Written by Osayi Endolyn Tuesday, January 08 2013
When most people think of helping young entrepreneurs succeed, the focus tends to be on connecting young people with established professionals. But the Pipeline Fellowship takes that notion and turns it on its head a bit – founder and CEO Natalia Oberti Noguera opted to start with the philanthropists, connecting them with young professionals on the rise. The Pipeline Fellowship’s mission is to train women philanthropists to become angel investors, shifting the landscape of what kinds of ideas and business owners get funded and ultimately comprise our world.
Oberti Noguera has a strong driving force. Last year, she says, only 12 percent of U.S. angel investors were women and just 4 percent were minorities. “Being an optimist,” she says, “there’s a growth opportunity!”
Pipeline fellows participate in a business-savvy boot camp, where they commit to investing in a woman-led, for-profit social venture in exchange for equity in that company.
The inspiration for the fellowship came about by what was happening in the workforce, Oberti Noguera says. A Yale graduate, she was accustomed to the typical mentor model, of older women coaching younger women. But in her work at various nonprofits and in the private sector, she had noticed something happening in the business community.
“I was seeing women who had left the workforce in order to start families come back with a social venture idea in mind,” Oberti Noguera says. “At the same time, there were young entrepreneurs who had been working on their startups for three to five years, who could mentor and coach the older women.”
In 2008, Oberti Noguera launched New York Women Social Entrepreneurs with six women. The aim was to give women social entrepreneurs networking opportunities, access to training and other resources. Two years later, the organization had more than 1200 members. “So, obviously there was something in the air,” Oberti Noguera recalls.
Little did she know she’d be the one to take that hint and run with it. For Oberti Noguera, her entrée into entrepreneurial life developed without her realizing it.
While studying comparative literature and economics at Yale, Oberti Noguera likes to say she had a triple major with all of her extra-curricular activities. She launched The Gaze, the university’s first photography journal and ended up producing a TV show for the college station. Oberti Noguera was creating real projects in the world, taking ideas from concept to product, assembling teams, achieving milestones.
“Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project – she’s phenomenal – she’s been quoted as saying something like, ‘You cannot be what you cannot see.’ Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have a clear understanding of what an entrepreneur was, what an entrepreneur looked like and that I could actually be an entrepreneur. In some ways that defined the undefined trajectory that I ended up going through.”
Oberti Noguera describes the idea for the Pipeline Fellowship as an outgrowth of a “click moment,” the concept defined by author Frans Johansson.
“He says there is some luck in our success, of being in the right place at the right moment,” she says.
That moment happened when Oberti Noguera attended an event for a women’s networking group.
“Three powerhouse women that one would not usually find in one space were speaking consecutively that day,” says Oberti Noguera. “Linda Rottenberg from Endeavor.org, Wendy Kopp of Teach For America and Jacqueline Novogratz from Acumen Fund were discussing efforts to launch a network of women social entrepreneurs.”
With everyone’s busy schedules, the project hadn’t gotten off the ground. Oberti Noguera decided she would take it on.
“I was really interested in getting into social entrepreneurship and social enterprises,” she says. "This seemed like a great way to get started."
The Pipeline Fellowship got going in 2010, keeping close ties to Oberti Noguera’s intentions of “intergenerationality and intersectionality.” Classes of fellows included women from different multicultural backgrounds, professional sectors and ages, and the conferences now take place in Boston, D.C. and New York.
The program works for two reasons, Oberti Noguera says. “Because it’s group learning, so the diversity of perspectives enhances the experience for each fellow. And second, because it enhances the value proposition for the entrepreneur that they will ultimately be investing in.”
Imagine, for example, that an entrepreneur is being invested in by 10 lawyers. Every entrepreneur needs to know a lawyer, but 10 – especially if they practice the same type of law – might have similar networks and perspectives and thus not be as robust a network for that entrepreneur. The “diverse cohorts” formed in the fellowship add significant value, both to the fellows-in-training and the recipient entrepreneurs.
“We’ve heard from entrepreneurs that [this diversity] has been so helpful to them, from having women who can provide been-there-done-that feedback, to a consultant who can help with pricing strategy.”
Businesses that presented at last spring’s pitch summit included AYZH, which produces low-cost medical products; Heart Star Press, customizable picture books for young children that document their upbringing in U.S. military life; and LoAF (Local Atlanta Farming), which provides affordable produce to urban consumers at or below the poverty line.
The angel investors who heard the pitches included Simone Castillo, a senior associate in KPMG's International Development Assistance Services; health and data services entrepreneur Pamella Leiter; and Bonnie Tonita White, a proofreader for the Calgary Herald. If the range of participants seems vast, that’s no accident. The fellowship was born of market research.
“Each time I spoke with women social entrepreneurs someone told me how hard it was to secure funding for a for-profit social venture,” Oberti Noguera says. “The problem I saw was that, as usual, entrepreneurs were ahead of the curve. I’m a huge believer in the hybrid model of doing well and doing good. We didn’t have enough hybrid investors.”
Oberti Noguera told stories of women social entrepreneurs seeking funding from traditional philanthropists, who loved the notion of changing the world. But once they saw the organization wasn’t a 501(c)3 and couldn’t accept the donations, the response would shift to, “How about you come back when you start your foundation?”
At the same time, Oberti Noguera says, those entrepreneurs would speak with traditional investors who loved what they were doing but didn’t get the focus on social and environmental impact.
“I saw we needed to engage women philanthropists who wanted to make a difference with their money via charitable donations and get them to see that they can help change the world by investing in women-led, for-profit social ventures in exchange for equity.”
It’s a match that has been successful so far. One fellow told Oberti Noguera that going through the program made her more savvy at being a philanthropist – that she asks questions of nonprofits like “How will they measure its impact?” and some fellow graduates go on to invest in multiple start-ups. Some of those companies are women-led, and some are not, says Oberti Noguera. Some are socially-driven, others have a clear technology mandate.
Oberti Noguera is pleased with the results.
“Our goal really is to activate these women to become angels. Then our hope is that they continue to invest. We’ve seen that happen.”
Oberti Noguera is seeing the landscape shift, as she and her team work to bring that 12 percent closer to parity. At a recent pitch session, one entrepreneur paused for a lengthy period right before she started her presentation. She seemed overcome with emotion, Oberti Noguera remembers.
“She said, ‘This is the first time that I have presented my business to women, and only women.’ I just realized how powerful it is to actually see increased diversity in real life. It’s not just a percentage that we need to increase, it’s also people – there’s a face behind that percentage. The work that we’re doing is high-touch.”
More opportunities for access to capital:
Serial entrepreneur Sue Malone wanted to help other fledgling business owners bring their visions to life. Her venture capital group Strategies for Small Business has made over 41,000 loans in 10 years.
Through her company Criterion Ventures, Joy Anderson stewards the gender lens investing movement, a new perspective that uses the power of capitalism to create a positive impact for women and girls.
Many entrepreneurs are turning to crowdfunding, a new alternative to the traditional routes that essentially pre-sells your product to interested supporters to fund its development.
Osayi Endolyn is an award-winning writer based in Atlanta, Ga. Also a multimedia producer, her narrative-style work has been featured in a variety of publications, including Atlanta Magazine, Aint-Bad Magazine and Quilt Stories — a podcast series inspired by The AIDS Memorial Quilt. She has a bachelor’s degree in French from UCLA and an MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design.