Starting Up? Here’s Your Chance To Be Part Of A Unique Accelerator Program For Women

Posted: May 31, 2016

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With the number of women led startups rising in India everyday, it is great to see a new accelerator program for women entrepreneurs, to help us get great products out and scale up faster!
A technology accelerator for early stage ventures, Zone Startups is headquartered in Toronto, Canada as a part of Ryerson University. They have been operating in India since February 2014, and have a portfolio of 78 startups.
Recently, Zone Startups India has launched Empower, a unique accelerator program for women led start-ups that aims to help women entrepreneurs scale up faster, with a viable product that meets market needs. (Last date for applications today).
In this interview, I discuss with Ajay Ramasubramaniam, Director, Zone Startups India, on why they felt the need for such a program and how we can hope to benefit from it.
Ajay has over a decade of work experience in market strategy and business development across varied sectors and within a multi-cultural work environment. He holds an MBA in Marketing & Finance and a B.Com in Financial Management from Mumbai University.
Prior to Zone Startups India, Ajay led a Canadian ed-tech startups’ launch in India, and helped build strategic partnerships, including an INR 150 Cr marketing and advertising equity deal with Springboard Ventures.
Why did Zone Startups feel the need to launch an accelerator program for women led start-ups?
Through our accelerator program, and various bootcamps, workshops, demo days hosted by us we realize the need for having a focused accelerator that works with women entrepreneurs in tech businesses. The problems faced by a lot of women entrepreneurs is unique, and most of it is centred around the network that they have.
This includes a network of peers, industry, partners, mentors and investors. While we do have cases of successful and funded women entrepreneurs; a majority of women going the entrepreneurship way, are found lacking the network they must have, to succeed. This includes from idea-prototype, prototype-Alpha, Alpha-Beta, Beta-Launch, Launch-Growth and eventually funding.
The network needed at each stage is different. For men to network is relatively easier by going to several events,  randomly striking up conversations etc, going to meetups etc. Socially, not too many women would do this to build their network. The focus here is purely world building tech enabled ventures.
This is where we felt there is a case for having a dedicated accelerator program for women entrepreneurs – complete with mentoring, workshops, caste studies of successful women led startups, industry connect, peer network and investor connect. However, the broad objective is to help the selected women entrepreneurs to build a large network and work with them over  period of time, to measure the impact and enable success.
Does this kind of women focused program run in Zone centres around the world, or is it specific to India? Do you find that women entrepreneurs in India have some unique challenges?
In 2015, in Toronto, we did a similar program with MasterCard, and got 6 women entrepreneurs through a bootcamp and iteration program, post an application based selection criteria. So, there was some inspiration for us to draw from within our network itself.
The challenges around women entrepreneurs is not limited to India.  The percentage of women entrepreneurs is similar globally. It is currently to be 6-8%. A lot can be attributed to the declining percentage of women taking up computer science and mathematics, that are critical to technology roles.
What can women who participate in the program expect? What should we be excited about?
We are really excited with the kind of partners we have on-board for the 1st edition of empoWer. The Department of Science and Technology (Government of India) is our main sponsoring partner, along with GIZ (German governments  funding agency), Vodafone, Google and Nishith Desai Associates.
empoWer is a 6-week accelerator program, that will include 12 sessions with mentors, subject matter experts, industry experts, successful entrepreneurs and investors. The program will culminate with a demo day on 29th July, where they will pitch to an audience of investors and potential partners.
The biggest value added we are aiming to bring to the fore, is help the selected entrepreneurs build a solid network of mentors, industry experts, partners, investors and peer group. Having a strong and diverse network helps businesses grow in different ways.
Additionally, the top judged participants will also get:
– 3 women entrepreneurs get seed funding from sponsor partners.
– GIZ jury selected 3 entrepreneurs get equivalent to INR 21 Lakhs worth of services from professional organizations of their choice
– 3 months equity free acceleration at Zone Startups India for all program participants, valued at INR 75 Lakhs.
– 1 jury’s choice winner gets a 1-week, all expenses paid soft-landing at DMZ, Toronto – North America’s #1 business incubator
– Branding and design identity package worth INR 5 Lakhs for 1 woman entrepreneur from DCCPER.
Also, the 15 entrepreneurs going through the program will continue to remain associated with Zone Startups India accelerator program for 24 months, as per our policy. For the first 12-months immediately post program, they will be hand-held on an ongoing basis, and their milestones tracked, and will continue to get our support to develop industry and investor connects.
The goal is to create an impact,  and launch a much bigger program with larger objectives, going forward.
As the Director of Zone Startups in India, personally, what about this program excites you? What are you looking forward to?
The opportunity to create an impact, by being the 1st programmed accelerator program for women building tech businesses, is very exciting in itself. There is a lot of talk around promoting women entrepreneurs but, no “walking the talk”.  We saw this as a challenge,  and took it up, to work closely with women entrepreneurs and get to the bottom of enabling fundable women-run technology startups. It isn’t about a 6-week program but, staying associated for longer and enabling success in multiple ways – help grow a team, help acquire customers and most importantly,  create a bunch of women leaders.
Some thoughts on women in tech – given that many start-ups in India today are tech driven or enabled, do you feel that this is an equaliser/ enabler for more women to turn entrepreneurs?
Absolutely, it will help build a strong peer network of women entrepreneurs, and that will go beyond just their current ventures. Peer learning and peer network is high impact and we are aiming to nature that. The early success of the program will definitely make it a go-to program for women entrepreneurs; and the way we see it, our learnings from the 1st edition will help us tweak modules, structure, frequency etc over a period of time.
We are looking forward to nurture and enable women entrepreneurs in tech, and more importantly, the next set of women leaders. Ideas may fail but, people don’t; and by empowering the selected women entrepreneurs with the programming that we have come up with, we are confident of their success as women leaders.
If you a woman with a technology or tech enabled business, you may like to apply for the empoWer program today, before it closes.
Top image of woman via Shutterstock

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