Visit any university today, and you’ll find a wealth of pitch competitions such as MIT’s $100K Pitch or the HBS New Venture Competition. Competitions like these help student founders distill their vision into a few key points and earn cheers from a supportive public audience. But this stage-ready performance is a far different experience from what you’d witness when you walk into a VC’s office, where you lead an interactive conversation while seated in an office.
That’s why I worked with Rough Draft Ventures to organize MIT FoundHers Retreat, a weekend retreat for emerging female founders. We took a different spin on practicing startup pitches: in a cozy Rhode Island house, 12 female founders gathered around a fire and delivered their pitches in an informal, relaxed environment. Without buzzwords or forced one-liners, we listened to each founder’s solution to a particular challenge in their own words and gave each other open and honest feedback on what we heard. “I’d pitched at the MIT 100K Pitch finals only days before, and the FoundHers approach was helpful for discussing my startup in a more conversational and informal way — more similar to what a real VC meeting would feel like,” Vivian Graves, a first year MBA at MIT Sloan and founder of Hustle, a better way for freelancers to manage their finances, shared. “I was interrupted with questions, as investors often do, which helped me understand the gaps in my messaging and practice on-the-spot persuasion.”
Of course, this pitch discussion was simply the kick off for a weekend full of magical moments aimed at instilling confidence and preparedness necessary to catalyze business.
Why a Female Founders Retreat?
The idea emerged from two data points:
- Successful stories of entrepreneurs helping one another through forums such as CEO dinners or events. While established CEOs have structured communities, student founders in Boston lack such a community.
- The entrepreneurship rate among female MIT students within five years of graduation has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s.
From what I’ve witnessed, various stakeholders across campus have stepped up to try and combat this stagnating number by bringing female founder communities together to bolster the ecosystem: This summer’s DeltaV class, MIT’s student startup accelerator, had a cohort comprised of 45% women. Meanwhile The Engine, a home for tough tech founders in collaboration with MIT, recently hosted a Celebration of Female Entrepreneurs.
The retreat, made possible by Rough Draft Ventures (RDV) and Silicon Valley Bank, created a special bond among a group of intelligent and passionate MIT women who can lean on one another for years to come post-graduation, encouraging one another to push through the ups and downs of a startup career. We heard on-the-ground lessons and stories from some of Boston’s best female talent, ranging from executives at local companies such as Jennifer Lum of Forge.ai and Katie Burke of HubSpot, to RDV student founders such as Rebecca Liebman of Learnlux and April Koh of Spring Health — all while seated in a cozy living room. Since the weekend, our attendees — which included everyone from MIT undergrads to executive MBAs, working on industries from healthcare to femtech — have expressed a sense of belonging. One attendee shared that last year, she felt alone in her startup pursuits, but since the retreat, she feels like she finally has somewhere to turn for feedback and support. It’s been an honor to watch these women support one another with resources as well as celebrate one another’s successes. From what we’ve seen so far, this tribe of women will go on to do incredible things.
Tweets of Wisdom
In addition to forming this network with one another, we also heard on-the-grounds lessons and stories from some of Boston’s best female talent, ranging from executives at local companies and firms to RDV portfolio founders — all while seated in our cozy estate living room. Here are a few tweets featuring the wisdom we consumed:
Since the weekend, our attendees — which included everyone from MIT undergrads to executive MBAs, working on industries from healthcare to femtech – have expressed a sense of belonging. One attendee expressed how last year, she felt alone in her startup pursuits, but since the retreat, feels like she finally has somewhere to turn to to help her navigate her path. It’s been an honor to watch them support one another with resources as well as celebrate one another’s successes. This has included helping each other practice for pitch competitions, chime in on their new WhatsApp group with advice on how to handle equity for advisors, or host events to beta test upcoming products. From what we’ve seen so far, this tribe of women will go on to do incredible things.
Anum Hussain is co-founder of acciyo, an MIT startup that helps news seekers save time and dig deeper through automatic article contextualization.