Boulder-based MergeLane has run one 12-week accelerator each year that pairs a select cohort of high-growth startups with industry-leading mentors to dramatically increase the startups’ growth trajectory. Accelerator companies may receive up to $120,000 in MergeLane investment. Courtesy MergeLane

Mindful merge: Women-targeted accelerator fuels startups with a blend of awareness, family and fun

BOULDER — In a region that’s fertile ground for new businesses and the mentoring programs that support them, MergeLane always has been a bit different.

Next year, the woman-centered accelerator will build on those differences.

At a May 4 “Demo Day” at the Boulder Theater, MergeLane officials announced that they are stepping up its impact next year and beyond by expanding its global investing in women-led companies and immersive programs for leaders and teams.

“Instead of intensively working with eight to 10 companies for a three-month period” as MergeLane has done for its first three years, MergeLane said in an email to BizWest, “our revised structure will allow us to work closely with hundreds of leaders and companies with at least one female in leadership.”

Part of the new focus for MergeLane will start this summer, when it holds its first mixed-gender leadership camp.

“People love the women-only camps” such as the one slated for May 5-7, the weekend after the 2017 Demo Day, noted program director Hannah Davis, “but we wanted to offer it to teams from businesses — including men — because it’s really powerful when the whole team is practicing under the whole framework.”

The camps are “geared toward anyone who’s open to grow in self-awareness and leadership,” Davis said. “It’s geared toward leaders who really want to get immediate improvement in engagement and candor in service of leadership and relationships. It also applies to your kids, your spouse or any other type of relationship. It’s about spotting your patterns and blind spots, about being able to practice transparency and candor.

“It’s a mix of teaching and doing. We’ve gotten phenomenal reviews. All of our camps have sold out. People really take away connections.” The first camp was held last November, she said, “and that group of women is still meeting.”

The climate for female entrepreneurs gradually has improved across the nation. Women now hold 10.6 percent of the seats on Fortune 500 companies’ boards of directors, an increase of 18 percent from 1994, and 84 percent of those firms now have at least one woman on their boards. According to Fortune magazine, while just one woman led a Fortune 500 company in 1994, there were 24 women CEOs by 2014. Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women now represent 47 percent of the U.S. labor force, up from 29 percent at the end of World War II.

Still, “women are less likely to raise venture capital. Only 17 percent of it went to women-led companies last year,” Davis noted. “There are a lot of systemic challenges such as role models; there are not as many in the startup world for women.

“We also have to work through a lot of unconscious bias,” she said. “An investor is more likely to invest in a company if someone there looks like them, or went to the same school. It takes a real awareness to end that. Women really fight against unconscious bias, because people are not going to say, ‘Of course we’re just going to invest in other white males.’

“It’s the same with hiring; you’re going to work within your circles.”

Cutting through that bias led e-commerce and digital-marketing executive Sue Heilbronner to found MergeLane in 2014.

“Sue went to an event, a panel on strategic partnerships, and it was all men,” Davis said. “She felt frustrated and angry and thought, ‘How can I change this?’ ”

MergeLane represents that change.

“We’re working to show that investing in women is the smart thing to do,” Davis said. “It’s going to take some effort to change the ratio of your portfolio. Look at the companies you mentor. Look at your team. The first step is just becoming aware.”

Whereas most accelerators require the startup companies in its annual cohorts to attend intensive sessions for up to 12 weeks, “that’s hard when you have a family at home,” Davis said. “We have mostly a remote program. They come to Boulder for the first two weeks, then there’s an optional event in the middle, and then one week at the end.”

MergeLane also developed a unique focus on “transparent leadership,” Davis said, with “programs not just for startups but anyone on a path of self-awareness and growth. It works if you’re in government, education, large corporations — anyone who wants to up their game in leadership.

“There’s a deep level of authenticity,” she said, “a willingness to have hard conversations and get messy in the service of people’s growth. We really believe that this transparent leadership is key to raising awareness, because 65 percent of startups fail because of ‘co-founder issues,’ and that usually boils down to some sort of communication issue.”

Heilbronner explained the philosophy in a blog on the MergeLane website.

“Our model offers a reliable path for leaders, their organizations, families and communities to reach new heights of sustainable success,” she wrote, “by giving them the tools to shift beyond a limiting culture of victimhood, blame and self-doubt to a thriving self-rejuvenating culture of responsibility, creativity, genius and self-awareness. A conscious leader is awake, present and engaged.”

A MergeLane “demo day” at the end of each session is unique as well. Sure, there are the typical five-minute pitches, followed by an afternoon of meetings with accredited investors. But “we also invite kids to attend, because it’s important for them to see strong female role models,” Davis said. “We make it a bit of a show. We have a deejay, special dance performance, poetry — mostly because that’s just how the MergeLane team chooses to operate. We believe in play.”

MergeLane’s innovative focus worked well for Anke Corbin, who had run a digital marketing company before launching GloBig in Boulder early last year.

Defining the need and mission for GloBig was the easy part.

“Over the years, I kept running into challenges, because whenever we had to take brands international, there was no path to follow in terms of regulatory compliance or other technical things. I thought that someone needed to solve this,” Corbin said.

“What do companies need to go global well? Knowledge, resources, training, introductions to experts in those countries,” she said. “I really wanted to build a software platform where companies can learn what they need to learn and be introduced to companies around the world that we’ve vetted so they know they’re getting high-quality products.”

So Corbin founded GloBig — but there were problems.

“We had a young team, and we didn’t really have the discipline and cadence you need around a startup,” Corbin said. “Our team needed mentoring. I wanted to follow the Techstars model, but some of us women had families, so we just couldn’t be away from home for 12 weeks or do what 20-some-year-old guys could do, like code all night. We needed a program that was more flexible and geared to our lives.

“MergeLane is intense, but they also take into consideration that we have families. I think it was really great for us. Our team really got the processes, best practices, support, mentorship that helped us to thrive.”

The GloBig team survived MergeLane’s vetting process, which whittled about 2,000 applicants down to 10 companies for the 2016 class.

“The first two weeks, we were all together in Boulder, and it was very intense,” Corbin said, “and then people were able to go home — but with some really aggressive goals to meet. We came back for a week in the middle and then for a week at the end — but we could at least be present with our families, unlike Techstars, where you really are expected to be there for three months. That’s pretty difficult for a mom.”

Her first two weeks in MergeLane’s program last year was “mentor madness,” Corbin said. “You meet with over 70 different mentors to see who will be on your mentor team of maybe five to eight people. You as a company decide what you need help with. We didn’t have a financial-planning background, so we needed assistance with data structure, making sure our platform was set up correctly, fundraising — all things I considered weaknesses. We found mentors who were really solid with international business, and matched them with what we felt were strategic initiatives for us.

“It’s kind of a mutual matching, though,” she said. “The mentors have to want to work with you as well.”

The program included competitions around meeting goals, Corbin said. “If you didn’t meet them, there was a bit of ‘light hazing.’ You might have to sing in front of the group, or you might have to pick up lunch for everyone. Sometimes you had to double your goals for the next week; if you said you were going to research 20 companies and only got 10, you might have to do 40 next week.”

The last week was spent “refining your story, preparing for Demo Day,” she said. “Working on your script, practicing it, getting thumbs up or thumbs down. Then you start working on the design of your presentation. You’re going to be standing in front of 800 people. Your team members have to move your slides correctly. We had voice coaches, movement coaches. It has to be flawless.”

Flawless ended up being quite the challenge for Corbin when it came time to make the pitch for GloBig.

“I had a respiratory flu,” she said. “I started getting run down, exhausted. I couldn’t stop coughing. I had water bottles on the stage.”

Next came going into rooms of eight to 10 investors, pitching to them, and “then you see whether there’s any kind of interest and follow up from there,” Corbin said. “But the support is definitely there. Great angel support, great VC support for companies that want to pursue it.”

The investors, she noted, were “mostly men — but men who wanted to help women succeed. If we hadn’t gone through MergeLane, we wouldn’t have the access to that network.”

Corbin praised MergeLane’s “pretty heavy focus on mindfulness, conscious leadership practices. It’s really important to women to have good relationships with team members, partners and investors. That extra consciousness isn’t something every accelerator works on.

“They even focus on some things that we as women do. A man can say he’s done something to get hired, and then he learns how to do it. But women need to know how to do it before — and that keeps too many women from doing it. Guys will be much more flexible about what they think their expertise is. Women don’t do that generally. So they teach women how you might want to be a little more aggressive.”

From one paying customer at the Demo Day in April 2016, GloBig ended the year with about 3,000 companies using its resources and 600 service providers in its platform. “We haven’t even taken any funding,” Corbin said. “We’re building our business based on what’s coming in. It’s exciting, scary and wonderful all at the same time.”

Besides a women-centered focus, MergeLane’s activities often also have a Boulder flair.

“I’ve led a monthly hike for active entrepreneurs and angel investors,” Davis said. “It’s more of a community event to help make connections — just a fun thing to do, as opposed to a meetup or happy hour.”

MergeLane gave firms in the cohort $20,000 in seed money — with options for more — in exchange for 6 percent of the company. Since the accelerator’s founding, MergeLane has invested in 37 companies, and its cohorts have raised $20.6 million in funding and produced 432 jobs, including 39 leadership roles for women.

“We believe women-led companies are a good investment,” Davis said. “We believe in the power of diversity. We very much acknowledge it’s true for other parts of diversity as well.”

For Corbin and her company, the specialized mentorship was a good investment as well.

“I never felt so much support as when I went through MergeLane,” she said. “Everyone there is there for you. There’s nobody on our mentor list we can’t still contact.”