How do Women Entrepreneurs fit into Incubator & Accelerator Programs?

by Inessa Obenhuber, Angel Investor & Business Expert

-In your experience, do enough women get involved in early-stage companies, such as applying for incubator or accelerator programs?

I’m happy to say that in the past 3 years the number of women who started their own companies has doubled. According to Kaufman Foundation only 3% of all tech startups are led by women. This is not nearly enough. We would love to see many more female leaders to come forward.

We see some brilliant ideas and strong leadership from women, but the tech industry is historically dominated by men, who graduate from technical universities in higher numbers. According to the Computing Research Association, just over 10% of 120,000 computer-science graduates in the U.S. are women. However, lower infrastructure costs and wider access to the angel investing made it easier to launch a female led startup, so hopefully these numbers change soon.

-Do you think it’s a case of discrimination or simply because not enough women apply?

Here is what we know: the reality of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination persists. Some women feel this more than others. Yet, VCs are paying more attention to female entrepreneurs for a simple reason: women are likely to address different markets than men, and VCs are looking for underserved markets.

Some of the business incubator programs require 15 hour a week commitment. If you have a regular job, family and kids, it’s impossible to manage your life and meet the incubator commitments and goals. So women often decline these opportunities.

Typically an incubator or accelerator takes 20% of the business. Female leaders are very sensitive to people who do not have professional experience that helps them with their business. They know how hard it is to start a company and they know they have to make a few mistakes. So there are not enough women applying.

-What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen young women make when applying to these programs?

Not choosing the right mentor. Mentors should fit in to your startup business and you can certainly have one or two, and their experience has to mach your business.

Mentors get involved for a few reasons: they are interested in becoming your advisor, board member or an early investor in your company. Or simply it could be those entrepreneurs who just want to breath that startup environment air, so they always want to be involved. Whatever the motivation they have, it is your job to figure it out who would be the perfect candidate for you.

It would make a lot of sense for a young female entrepreneur to approach a female mentor before she applies to an incubator or accelerator program. Women in business tend to stick together, look out for each other. Every time you choose an incubator program find a female mentor and talk to her directly, get her perspective if the particular program is a right fit for you.

-Please share two-three actionable pieces of advice for women who are thinking about applying to one of the big programs (Ycombinator, etc)

1.  Talk to your family and explain what it means to be a part of a startup accelerator. Define your family support plan in the very beginning, because there will be long hours, exhausting meetings and travel. Make sure your loved ones are on your side and supporting you.

2.  Get the feedback from your customers before you apply to these programs. Determine the specifics of product or service idea and learn your customers. Founders are often presuming they know their customers and all the features they need. But you have to leave the building, start talking with them one-on-one and forget the traditional business planning methods created inside the building.

3.  If you are looking to raise capital and expand your network of contacts, ask for the advise. Typical startup meets about 60-70 investors before they get financing. You will be doing the same thing as thousands of other entrepreneurs – asking for the money. Investors are usually asked: “Will you invest or no?”, and usual answer is “No” based on your weakness. However, in the majority of cases investors do not want to turn you away and they offer an advice. What you have to do is to take all this information and fill the gaps.

Comments & Advice:
  1. Sue says:

    What a drag. There is so much misinformation in here. Most accelerators don’t take anywhere NEAR 20% of a business. 6-7% is more accurate. Sadly, this piece is making a challenging landscape worse. Ugh.

  2. Anne-Marie says:

    Having been a part of many business incubation programs, I can validate that the presence of women-led ventures is low. What I think is a big deterrent is the win-lose model of these environments and the prescriptive paths they lay out for success.

    “In a world where everything is customizable, why is success still a cookie-cutter template?” – Vicki Saunders

    That’s why I gravitate towards models who help support entrepreneurs on their own terms, like SheEO, a program designed specifically for women-led ventures. Check out

  3. I have to disagree with almost everything in this post. First, it is not true that only 3% of the tech start-ups are women. Only 3% of women tech startups get venturing backing, which means the rest one never hear about, they fail, or are bootstrapped (see Astia annual report on this).Second, it is also not true that VCs are looking at women any differently today as they have done in the past. In fact, getting funding for anyone is hard, and even harder for women founded tech companies. The fact that women have no control of the capital markets, nor have decision making in the process is the key lack of success. I don’t see this changing unless woman have the authority to s

  4. Yas Motoyama says:


    Your advice here is well-grounded and useful. I’m not an entrepreneur, but at Kauffman Foundation I study how to support entrepreneurs, and am glad to see an insightful person like you helps other entrepreneurs.