Rent the Runway Foundation, the non-profit arm of Rent the Runway, recently announced the launch of its venture competition and mentorship program designed to support female entrepreneurs. The program is called Project Entrepreneur, and the first summit happened this weekend in New York City. The five-hour event fulfilled its promise to inspire, and provided the 180 women in attendance with strategies for taking their businesses to the next level. The Summit had enviable cohort of female founders, including Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox and Evita Robinson of Nomadness, who led a variety of sessions, on topics ranging from Creating an MVP to The Perfect Pitch.
The event attracted an impressive range of female tech entrepreneurs, some early in their business planning and others well past the ideation phase working on beta tests or running active businesses with paying customers. Regardless of business stage, all of these women have a shared interest of learning, growing, and empowering each other. Their ultimate goal is to become successful entrepreneurs. The event was a great success. Connections were made, advice shared and stories exchanged. At the closing reception, the energy and excitement was palpable. It was clear that the aspiring entrepreneurs embraced Jennifer Hyman’s message, “You’re never ready, but you just have to jump into the deep end.”
The Summit is the first of three national events taking place over the next few weeks with subsequent events in Austin, Texas and Washington, DC. In addition to these trainings, Project Entrepreneur will host an intensive workshop for 200 top applicants and a venture competition in 2016. Three finalists will win $10,000 and a coveted spot in a five-week accelerator to be hosted at Rent the Runway’s headquarters. Each of these events reflects a core part of Project Entrepreneurs’ mission: to help women launch scalable businesses.
At the launch of Project Entrepreneur in September, Rent the Runway co-founder Jennifer Fleiss shared, “Women start companies at a rate 1.5 times the national average, but account for less than 10% of founders at high-growth firms.” It is an issue that Fleiss and co-founder Jennifer Hyman are intimately familiar with. They credited mentors, advisors, and other founders with enabling them to become part of a small group of women who have raised venture capital – over $100M to date. The issue, many believe, isn’t that women aren’t ambitious or entrepreneurial, it’s that they lack access to the resources, mentorship, and funding required to build high-growth companies.
Acknowledging that there has been an element of luck to their success, Jenn and Jenny created Project Entrepreneur as “pay-it-forward” initiative. They hope to level the playing field for other women by providing them with the same resources and guidance they benefitted from. Project Entrepreneur is also a natural extension of what Rent the Runway represents for its members. In past focus groups, young women said the brand represented female empowerment and entrepreneurship for them. The desire to associate with the brand goes much deeper than looking great for an occasion, it’s about being part of a movement with a of young women who want to be independent and create value in their communities.
Project Entrepreneur is one of a number of initiatives focused on elevating the startup environment in Silicon Alley. While there is still much work to be done to address the gender gap in tech, these programs reflect a changing tide. Preeline, for example, is an ecommerce and predictive technology company that recently launched an eight-week accelerator program to deliver insight and training to aspiring fashion-tech professionals. Still others are offering free coding courses and even access to working spaces. With these programs in place and greater access to resources than in past years, today seems like a better time than ever to jump into the deep end.