway, we feel that element of support for female entrepreneurship, and female empowerment,’” Fleiss says. “Knowing our brand meant that for people, we wanted to take it a step further.”
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