Mashups, Markets and Motherhood

Jul 15 2010

XX Combinator

This weekend, while packing my girls up to go to the Town Park Pool to escape the heat, I had an idea. The more I think about it, the more badly I want it. In the meanwhile, it’s picked up a some steam.

I commented about it to Fred Wilson in an comment, who liked it, and then he sent it to Brad Feld, who mentioned it in a blog post today. I mentioned it on the phone to Beth Schoenfeldt, founder and CEO of Collective-E and has done tons of research and written a book on women’s entrepreneurship. So we met yesterday to noodle on it, too.

I want a Y Combinator for women. Let’s call it the XX Combinator.

So what’s the Y Combinator? Founded in 2005 and located in Mountain View, CA, funded by big, smart money, Y Combinator is an incubator that is heavily influencing tech startups and investing everywhere.

From Business Week: Twice a year, Y Combinator invites a group of fledgling entrepreneurs to come to Silicon Valley and participate in its three-month incubation program. Seasoned entrepreneurs help develop the ideas, and they also have weekly dinners where founders such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drop by and give their advice. To date, Y Combinator has financed such startups as Scribd, Reddit, and Loopt with small stakes of $17,000 to $20,000.

The problem? According to founder Jessica Livingstone:

Between the 102 startups we’ve funded— about 250 people total— only 7 of the founders have been female.

She says that number represents the applicant pool. That is extremely troubling to me, and suggests that while Y Combinator has done great things for technology, something structurally, while unintended, is keeping women out.

To start, Y Combinator is seeking founders who code. And in today’s tech innovation model, the founders have to. Problem is, very, very few women in the U.S. can code.

Y Combinator participants are for the most part very young — in their early 20’s. This is not when women would be most inclined. Women who start businesses like to know what they’re doing, and be trained and experienced in it. That takes up our 20’s. We have kids in our 30’s. Our entrepreneurial sweet spot is around age 40. Conventional tech investors are not really into this group and the metrics they look for are really hard for these people to hit. Most of the (few) women’s businesses that go big were funded by friends & family or strategics, not traditional angels and VCs.

Nothing against Y Combinator. It is truly excellent at what it does. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Take the best of it and adapt the package so it draws women in, not block them out.

The XX Combinator program would provide women who know their target market extremely well, based on personal and professional experience. They’d have a huge innovative idea in a huge market and a clever idea about how to crack it. The program would help define their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to get to market. Benevolent hackers would work side-by-side with them to build it, for equity and possibly paid salaries by sponsors and can convert into CTO positions.

It would be scheduled and located so that women with families could actively do it. No “3-months in Silicon Valley”.

It should complement and feed the terrific upstream women’s programs and funding sources already active, including Astia and Golden Seeds.

Simone Brummelhuis, Founder of NextWoman in the UK (a TechCrunch for women) and UK Board member of Astia agrees:

A lot of the incubator programmes (seedcamp etc.) assume that the startups take off 3 months, do their coding in house and not outsourced, while living on a slice of pizza. That is not the USP of a lot women who start companies: they have great ideas, but have a hard time finding ‘coding mates’ and living like a student while they start the company.

New York’s startup scene is hot right now. And our metro area is home to probably the most concentrated and incredibly talented, educated and experienced women on the planet, including some of the best marketers in the world.

I’d love to New York be home to the world’s first XX Combinator, and I’d love to be in it. Let’s systematically release inexpensive, smart women-led innovation, and see what kind of value and jobs it creates in the market. Sky’s the limit.

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