Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 2, 2018
The last time I counted, it seemed like there were 219 incubator and/or accelerators in San Diego. What’s important is that they are not all the same. Last week, I attended a presentation at a new one that showed me the future is now. To top it off, this was their first graduating class — and best of all, the entrepreneurs were all women. As my bride, Ms. Bry has told me — “Up next is the decade of the woman.” And in an effort to stay happily married, I will continue to audition as the poster child for smart, powerful women. Please welcome and give kudos to Ad Astra, the newest incubator that supports only women entrepreneurs.
At this time in the world, after Rosanne and Samantha and #Me Too, it is both refreshing and thrilling to see a trio of women create, fund, support, grow and bring to fruition a cohort of CEO women entrepreneurs. The founders of Ad Astra are Silvia Mah, Allison Long Pettine and Vidya Dinamani.
As I said, I have attended more than a few demo nights, and not one of them started with a poet recitation. The Ad Astra kickoff began with Gill Sotu, an acclaimed and award-winning inspiration/poet/musician and DJ. The poem was about the power of women, dreams, achievements and passion. Now, I know that a poem alone is not going to get you funded on Sand Hill Road, but it says a lot about their program. It is integrated and holistic and focused. Women are different from men — duh.
Dinamani explained to me that the program is very deliberate. It covers 12 weeks, with one week of content initially and then one week of implementation of that content. This creates deep integration of the material. I applaud Ad Astra for their demand for rigor and substance.
In addition to the core material, the incubator was supported by more than 40 mentors from the community who gave their time and expertise. Ad Astra also provided personal coaches and helped the entrepreneurs assemble a professional board of directors.
I spoke with Long Pettine, who told me that 70 companies auditioned to get into the program and that only three were chosen. I was both astounded and embarrassed. I didn’t have any idea that there were 70 startup founders who were women. That tells us men to start paying more attention.
The Ad Astra model is more akin to Y Combinator than to EvoNexus. Evo takes equity but does not give cash, while Ad Astra provides a cash investment in a convertible note, as well as taking 5 percent equity in the company. I totally support the concept that nothing is free, and if it is, then it is of dubious value. Dilution is not a dirty word, and the idea that somehow entrepreneur founders should get something valuable for free does not resonate with this aging angel investor. If the incubator is adding value, the founders will be delighted to give equity, and if it is not, then so be it.
The third founder, Silvia Mah, is well known in San Diego, since she is the founder and executive director of Hera Labs, a business accelerator for entrepreneurial women. It is an excellent synergy to have her on the Ad Astra team.
One of the entrepreneurs was Jenna Ryan. Her company, Uqora, solves a uniquely feminine problem, UTI (aka urinary tract infection). She has developed a drink that reduces the likelihood of getting UTI. Her recommendation is to take it after exercise or after sex, when infections are most likely to occur. Another entrepreneur was Shannon Williams. Her company, Controllist, provides software to make the problem of audit compliance easier and less expensive for small/medium businesses. Jennifer Cosco rounded out the trio with her company, Envy, which uses pictures instead of words to create reviews.
I am not smart enough to tell you which, if any, will “make it,” but I can tell you that the room was alive, and the buzz was strong. But, there is one dark cloud in this otherwise bright landscape — all of the CTOs of the companies were men. So I say it is now time to “raise high the roof beam” and encourage women into STEAM, science, technology, engineering, art and math. Just do it.
Rule No. 565: Be ready– the decade of the woman is around the corner.