At the beginning of 2015, me and my co-founder decided to rent a couple of desks at TechHub Bucharest. It was our first time trying out a co-working space and I was skeptical I could make the switch after working from a private office for so long.
Frankly, I wasn’t in the mood to get out of the house.
After securing a seed investment at the beginning of 2014, we had failed to generate enough revenue or raise a follow-on investment. As a consequence, we had to fire the development team in September. Out of a team of 10 people, we were down to two founders. Needless to say, it was one of the most difficult things we’ve ever had to do.
However, like many turning points in our lives, it’s easier to connect the dots looking back.
Knowing what I know now, I can see that moving to TechHub Bucharest was one of the best decisions we ever made. It was one of those moments that started as a snowball and, in time, turned into a small avalanche.
Going through the dip
2015 was about rebuilding.
After hitting rock bottom at the end of 2014, me and my co-founder were in a depressing state.
But the lack of resources isn’t all bad. At that stage, it sparked creativity for us, which kept our startup alive. By autumn, we had identified some opportunities to keep our startup alive: we applied to different programs for female entrepreneurs that allowed us to pitch remotely.
We got accepted into an accelerator in the US and turned it down because it wasn’t a good fit. One of their requirements was to incorporate a new company in the US, and given our shareholders structure, approx.. half of the funds provided by the program would have gone to legal taxes and attorneys. In addition, their management team was not willing to negotiate the term sheet.
Before Christmas, we got a second acceptance email from Prosper Women Entrepreneurs, an accelerator for women-led startups based in St. Louis, Missouri, US.
I really wanted to go to the US by then, mostly because it seemed like everybody else had gone and returned with glamorous stories from New York or the coveted Silicon Valley.
At first glance, being in the Midwest didn’t seem like such a huge opportunity. We had our own preconceptions about the US startup environment, but the program was a good fit. It was tailored for more mature startups in terms of investment and time commitment. We also had conversations with alumni teams, who were more than happy to give positive feedback regarding their own experience of going through the program.
Being an introvert, I spent the first month there trying to adapt to a very different environment, such as a car-centric city and the lack of pedestrian traffic.
I was really homesick during that time and routinely listened to Romanian bands, which was unusual because this really isn’t the type of music I like.
Unexpectedly, this experience turned into something much more rewarding than I had envisioned. Looking back, I can see that we had luck on our side more than once.
The Prosper managing partners and mentors turned out to be helpful, empathic and modest. They took their mission of making us feel at home very seriously.
For me, personally, being part of the program came with big challenges.
One of the requirements of the program was that all pitches be made by a female founder. Being the only female founder in our team, I had to pitch at every practice session or event, even though I had the CTO role. From that cohort, I was the only CTO pitching and even though it wasn’t my first time stepping in the spotlight, it was a daunting task.
Halfway into the program, I also found something that I didn’t know I’d been lacking: role models.
We had been through another accelerator before Prosper and had the opportunity to interact with plenty of valuable mentors. But it was in St. Louis where I had my “this is what I want to be when I grow up!” moment.
As Dr. Mary Jo Gorman (Lead Managing Partner at Prosper) said: “we can’t be what we can’t see.”
This was my first time seeing a group of powerful female entrepreneurs and investors who had managed to preserve their modesty and empathy while being highly accomplished.
I will never forget when, after screwing up a pitch rehearsal because a video wasn’t loading, Mary Jo said to me: “we need to work on your pitch”. It was a key phrase that I had heard her say before to other teams. It meant that the pitch had to be redone.
In my opinion, this is what true leadership looks like: getting people to listen without banging your fist on the table (figuratively speaking … or not). As I was painfully reminded afterwards (and again quite recently), this is not always the case in the startup world.
Having interacted which such talented mentors, we understood that founders need to make difficult decisions in key moments.
Even though we had participated in two business accelerators (Startupbootcamp in Copenhagen and Prosper in St. Louis), raised two investment rounds and had a steady revenue stream, our first startup was not meeting our expectations.
That is why last year we decided to establish a second startup. We used all our knowledge and experience to generate significantly greater growth.
In just one year we have raised 150.000 EUR (equity-free), created a marketable product, and signed our first paying customers.
But the switch was difficult and it took time and effort, more so in terms of the personal transition than on the business side.
In the meanwhile, an idea started brewing in my mind: how about bringing the same model – a program for women-led startups – to Romania?
This was one of the main reasons I joined Codette at the beginning of 2017.
I had previously met Silvia through the Learn IT, Girl! mentorship program where she was part of the organizing team and I was a mentor. When the opportunity arose, I was glad to join her and Giorgiana.
For a long time, we kept our plan for a startup program between the three of us, the Codette co-founders. It was clear that the organization was still young and didn’t have the budget or the (wo)manpower to manage such a program. Not yet at least.
But, funnily enough, even though we had never discussed it before, last autumn I had a conversation with Daniel, CEO & Co-founder at TechHub Bucharest, and he asked me straight up if I was interested in managing a pre-accelerator program for gender-balanced tech startups. This was the moment to decide to do it! I immediately jumped at the occasion and thus the StepFWD program was born.
Globally, fewer than 2% of women entrepreneurs start a business in IT&C, on average a little over ¼ of the percentage of men who do the same. In Romania, the gender gap in technology is actually widening (25.7% women vs. 74.3% men in 2017).
These numbers show that gender diversity remains a huge problem in the technology sector.
Although there are organizations who have programs to counteract this trend, there’s a lot of work to be done. We chose to show up and contribute the best way we can.
We created the StepFWD pre-accelerator to support early-stage tech startups with at least one female co-founder. Our focus is to empower female founders to boost their confidence by building relationships with experienced mentors from diverse industries.
Having lived through these transformative experiences ourselves, we want to help other female founders building tech startups to embrace their potential, override their fears, and build the companies they envision.
This is a call for all gender-balanced teams to step forward and lean into this opportunity.
StepFWD is powered by Codette and TechHub Bucharest, two communities with strong principles who have grown tremendously over the last few years.
We are also very fortunate to be supported in our efforts by strong partners – Google for Startups and have the support of the U.S. Embassy in Romania. A special thanks goes to them for trusting in our mission!
Together, we believe we can have a significant positive impact on the local tech ecosystem.
Future applicants to StepFWD, I can promise you this: our team is invested in your success! This program is created by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. We know the challenges you’re facing and some of the obstacles you’ll bump into along the road to accomplishment.
We strongly believe in your potential for professional and personal growth and we’re here to help you find your voice. We know that, if we do a good job, you will surely find your path to success.
Let’s do this together: StepFWD today!