Thousands of Australian women entrepreneurs were left disappointed yesterday after receiving an email saying their Expression of Interest application to the Boosting Female Founders (BFF) grant initiative had been successful, only to receive another, hours later, saying there had been a mistake.
Reports suggest the initial emails came through in the early hours of Monday morning, causing business owners to start planning for the next stage as well as sharing the good news with teams and networks.
For most, it wasn’t until around lunchtime that they received a second email, saying they had received an “incorrect notification” the first time, and they had not actually been successful at all.
Last year, the program received more than 2,200 applicants, and 51 startups secured a share of $12 million in grant funding.
It’s not clear how many applicants got past the EoI stage, but those numbers have led to speculation the wrong email could have been sent to more than 1,500 business owners.
Here too. I sent out a note to the team this morning saying how fabulous it was that we got to the next round and then got the ‘mistake’ email a couple of hours later. The tone was not very apologetic and no one picked up the phone. It’s pretty devastating.
— Pip Stocks (@PipStocks) July 19, 2021
The Department of Industry confirmed to SmartCompany the ‘success’ email went out erroneously to all unsuccessful applicants, but has not shared any specific numbers.
“Applicants impacted were promptly advised they had been incorrectly notified,” a spokesperson said.
“The department understands that this will have disappointed a large number of applicants and apologises to those affected.
“The department is reviewing its processes so this mistake is not repeated in future.”
A “kick in the guts”
One business owner, who asked not to be named, said she received the initial email saying she had been successful at 3.23am. It wasn’t until 1.19pm that she got the second email saying the first had been incorrect.
“It was a bit of a kick in the guts,” she tells SmartCompany.
This business owner says she didn’t necessarily expect to be successful, as she knows how competitive this program is.
But that means she was all the more elated when she received the success email, and disappointed when the second email arrived. She’s trying to get a business off the ground during a pandemic, she notes. There is a lot that is “unknowable” at the moment, and fewer opportunities to network and get her business out there.
“As much as you don’t want to need external validation, we all like to think that what we’re doing is important and that other people value it,” the founder explains.
“Things like this mean more than they might do otherwise, because we do have fewer opportunities,” she adds.
“So it’s quite frustrating to then be like: oh, no, never mind.”
Yasmin Grigaliunas is the co-founder and chief of World’s Biggest Garage Sale, a profit-for-purpose business focused on the circular economy.
She’s also a part of the SheEO investment network. So, the first thing she did when she received an email saying she had made it to the next round of the EoI program was jump on her SheEO Whatsapp group to share the good news.
Then, she reached out to her team, including employees who had worked incredibly hard on the application, and are working on applications for other initiatives now.
Speaking to SmartCompany, she recalls the words she used in her message.
“I wrote: ‘I am speechless, yet I feel relieved that finally, finally, finally, someone on a grant panel sees us for what we’re worth’,” she says.
Needless to say, the follow-up came as a blow.
“I’m gutted for my team .. we prematurely celebrated the good news.”
It’s clear how much this meant to Grigaliunas. Her employees live and breathe the business as much as she does, she says, and they’re “desperate to scale”.
“We’re suffocating without the capital to do so,” she adds.
The women SmartCompany has spoken with are generally not angry that the wrong email was sent in the first place. They accept that people make mistakes — and who among us can say they’ve never hit ‘send’ too soon?
Rather, their gripe is with the response, which they say didn’t quite reflect the disappointment felt by those who received it.
One email, seen by SmartCompany, says:
“I am sorry to inform you that you received an incorrect notification this morning regarding your Boosting Female Founders Expression of Interest.
“I apologise for any confusion or inconvenience that this has caused. Following is the correct outcome notification that you should have received.”
The email then goes on to note that the program is “merit based” and applications are rated against various assessment criteria. The email says the business in question “did not meet the benchmark of those rated highly meritorious”.
Screenshots posted to Twitter show other emails with the same wording.
Angela Priestley, co-founder of media business Agenda Media and publisher of Women’s Agenda, received one herself, and says it’s clear this was a copy-and-paste job.
“Given they made such a big mistake, just to not have any care and consideration in that follow-up email that was obviously going to deliver a bit of a crushing blow to people … it was completely lacking in any empathy,” she tells SmartCompany.
When she received the email, Priestley “felt kind of nothing”, she says.
“That’s what happens with this government. Mistakes happen and they don’t do anything,” she says. “This shit happens.”
Now it’s becoming clear just how many fellow business owners were affected by the error, Priestley feels disappointed for herself and her team, but also for women founders in general.
“We’re all going through so much at the moment,” she says.
“Many of us are homeschooling, we’re exhausted.”
It’s no secret to any women in startups that women aren’t getting the same levels of investment as their male counterparts, and the BFF initiative is a “total band-aid solution” in the first place, says Priestley.
The scheme has also faced criticism for it’s tight eligibility criteria, which excludes many businesses with male co-founders.
In one case, a startup was deemed ineligible because the two women co-founders hold their equity in a family trust, meaning 50% of their business had been attributed to their husbands.
So, for Priestley, this latest controversy is hardly a surprise. But it is disappointing.
“The fact they would boost the hopes and dreams of so many women on a Monday morning — who are dealing with so much shit at the moment — and then tear it all away so quickly with that depersonalised and completely lacking in empathy email … I’m just disappointed and sad for all those business owners out there.”