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Recently on Global Startup Report, Founder Institute was pleased to be joined live by Prowess Project Founder & CEO Ashley Connell to learn about the Austin, Texas-based startup helping employers find operations hires, by leveraging the untapped talent of women returning to work.

Prowess Project, an Austin Founder Institute portfolio company, is an EQ-based job matching service that optimizes candidate/role fit to make the right hire every time. Prowess focuses specifically on mothers reentering workforce, and in the years now since the start of the pandemic has seen impressive growth in the platform's use. The company raised follow-on funding from Loyal VC in July 2021, and has also been profiled in media including Forbes and the Austin Business Journal.

Watch our full July 2022 interview with Prowess Project Founder & CEO Ashley Connell here, or read the highlights below:

Key Founder Insights & Highlights:

  • Prowess Project CEO Ashley Connell explains the deep difficulties that many women (even those supremely well qualified) face when returning to the workforce, after even a short career pause spent raising young children
  • How the Prowess Project platform works to help women upskill, network with one another, and then match them directly with employers who are looking to hire operational talent, based upon a customized talent profile
  • Transitioning a 'concierge MVP' with founders and early employees doing work 'behind the curtain' to a truly automated SaaS offering that scales up farther and faster
  • What 'de-risking' means (commonly talked about in startups with respect to investors), but de-risking for recruiters and companies hiring new employee talent
  • Why it's critical to NEVER STOP talking to your customer as a founder, even as your business grows and your role changes
  • The concept of 'Culture Fit' needs to be replaced by 'Culture Add'—why greater greater company culture is created by adding people who are NOT just like everyone else already at the company
  • Why Project Management and Customer Success are two emerging career paths that offer ideal for many moms returning to work
  • Gender diversity is an underutilized lever across so many companies—research shows having 30% of women in leadership increases profits by 15%
  • Prowess Project CEO Ashley Connell advice for founders: 1) Build something you are obsessed with; and 2) Build something that can actually turn a profit and make money

After 15 years working in tech marketing, Prowess Project Founder & CEO Ashley Connell began to realized that the leadership at the tops of in the companies she saw were not inclusive of women, particularly of any women who had had children earlier in their career. As she dug further into the issue, the statistics she learned disturbed her—she explains,

[When I] found the Harvard Business Review statistic that: if a woman is out of the workforce for just 3 years she loses a total 37% of her compensation power—forever, cannot get it back: that's almost 40% of her compensation power is lost for just 3 years raising kids. And, that this happens to 43% of women—and that was before covid, and all the craziness where 5.4 million women were pushed out of the workforce—so again, these are huge huge numbers that aren't really being talked about enough, and it's a huge reason why there's not as much money in women's pockets. So with that I said, 'I need to solve this problem!'

Prowess Project effectively serves as a marketplace intermediary and connector, helping women not only find new job opportunities, but also helping companies to stop their (even unconscious) discrimination in hiring practices, by matching them with ideal women candidates seeking to return to the workforce. Prowess does this using profiles built upon data points gathered on candidates' unique talents, expertise, and work styles. CEO Connell explains,

Prowess Project is an integrated platform that helps women with upskilling (so they can be ready to get back to work), networking (so they have a network of women to help them), and then while they're going through that journey, we're gathering hundreds of data points on their skills, their expertise, communication style, behavior style, work style. [We then] create a profile for them so then when employers come to us looking for talent, we match them based on those profiles and for employers. We give them the top three candidates, each with a compatibility score, so they know who to go hire and why, saving them weeks of time to hire, because you have the most compatible person front and center.

Prowess Project CEO Ashley Connell notes how she was helped finding direction on her own startup journey by the depth and diversity of the Founder Institute network, saying,

What I loved about FI from the very beginning is the diversity that I saw. I loved that I walked into a room where everyone had a completely different experience, way of life, reason for being there, idea, business plan—that really gave me such a rich perspective, and the network from FI who I can call upand just be like, 'Holy shit this is amazing' or 'Holy shit this sucked' is incredible, and I'm so grateful for that... Exactly the reason why I loved FI so much, because it brought such a diversity of thought— that's exactly what someone will bring to your organization who does not look like you, or act like you, or have a background like you do.

While Prowess Project today uses a big data model to construct a model that matches women's unique talents to employers' individual needs, CEO Ashley Connell emphasizes the critical role for founders to continually keep in touch with their customers, to understand not only their needs that the product is solving for, but also more deeply about who they are as people. She explains,

I think a lot of the time, especially when you're on this route to raise money, users can be exactly that: users and a number. And you have to remember that all of these people have the same desires, dreams, fears that you do... I think that really diving deep, and taking that time to understand who they are, having conversations about not just how do you get back to work, but also about your kid's birthday party coming up: that that is so important. Then also, taking down the armor you have, in showing your vulnerability too... and showing up when I'm not having a good day, and just in sharing with them, and asking them questions, and making it a two-way street. That has been absolutely critical.

To learn more about the startup helping lead the Return to Work movement for mothers + helping hiring companies find the ideal match in operational talent, visit

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