Tipping The Scales

Women entrepreneurs are classically underrepresented in the venture capital world. Wild Accelerator aims to change that.

Story by Steve Kaufman

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

As if women didn’t need yet more bad news about their plight in the workplace, here’s a depressing set of statistics from Fortune magazine: “Female Founders Got 2 percent of venture capital dollars in 2017.”

There were $85 billion of venture capitalist investment in start-up businesses. Of that pot of gold, all-women teams received just $1.9 billion – a trifling two percent.

And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, said Stacey Servo, vice president of sustainability and growth at Kale & Flax, a creative design firm. The fewer the investment opportunities for women entrepreneurs, the more hesitant women are to venture forth and seek funding. And the fewer women who seek funding, the smaller the venture capital return.

Servo is looking to change all that starting in the Louisville area.

To refer to Servo by her Kale & Flax title is to provide just an outline sketch of this local dynamo. She and her husband Amador Delatorre, who is with PRG Commercial Property Advisors, landed in Louisville from Seattle in 2007. They chose the Derby City at the end of their national research project for a new home that might provide a better quality of life at a lower cost of living – as she said, an opportunity for the newlywed couple to “hit the reset button.”

“Amador is in real estate, so he was focusing on cost of living and cost of properties, and Louisville popped up on his radar,” Servo said. “I didn’t know anything about Kentucky, but the engineering firm I was working for had an office here. We flew out here and fell in love with Louisville. Why hasn’t everyone discovered this city? We flew back to Seattle, put our house on the market and moved here within six months.”

Servo and Nally plan to host part of the WILD Accelerator here at Story Louisville collaborative workspace.

Being an engineer, she loved Louisville’s architecture. “Louisville didn’t overdevelop, so there were still a lot of historic buildings,” she said. “On the West Coast, you don’t have a lot of old buildings.”

They were able to live downtown here, which is prohibitive in so many other cities. “And we were shocked by how cool Proof on Main was,” she said. “We felt like we were in New York or L.A.”

But they found that being new to Louisville was a daunting challenge, and they automatically gravitated to other transplants. “Everybody asks you where you went to school,” she said. “I finally realized they meant high school.” She launched New2Lou in 2009, as a “social resource for newcomers,” connecting other transplants through online and social events.

And after working for the engineering firm CH2M Hill for a few years, she joined founder Tarik Nally, whom she’d met through New2Lou, at Kale & Flax in 2017.

Essentially, Servo is someone who picked up and relocated on the chance that somewhere else she’d never lived before would be a better choice than the city in which she’d lived for 11 years. She then created from scratch an organization to help other transplants to her adopted city. She will be, without a doubt, an outstanding mentor to other women who might feel there are opportunities out there but are either too timid or don’t know how to go about opening those doors.

Earlier this month, she and Nally launched Wild Accelerator, a 501(c)3 aimed at coaching and preparing women entrepreneurs to ask for their share of the venture capital pot of gold.

A start-up “accelerator” is a relatively new type of mentoring and educational business in a world in which new ideas and technologies have emerged with startling rapidity. As Servo said, “Everybody wants to be the next Facebook.”

Ideas are one thing; the ability to turn those ideas into piles of seed money is an entirely different thing, especially for women.

“Our message will be, ‘You need to ask for more,’” said Servo, who is the accelerator’s program director. “Here’s how you can be more confident. Here are the tools you need to walk into a (venture capital) firm or boardroom that’s male-dominant.”

Wild Accelerator is seeking applicants for its program beginning this month. Applications will be accepted through Feb. 20 (visit WildAccelerator.org and click “apply now”), and then 10 semi-finalists will be selected by an advisory committee. After in-person interviews, three finalists will ultimately be chosen to go through the nine-week program.

“We want a promising business idea, of course,” said Servo, “but also a female who is driven, savvy and has the potential to accelerate; somebody who is hungry and ready to take this idea to the next level. It takes grit and passion.

“We’re evaluating the women as much as we’re evaluating their ideas,” she said. ”We want a successful outcome to emerge from the program. We want to showcase our program in the community.”

Professional mentors will meet with the women for two hours one evening a week, walking them through the process of seeking investments and building their businesses.

The women will meet with accounting, marketing, legal, financial, investment and banking mentors as well as digital strategists, plus entrepreneurs who have been through the process themselves.

They will learn about “growth hacking” – conventional and unconventional marketing approaches to organically building their brand and their following when marketing dollars are limited.

“They’ll be given pitch passes,” said Servo. “They’ll be helped to create pitch decks for when they go out for funding.”

As much as the program is designed to give the three participants specific information, it’s also designed to give them poise and confidence, the persuasive tools to convince potential investors, when they take these skills out into the real world.

“Of course, not all women will want to go out seeking funding,” Servo noted. “Some may choose to self-fund or to get a small business loan. So, the program will be customized depending on what the business is, who the entrepreneur is and where she wants to go. That’s the benefit of having only three women participating.”

For those who do choose to seek funding, however, the program will have what Servo called a “going lean and getting investor-ready” night. “That’s really about how you prepare for the tough questions – even if you just go to a loan officer in a bank. They’ll ask you the same questions.”

The program will have a “private pitch” night in which the entrepreneur will actually get to test and pitch in front of the advisors, who will ask them all the tough questions they’re going to have to face.

The program will end on the ninth week with what the accelerator world calls a “demo night,” two-or-three-minute pitches in front of a panel of actual investors, but in a celebratory party atmosphere. “We’ll be celebrating getting through the program,” said Servo. “But hopefully there will also be investors in there who are ready to invest.”

The overall plan is to make this a regional operation, perhaps including the Lexington, Nashville and Cincinnati markets or even beyond.

“Everybody knows about Silicon Valley,” said Servo, “but nobody really knows about the Midwest. We hope this will put us on the map as a region with good ideas and successful entrepreneurs. And from a female standpoint, the timing is great. There are some really sharp women here who haven’t had the opportunities or skills to take it to the next level. We want to help get them there.” VT

Wild Accelerator

Deadline to apply: Feb. 20 at midnight