Beth Janson, Founding Director of Rent the Runway Foundation, a newly-launched initiative from fashion tech company Rent the Runway (RTR) chatted with us about their mission to increase the percentage of women founding companies.
One of the first programs they’re running is called Project Entrepreneur, which is currently accepting applications from female makers and entrepreneurs for a chance to win $10,000, a spot at their NYC Workshop or even a desk at the Rent the Runway accelerator program. Project Entrepreneur ignites bold ideas by providing women access to the tools, training and networks needed to build scalable, economically impactful companies.
Learn more in our interview with Beth below:
Can you tell us a bit more about the vision/mission behind Project Entrepreneur?
PE is driven by the belief that the percentage of women founding and leading companies should be more representative of our population.
You have over 18 years of experience in media and cultural philanthropy, and worked as the Executive Director at the Tribeca Film Institute for 11 years – what was it about Project Entrepreneur that appealed to you? What excites you about this role?
I love building spaces where people can come together. The act of being together physically creates an energy that is palpable in a way that can’t yet be replicated online. I see myself as a bit of a cultural entrepreneur; building structures and organizations where positive change happens. I was really attracted to the genuine passion that Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss have for Project Entrepreneur. This is way more than an “issue” to them; they see the disparities every day and are sincere in their desire to change the ratios. It’s very inspiring.
Project Entrepreneur just launched in September, why do you think now is the right time for an initiative like this? Was there something specific that triggered its inception within the Project Entrepreneur team?
The traditional approach to philanthropy is that it is something you really focus on when you are rich and retired. I think there is a generational shift happening where younger people consider how they can make a positive impact in their daily choices, and where they choose to put their energy. Jenn and Jenny are very vocal about how grateful they are to the women who helped them as they were building RTR, and they have long been looking for a way to pay-it-forward. They found a great partner in UBS who has an “elevating entrepreneurs” program, and then the pieces started falling into place. It has been a long time in the making.
Project Entrepreneur is currently seeking applications for its venture competition (deadline January 8th) Your selection criteria is fairly open, do you have an ideal applicant in mind?
We actually have a very specific rubric by which we will be judging all applications, but I think our ideal applicant is someone who has the right combination of big idea, vision and most importantly, an attention to the details of how to get it done.
The rules mention they must be leveraging technology in some way. Would you prefer them to be in fashion? Does leveraging technology include having a website or are you looking for something influenced more by tech?
We encourage applicants from ALL industries, not just fashion. When you think about Rent the Runway, you think about the beautiful designer dresses, but behind the scenes it is also about extremely sophisticated logistics and analysis; RTR runs the largest dry-cleaning facility in the US. Technology can definitely include “e-commerce” but it needs to be more than just about selling something on the web…it should be about disrupting an aspect of the market, or seeing an opportunity others may have missed or overlooked.
Why do you think it’s important that Project Entrepreneur is specifically focused on women entrepreneurs?
Because women are 50% of the US population (50.4% to be exact). Because women start businesses at 1.5 times the national average, but 90% of those businesses employ only themselves. Because women account for 70-80% of the purchasing power in the US. Because only 2.7% of venture capital funding went to companies that had a female CEO. Venture capital is all about high growth; and that is where we think we need to see more women starting businesses, creating jobs, and changing the power dynamic.
Winners of the Venture Competition will also get a seat at the 5-week accelerator program. Can you tell us more about what that program will look like and what participants can expect to take away from their time there?
Jenn and Jenny often say that their best mentors when they were starting their company were founders who were 1 or 2 years ahead of them in their businesses. The idea with the incubator is that we can replicate that cycle somewhat by having the teams surrounded by people who are solving problems at a start-up on a day-to-day basis. It’s about connecting entrepreneurs with the people who are closest to the execution of the business, and not just the CEO. The incubator includes a 5-week residency at RTR and then continuing mentorship for a year. Our goal is to help the team resolve their specific pain points, and put them on a track to have access to capital and growth.
Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs thinking about applying to Project Entrepreneur? What would stand out to you?
I think a lot of people brush over the HOW of the business; what is the driving ethos and HOW will that affect the running of the business. That is extremely important after you have defined the problem you are trying to solve and how you will be doing it differently from what is already out there.
Having just started a few months ago, what does the future look like for Project Entrepreneur? Where would you like to see this grow to in 5 years?
We have a very ambitious goal of adding 50 viable women-founded companies to the funding pipeline EACH YEAR (I start to sweat just typing that). But, if we can do that, then we can start to change the ratios of who is getting serious consideration in the boardrooms of VC firms. We will be relentless in pushing the notion that big, bold, ambitious companies can be the norm for women, and not the exception.
You can learn more about Project Entrepreneur by clicking the banner below, deadline to apply is January 8th.
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