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Female Founders is one of Europe’s leading communities for female founders, leaders, investors, and operators, and their mission is simple: Create a more equitable future for women in tech and innovation.
In every emerging technology industry – even the powerhouses like America and China – gender inequality and disparity is still very much a reality. As Europe begins to make a name for itself in the global innovation sector, communities like Female Founders are working to close that equality gap from the inside out.
Female Founders was co-founded by Nina Wöss and Lisa-Marie Fassl who both were, at the time, in their own full-time roles in the tech industry, acutely aware of the inequality plaguing tech and innovation.
The community started informally – small meetups and gatherings with other female tech professionals – and it blossomed from there. They shifted their offerings and their mission drastically during COVID and have come out on the other side with impactful programming, including two core learning products, and a community of over 73,000 people.
We sat down with Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten, who heads the Female Founder’s Leadership Program, to understand how the community has attracted top tech talent, what their learning experiences consist of, and how they’re now using Disco to continue scaling their membership and their offerings.
COVID: The catalyst of change within Female Founders
Female Founders is based out of Vienna, Austria, so the community’s early events were hyper-localized. Since they weren’t able to meet in person once the COVID pandemic sheltered members at home, so they shifted to an online model. With that came a more diverse membership, Elisabeth explains:
“Grow F and Lead F were, at the time, together in one program, and it was in-person, which I think has a lot of benefits – but then, because COVID came, they had to make changes. I think what was really great about that is that it helped us move beyond just Austria. So we're really a European-focused company now, and that brings in lots of diversity, which is super exciting,” she says.
Now, post-pandemic, Grow F and Lead Forward are two unique learning experiences that members can participate in, regardless of location.
Diving deeper into Female Founders’ learning experiences
The team at Female Founders has kept themselves busy since officially starting seven years ago. They now boast a vibrant community of tech professionals with multiple events per year, two distinct learning experiences and, most recently, a VC fund for emerging companies.
Here’s a breakdown of their learning experiences:
Grow F: A 5-week accelerator program for startups to become investment ready with multiple cohorts per year. Each cohort focuses on a different sector or type of business model. Cost: €900
Learn Forward: An 8-week online program part of a larger leadership accelerator that helps leaders in tech and innovation unlock their potential and learn how to manage people-first with two cohorts per year. Cost: €1800
As mentioned earlier, these programs were only split into two unique learning experiences post-pandemic as a means to better serve the Female Founders mission:
“Our mission is to make the European tech and innovation ecosystem more diverse and, for a long time, that was very much focused around gender diversity, so our products and services are built around that as well,” Elisabeth says. “We’ve evolved as a company, so we've definitely been approaching diversity in the broader sense, but we’ve been slowly moving beyond just gender.”
While the Female Founders community itself involves thousands of members, virtual and in-person events, and tons of resources, we wanted to dive deeper into the community that happens at the learning experience level within Grow F and Lead Forward.
Community at the learning level
As with many other learning communities, Slack is integral to these learning experiences, particularly Grow F. The Lead Forward community has been moved onto Disco, which we’ll dig into more later.
Both the members and the mentors live on Slack and are able to communicate that way, but Elisabeth notes that it’s not entirely structured – rather, it can be a forum for open communication and problem solving.
Off Slack, they provide valuable content and resources through their blog and social media posts, not unlike how they do at the main community level which, as we mentioned earlier, boasts nearly 75,000 members.
Elisabeth also mentions that they haven’t yet figured out a formalized way to work with alumni post-program, but it’s something they would be interested in exploring. Once learners have finished these programs, they can continue to access the resources, events, and other membership benefits. “What we say is: Once you've been through one of our programs, you're part of Female Founders forever,” Elisabeth says.
How Female Founders markets and promotes their learning experiences
One of the biggest questions we hear from founders and operators of learning experiences is how they’re getting their offerings into market. Female Founders uses their existing members and followers to spread the word:
“Social media and our own newsletter actually have been super important. There are a lot of people following us, so we make a lot of use of our social media to announce when applications are open again for Grow F and Lead Forward,” Elisabeth says.
With a large community of happy members comes a lot of word-of-mouth, so Female Founders is lucky to convert many prospective members that way.
“It's our alumni, it's mentors that we work with, it's VCs that we work with, it’s our personal network; our co-founders are very well integrated within the startup ecosystem,” Elisabeth says.
Not only are they working within these networks to find prospective members, they’re able to recruit mentors to work within these learning experiences that way, too.
The role mentorship plays in the Female Founders mission
Female Founders’ members and mentors span a number of sectors and business functions, so bringing together kindred professionals who know their industries well is critical to moving the community’s mission forward.
They pair Grow F members up with a mentor at the beginning of the program and, for members of the leadership program, they used to assign members to a mentor once the program was over. The role of the mentor was to help these members digest and implement their learnings, but that aspect of the learning experience is actually coming to an end.
“I think it is a pity on the one hand, because we have seen some very positive feedback on that,” Elisabeth says. “But, again, it's something that costs a lot of time because every match is handpicked, which is kind of crazy when you think about that.”
It’s a feature they can hopefully reintroduce in the future, now that they’re utilizing Disco to free up time, energy, and resources in hosting the Lead Forward program. We asked Elisabeth what that transition has been like and what features she loves the most in bringing this important learning community to life on the Disco platform.
Moving to Disco: The need for a flexible, intuitive platform
Very quickly after joining Female Founders, Elisabeth noticed the Lead Forward program management had some holes:
“Within two months of me joining the team, I had my first quarterly feedback session. They asked ‘If you could change anything, what would it be?’ and, immediately, I mentioned the way the program is being managed. It was unsustainable and unscalable.”
Elisabeth dove into research mode, looking for a platform that could handle the management and formatting of the Lead Forward course and host it, too.
“Now, I'm sure you are very well aware of this, but there are a ton of platforms out there working with startups,” Elisabeth says. “One of our concerns was which company is going to make it, because no way all of them are going to survive, and what fulfills our needs the most.”
To narrow down the choices, Elisabeth created a list of criteria:
Flexible: They didn’t want to build something from scratch, but they needed something they could easily tailor
User-intuitive: Something that wouldn’t have a big learning curve for members, as they were currently using Notion and noticed a divide in usability. “Every participant needs to be able to understand the platform within 10 minutes,” Elisabeth says
Content hosting: Ability to host pre-recorded content from live sessions
With this criteria in mind, Elisabeth landed on Disco, which they’ve now been using since the beginning of 2023.
How Female Founders is utilizing the Disco platform + their favorite features
As mentioned earlier, Female Founders is now hosting and managing their Lead Forward cohorts on Disco. Elisabeth mentions she’s already in the process of redesigning that program on the platform:
“One thing that I've been playing around with a bit and that I really like is how you can set up the whole onboarding process and automate a lot of it,” Elisabeth mentions. “I can say, ‘Okay, someone registers, and then, once the course opens, they get a message to join Slack. When they join Slack, there's an automated message sent out from me telling them what they can find in each channel. Then, it asks them to introduce themselves, then the next step is they will read our community guidelines, and they can accept them.’ I used to have to send all these things individually to everyone, typically 25 to 30 people per program. But now, because I can automate it, the groups are going to be bigger.”
In addition to Disco’s automation, Elisabeth also loves its intuitiveness – she’s only ever watched a single demo, yet she’s able to set up everything within her ecosystem.
Finally, she loves how versatile the tool is: “I also love that you can embed certain things; it's super, super clear in terms of getting an overview of everything. I want our participants to have a good experience, so getting that feedback from them that they really like that all the content is there, all the events are there, it just makes it super easy,” Elisabeth shares.
Most importantly, all of these favorite features have manifested in hours saved each week – hours they can pour back into building an alumni program or reintroducing mentorship into Lead Forward. Disco has been instrumental to Elisabeth and her team in helping scale the Female Founders membership and mission.
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