By Belisa Silva
This article first appeared on SWAAY.
Despite the gender disparity in funding, Carolyn Rodz is deeply committed to getting female-run businesses the capital they deserve. To help level the playing field, the energetic entrepreneur is focused on providing women with resources men tend to have organically accessible to them.
“We realized when we looked at the start up economy that women weren’t participating in resources at same rates as men,” says Rodz, founder of The Circular Board. “When applying to accelerators and going after capital, women simply weren’t getting the same traction. We wanted to figure out how to actually move the needle.”
After doing some research, Rodz and her team determined it wasn’t due to a lack of ideas, but rather a lack of advocacy for women from those influencers who could help streamline the funding process.
“So much of what happens in the startup space centers on our networks, and because women aren’t active in those networks it’s hard to get those referrals,” says the three-time entrepreneur, who has successfully raised billions in capital for various initiatives.
The Circular Board, which was launched in 2015, was created as a way to close the gender gap, and give women access to “mentorship, content, community and capital, and connection” they needed to start multi-million dollar businesses and ignite growth.
Partnerships have been a driving force behind Circular Board’s rapid growth, including Dell Technologies, Johnson & Johnson, Urban Decay, Guggenheim Partners and United Nations Foundation.
Rodz says her goal was to “start from scratch” and create a self-reliant ecosystem that mimicked what many business men enjoy without having to think about it. The goal was to help capture the strengths of women, one of which is fostering an environment of collaboration rather than competition.
“The traditional startup world tends to be very competitive, and women are shying away because they felt they weren’t ready for that,” says Rodz. “Even though we are performing at the same level, women are more risk averse. We think about the opportunity for failure and we don’t oversell. But once we get past the hurdle of raising capital, women are fantastic leaders. We are empathetic, collaborative, and great at taking input from others.”
Rodz, who was recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as a 2016 “Woman to Watch” and is a TEDx speaker, says after meeting many female and male entrepreneurs, she realized that while men like to look at big picture then drill into details, women prefer a step-by-step frame work. Since the launch, Rodz says there have been many learning lessons along the way, including navigating cross-cultural businesses and providing flexible working enviornments for women with families.
The Circular Board not only provides access to industry-specific mentors, but it also helps women learn everything from working with lawyers, applying for grants, to navigating crowd funding. In addition, all Circular Board members have access is for life.
“It’s a very accessible group in the fact that everyone has my personal email, and cell phone number,” says Rodz. “We meet up when we’re in the same cities, and like to connect in person when we can. Most new companies come to us now through referrals, almost entirely. We have an open enrollment process. It was really important to us that there is no constraint based on who you know or who you are connected to.”
According to Rodz, an important element of the Circular Board comes in the form of supporting women in developing countries. “We never decline a company because of an inability to pay,” says Rodz, adding that firm is actively expanding in Latin America and is focused on India. “Our hope is to democratize access across the board.”
Among the innovative ideas The Circular Board has helped fund include a line of solar bikes, as well as a senior care facility in Mongolia.
“This woman is opening the first privately-owned chain of senior care facilities in every zone of the country,” says Rodz. “Drug access is a really big deal in Mongolia, and here is someone working to improve access to pharmaceuticals.”
“There’s a lot more happening with smart technology,” says Rodz about today’s company trends. “It’s getting more functional and beginning to work in our everyday lives. Also, looking from an impact perspective, it’s been more about how to solve bigger problems and get more inclusive in terms of who we are taking to the next level.”
According to Rodz, the overall goal of The Circular Board is to help ramp up the launch process by helping members determine what to streamline and how to identify priorities by women who have been through it.
“The burden lies on the company going through the accelerator,” says Rodz, in terms of the brass tacks associated with brand building. “They have to ask for what they need. Some founders ask for a lot; constantly asking for support, following up with every tool, and they are the ones who benefit the most. Our goal is here is the frame work and here is the process and best practices. But ultimately we are not the ones running the company.”
When asked about current projects, Rodz has plenty on her plate. She is currently prepping for the Circular Summit, an invitation-only event for high-growth entrepreneurs, held March 30 and 31 in Houston, Texas. She is also focused on Pitch With Purpose, a global pitching competition (think Shark Tank with a humanitarian edge), held in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to encourage women entrepreneurs to “embrace the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.” Eligible businesses will be judged on scalability, impact on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, innovation, strength of team and overall presentation. Winners receive $15,000.
Looking to the future, Rodz said she is focused on technology, as well as offering more resources to Circular Board members.
“For us it’s about refining and growing the accelerator,” says Rodz. “We are going to keep supporting female-run companies and find more of them.”