Topaz Conway on the art of growing a generation of female tech founders

SBE Australia

SBE Australia chair Topaz Conway.

In 2013 Springboard Enterprises launched the first female-only startup accelerator for tech-founders in Australia. Since then the not-for-profit SBE has helped their alumni raise $180 million, had two initial public offerings, four acquisitions and achieved a success rate in excess of 80% for capital raising.

The chair of SBE Australia and angel investor, Topaz Conway, is proud of the metrics.

“The results are impressive and compelling and that’s just with 45 alumni,” Conway says.

“We are hitting a sweet spot in terms of giving women what they need.”

What female tech founders in the startup economy need, in addition to a business with potential, is the mindset required to grow, scale and expand globally.

“We help women to understand their bigger opportunity, to know their business case and to know how to grow a global scalable business,” Conway says.

“By helping them form that foundation of knowledge about their business and themselves, they are more able to execute on the strategy of capital raising, growth, and being able to open in new markets.”

The objective of SBE’s accelerator is to help women in the startup economy rise above the norm for Australian standards by equipping founders to better understand customers, test business models, lead teams, build a brand and manage growth and risk.

“Because the tech space is heavily led by men, SBE Australia advocates for gender parity in order to give female led tech businesses more of a voice in the space,” Conway says.

While Australian startups contribute approximately $164 billion to Australia’s economy,venture-backed female startup founders represent just 17% of this. Conway says this percentage that has not grown over the last five years and says the disparity is partly due to female entrepreneurs receiving less than male entrepreneurs through traditional funding channels.

Despite positive change being afoot — there is more support for female founders than ever — Conway says it ‘absolutely’ remains far harder for female founders to get funding than males.

“One reason is that women haven’t traditionally asked so it’s as new for women coming to the table as it is for the investor,” Conway says.

The SBE accelerator program, which aims to fix this issue, involves a four-day bootcamp, eight weeks of coaching from US and Australian high-value networks and culminates in a pitch session to stakeholders, investors and corporate executives. But Conway says the value and experience doesn’t end there.

“They become part of a network, alumna and global community,” Conway says.

“What a founder does from that point on will determine how successful she can be in growing a sustainable scalable business.”

Notable SBE alumni include Melanie Perkins of Canva, ASX-listed Flamingo, Mentorloop, ModiBodi and UrbanYou — a list that makes clear SBE is doing things well.

At the end of last month SBE Australia announced its next cohort and the eight carefully selected founders lead businesses across industries including healthtech, agritech, real estate, wellness and fashion.

Conway says for each cohort SBE receives somewhere between 50 to 70 applications, which are then shortlisted to between 20 and 25, from which group a maximum of 10 founders are selected.

During the interview process, a key selection criteria, in addition to the various critical business criteria, is an individual’s “coachability”.

“If we don’t feel a candidate is coachable she probably won’t get in,” Conway says.

“In order to move the dial, she has to get outside of her comfort zone to step back and look at the big picture which is what we help them do quite effectively.”

Conway says it’s often easy to spot who is and isn’t capable of being effectively coached in that way.

“We don’t always get it right — sometimes we’ll take a punt if we think someone is on the border, and sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t but for the most part we have got that right.”

Does the success of an accelerator program for founders depend on astute selection or the content of the program itself?

“Both!” Conway says. SBE measures success by assessing where a founder started and where she is now.

“The end game is to build a  generation of people who know how to start and grow a global business.”

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

NOW READ: Three female entrepreneurs who prove success is not always a straight line journey


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