Breaking Down Barriers For Female Founders: Jenn Hyman and Lori Feinsilver Discuss the Impact of Project Entrepreneur

#PEaccelerator, #PEIntensive18, Advice, female founders, funding, gender gap, Rent the Runway, UBS, underrepresented founders, Venture Competition, women in business

When Rent the Runway Co-Founders Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss decided to start Rent the Runway Foundation in 2015, their five-year-old company was growing quickly and disrupting the way women think about shopping and getting dressed. The move to launch a new foundation in the midst of scaling their company raised a few eyebrows, but Jenn and Jenny were and remain committed to encouraging, supporting and empowering women entrepreneurs.

Three years later, Rent the Runway Foundation supports a dynamic community of hundreds of women entrepreneurs building high growth companies. Operating under the beliefs that entrepreneurship is the engine of societal change and that bringing interesting and diverse perspectives together is what leads to the best innovations,Rent the Runway Foundation supports women entrepreneurs to build their companies and to achieve gender parity among our society’s leadership.

Project Entrepreneur (PE), the foundation’s first program with Founding Partner UBS, is breaking down barriers facing women building high-growth companies by supporting early-stage female founders with bold visions. The PE Intensive, taking place April 13 & 14, brings together the the top 200 female founders from the PE Venture Competition for hands-on workshops and mentorship in New York City. Twelve companies are selected to pitch for one of five $10,000 grants and a spot in the PE Accelerator hosted at Rent the Runway headquarters.

With the 2018 PE Intensive around the corner, Rent the Runway Co-Founder and CEO Jenn Hyman sat down with Lori Feinsilver, Head of Digital Transformation, WMA at UBS, to discuss the impetus for launching Rent the Runway Foundation and how Project Entrepreneur meets a real need for female founders.

Breaking Down Barriers For Female Founders: Jenn Hyman, Co-Founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, and Lori Feinsilver of UBS Discuss The Impact of Project Entrepreneur at the 2018 UBS Women's Symposium

Photo courtesy UBS

Lori Feinsilver: When we first discussed Project Entrepreneur and why you wanted to start Rent the Runway Foundation, it hearkened to this idea that you are literally building, scaling and growing a business right now, and you were willing to take all this incredible information you’d gathered and genuinely ‘pay it forward.’ You were very passionate about sharing information with entrepreneurs when you could be useful, when your contacts were relevant, and when you could help people troubleshoot what they’re going through right now. Where does the impetus for wanting to share this information [via Project Entrepreneur] come from? Why did you want to ‘pay it forward’ early on?

Jenn Hyman: The first thing that made me want to focus on developing a foundation and really dedicating a huge part of my life to trying to accelerate the growth of female founders and empower women was my own experience. In the early success of Rent the Runway, I started getting invited to all the Silicon Valley meetings and conferences with all of the top investors in the world, and I when I looked around I realized I was the only woman in the room. I thought to myself, ‘Isn’t it 2010? Shouldn’t there be other women here? My company isn’t even that big—why am I the only woman in the room?’

I did more research and soon understood that only 2 percent of venture capital dollars go to female founders, and when you have less money, you have less opportunity for success. It’s not just that fewer women are getting funded; it’s that they’re receiving smaller checks. I’ve raised more venture capital than any woman in U.S. history, and I’ve raised $210 million. In contrast, Uber has raised $22 billion. So an impetus for launching Rent the Runway Foundation was the need to democratize the fundraising landscape—fifty percent of the venture capital should be going to women because we’re fifty percent of the population. Entrepreneurs are able to change the course of the conversation, and if we’re only going to fund a certain type of person—a white man who went to Harvard or Stanford who grew up in a blue state, in a city, in an upper class family—the diversity of ideas that we need to really change the world are not going to be there.

The second thing that led me to want to start Rent the Runway Foundation was thinking through what I really needed, as a entrepreneur and a female founder, to accelerate my business and to help me scale. I didn’t need inspiration; what I needed to get my business from Point A to Point B was a network of people who were going to pick up the phone and give me tactical help, tactical feedback and advice. You need a network not only of people a few steps ahead of you, but people who are at the same stage you are so you can share ideas and resources, and I envisioned Project Entrepreneur could be a way to actually accelerate women so that they were founding companies that we could quickly scale from $1 million in sales to $500 million in sales.

LF: One of the things that has been so powerful for us [at UBS] has been watching the interest from the volume of women who have applied to and participated in Project Entrepreneur. Every year that we’ve done this–we’re in our third year now—we’ve had over 1,000 applications started and close to 700 that have been completed, and these women are coming to participate in our multifaceted program, which includes the PE Intensive.

JH: And at the PE Intensive we bring in the top women entrepreneurs to run very tactical workshops with early-stage founders.

LF: We call it an Intensive because these women are literally coming here to work on their businesses, and the top five applicants are selected for one of the most unique and meaningful experiences out there. When we first had this conversation, your biggest philosophy was if you really want to help accelerate a company, literally let the founders live and breathe it every single day. It was, let’s put these early-stage founders in Rent the Runway headquarters and give them access to our CTO, CMO, our engineer, our legal team—let’s literally incubate them in our company and help accelerate their growth.

JH: Our PE Accelerator participants sit in the middle of Rent the Runway for five weeks, and they have access to go talk to any of our 1,200 employees about any random question that comes up. So if they have a question in growth marketing, they’re able to speak immediately to our growth marketing team on how they should think about spend on Google, as opposed to talking to me—I don’t know how to spend our money on Google. I’ve never done that, but there’s someone on my team that does that. It’s helping to accelerate answers to the questions by nature of putting them into our company and enabling them to build those relationships not just with me, but with Rent the Runway’s team,which could be a constant resource for them.

Once of the most special things about the PE Accelerator is we asked other female-founded companies of our scale to incubate the participants as well so that Rent the Runway isn’t the only company incubating. We’re really starting to build a network of women helping other women. I think this is really about paying it forward to women who will be in the same shoes as I am a few years from now.

LF: The numbers tell a very impressive story, but one of the things I’m most proud of is in every single PE Class, we’ve had 50 percent ethnic diversity, and we’ve had over 73 different cities across the U.S. represented. It validates what I think a lot of people believe, which is that there’s an amazing amount of talent that exists in communities across the country, and you don’t have to sit in one of the premier cities like New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco to actually be successful or get funding or access.

JH: There’s untapped intelligence and untapped talent everywhere in the world, and it’s about giving those women the networks and the resources to actually be able to put their idea out into the universe. We have to teach women from a younger age that they can be ambitious about their lives, they can be aggressive and ambitious about their ideas, and that there’s nothing wrong with being bold.

This excerpt is from a conversation between Jenn Hyman and Lori Feinsilver at the 2018 UBS Women’s Symposium—it has been condensed and edited for clarity.