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Adding Female Founders to the Equation to Tackle Wicked Problems

A look at Denver-based 10.10.10. – the strategy and lessons learned


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The startup world is dominated by men. Still. This is no secret. Just 17 percent of venture-backed startups have a female founder, according to a 2017 Crunchbase survey of more than 40,000 global firms. And that figure hasn’t changed in five years.

At 10.10.10, a nonprofit organization that tackles the world’s wicked problems through public education and engagement, the team inspires entrepreneurs to action, doing its part to move the needle.

For the fifth program and for the first time in its history, the number of female entrepreneurs participating will outnumber male entrepreneurs. This diverse group will spend 10 days developing breakthrough solutions and potentially new ventures to address 10 wicked problems in health.

The program kicks off Monday, May 7 at 4 pm.

Diversity along many dimensions – including geography, gender, ethnicity and industry sector – has been a priority for 10.10.10 since launching the first program in 2015. It was clear that solving the wicked problems that plague society requires participants with very different experiences and perspectives.                                        

Ensuring diversity increases our chance of success. Research indicates that female and minority entrepreneurs start social ventures at a higher frequency  – a key factor for 10.10.10, which places problem-solving at the heart of our model.

Indeed, the second venture created by a 10.10.10 entrepreneur was Apostrophe Health. That company delivers affordable health benefits to self-insured employers, and it was formed by a woman, Cheryl Kellond (and her two female co-founders).

Female entrepreneurs have shown they can deliver strong returns – by some accounts, outpacing their male counterparts. In 2015, the venture capital firm First Round Capital reviewed 300 of its companies and found that firms with at least one female founder did 63 percent better in providing value to investors than all-male led teams.

Making a commitment to gender diversity allows us to provide an alternative to the “boys club” culture women may encounter in Silicon Valley and in the startup universe in general. Our goal is to inspire all entrepreneurs to launch businesses in the nine months following their participation. If half of these participants are women and we host two programs a year, we may help give birth to 10 new women-founded ventures each year – from our Denver-based programs alone. By 2025, we hope to offer programs in 10 other cities.

Our approach to recruiting seasoned female entrepreneurs has evolved over the last four years. We now employ a variety of channels, cast a wide net and dig hard to find female prospects. Here’s a look at the lessons we’ve learned, which we believe could prove helpful for any organization looking for female leaders.

  • FORM PARTNERSHIPS: Women Who Startup, Female Founders Fund, SheEO, Pipeline Equity, and GlobalMinded are organizations that support and connect female entrepreneurs. We connect with them and rely on their help. Relationships with these organizations may not always yield female candidates, but these communities are critical to our growing network.
  • SCREENING IS AN ART NOT A SCIENCE: After achieving equal gender representation in our first health program, we fell short the second year. The criteria we used to qualify candidates was likely at fault. We needlessly restricted our focus to entrepreneurs who exited a successful venture at a valuation. Unsurprisingly, it was more difficult to identify female entrepreneurs who met this arbitrary standard. Cheryl Kellond helped us realize that men tend to apply for opportunities if they meet just 20 percent of the criteria. Women tend to hold off unless they meet all of the criteria. By eliminating non-essential barriers we increased the pipeline of extraordinary female entrepreneurs who would qualify for – and seek – an invitation to our program.
  • REFERRALS ARE KEY: We rely on many sources to help us identify candidates - including past participants, leaders at other accelerators, incubators and startup studios. We make our objective clear: a diverse group of participants in each of our programs. This helps people think of the search in a broader way.
  • DO THE RESEARCH: We can’t rely on our network alone to produce applicants. We conduct keyword searches and pore over thousands of profiles to find ambitious entrepreneurs searching for their next opportunity. For now, women are more difficult to find than men, but that’s exactly what we are working to change. Through the value of their unique perspectives, these women increase the likelihood that 10.10.10 will help give rise to new ventures – like Apostrophe Health – that deliver both return on investment and impact.

We invite you to see our entrepreneurs in action. 10.10.10's health program kicks off at 4 p.m. at INDUSTRY RiNo Station, 3858 Walnut St.


Tom Higley is a Denver-based entrepreneur, mentor, and founder and CEO of 10.10.10. Tom has founded and run seven tech startups, raising more than $40 million and returning more than $1 billion to investors.

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