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While this recap is from the Female Startup Leadership panel event on accelerating global companies, this roundtable discussion was packed with universal lessons and firsthand testimonials for founders and ecosystem leaders alike.

Watch the full roundtable or see the highlights below:

Key Topics

  • Building a startup community from scratch
  • Elevating even the most developed startup communities
  • How FI acts as feeder system for existing accelerators without competing
  • What it means when there are both too many accelerators AND not enough in your city
  • Story of FI grad leaving own company to start FI chapters in nonexistent startup community
  • Story of FI grad leaving corporate job to make faster and longer-lasting impact
  • How to know if you’re offering programming your ecosystem isn’t ready for 
  • How to negotiate and express opinions with conviction
  • Why you should NOT put your story first in your pitch
  • Changing an entire country in one generation through entrepreneurship education

Panelists include some of the world's leading experts in building startup communities and accelerating global companies:

If you want to learn more about what it takes to run a proven pre-seed accelerator program, apply to join the next Leading Institute cohort for prospective new Local Leaders. 

There Are Smart People Everywhere

Brewer, who has experienced being an entrepreneur and investor in Silicon Valley, then a startup accelerator leader in Iraq, shares her “why”:

While I was living in Silicon Valley, I started hearing from women that they were having a hard time getting funding. I started attending pitch events and watching how women were treated, how the audience reacted, how the judges reacted, how the investors reacted, the type of questions they asked, and it became really obvious to me that we were having an issue there and so then I made it a mission to become an investor, so I could make a difference. I have a focus on helping entrepreneurs in spaces where they have the least amount of resources. I feel like there’s smart people everywhere and many of them don’t get the resource we have in first world countries.

Helping People Bring Ideas to Life

Dimotriva, originally from Bulgaria and now living in Germany, says her desire to make a difference inspired her to be a startup accelerator leader:

I realized that what I enjoy and want to do is make a difference. I want to be able to help founders bring their ideas to life, and that of course includes female-led companies. One way to do that is to immerse yourself in the startup community. In Germany, we have a lot of resources, yet people are unwilling to take any risk. In Bulgaria, we don’t have many resources, but the startup community is so much more developed, and people are willing to try things out and fail. Coming to Germany and seeing that, I want to help it embrace entrepreneurship and embrace this ‘fail fast, learn fast, be successful’ attitude. This is my driving force.

Paying It Forward

Bryce, an entrepreneur turned FI Director in the Waterloo-Toronto Corridor, says she wanted to pay it forward by accelerating other companies in Waterloo because of how supportive the startup community was when she was starting out:

I was surprised by how incredibly supportive the entrepreneurial community was. My co-founder and I were reaching out to other entrepreneurs who had successful exits because we wanted to learn from them, and I was so surprised at how many yeses we got. I really wanted the opportunity to pay it forward and I was introduced to Founder Institute through becoming a mentor in Waterloo.

FI Curriculum “Sets Up Founders for Best Success Possible”

Bryce also found the rigor and structure of the Founder Institute curriculum to be reflective of her own entrepreneurial journey, claiming that it sets up founders for the best success possible:

I not only enjoy the opportunity to help pay it forward [as a mentor], but really appreciate the curriculum and the structure around Founder Institute – I could see a lot of my journey in the curriculum and thought this is an amazing resource for entrepreneurs to have. I want to give back in the way people had given to me in the community, but also the rigor and structure around the program is setting up founders for the best success possible and, if I can be part of that, it’s a really great feeling.

FI Grad Leaves Own Company to Start FI Chapters in Nonexistent Startup Community

Lecheta went through the FI program as a founder first, then became a local and regional leader as she helped to start more chapters across Brazil, and now works for Founder Institute HQ where she can maximize her impact:

It was interesting to go through the program to get my angel investors and first customers through the Founder Institute network locally and later be able to do Funding Lab – that firsthand experience also helped me learn why I want to support other entrepreneurs. I was very engaged in nonprofits and supporting social problems. I saw that Brazil has so many problems and so many entrepreneurs willing to solve them; it made so much more sense [to become more involved with FI] than me just building my own company to support all of those other entrepreneurs as well. It was very smooth transition from leaving the company I had built as an FI grad to being like, ‘What else can I put my time and effort into to make a change and solve problems in Brazil?’

Female Founders Find Camraderie Through FI

Before Lecheta started the first of many FI chapters in Brazil, female founders did not have a presence in the startup community and as a result, some lacked the confidence to pursue their ideas. The camaraderie amongst the female founders going through the FI program inspired her to start more chapters:

I experienced 5 years as an FI grad and seeing more females getting inspired by other female founders to build their dream companies and solve real issues of our country. For me, it’s still that social impact that drives me to start more FI chapters because I experienced firsthand how it helped me as a female entrepreneur. I can see how all these other women are looking at problems everyday and having that bright idea and thinking, ‘Maybe I could but I don’t know if I’m the right person to do that’ and giving them the extra support they need to launch their company.

The Single Best Change Agent for Driving Impact

As FI’s Head of Global Operations, Micheletti comments on their “impact first” approach and its far-reaching effects:

The whole startup journey and experience is probably the single best change agent for driving impact. Entrepreneurship not only can solve big problems but you’re also creating economic opportunity, you’re developing an ecosystem, you’re creating new skillsets for people. When it comes to ecosystem development and building up the startups that are local, we really take that impact first approach because if you’re going to spend 20+ years working on a startup, you might as well work on something that matters.

Don’t Offer Programming Your Ecosystem Isn’t Ready For

Brewer explains that the initial offerings of their Iraqi accelerator were too advanced for where its founders were at. Realizing that incubator-level programming was needed to plant seeds for a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem, they designed earlier stage programming to cast a wider net and attract a critical mass. In discussing meeting founders where they’re at, Micheletti says the need for pre-seed support is what inspired Founder Institute in the first place:

Originally you [Brewer] came in at the seed level to work with startups, but you had to quickly adapt to go a little bit earlier. We’ve seen the same thing with Founder Institute and that’s why we focus on pre-seed. Because in a lot of these markets, you just don’t have that critical mass of startups to get it going. But we know that if you can seed the ecosystem with new companies, those companies will grow, start hiring people, and building the ecosystem. And what we’ve seen over time, this critical mass starts forming and then an exit happens and that money stays in that ecosystem because the investors are investing locally and you have this new talent base of people that can go and start their own companies, and they’ve been trained in innovation.

Micheletti says that if you start by simply launching companies, that will plant the necessary seeds for a high-growth community, exemplified by some of the first FI programs in Africa, where it only took a handful of graduate companies to pave the way and say, “If we can grow this company, you can too.”

What It Means When There Are Both Too Many Accelerators AND Not Enough

Dimitrova mentioned that Germany has a lower entrepreneurial risk tolerance because of the overwhelming support in the ecosystem. Micheletti asks her to expand on the challenges of perhaps having too many accelerators:

When we were about to restart a chapter here in Cologne, Germany, I was hearing two things: Either there are too many accelerators or there are not enough – which means there’s a lot of hype; everyone is trying to do something, but the good programs that actually bring value are not that many. Yes, there’s a lot going on but no, there’s not enough quality things happening.

FI Chapter Elevates Even the Most Developed Ecosystems

Despite the preexisting support system, Dimitrova was confident that an FI chapter would not just add noise to the ecosystem, but bring unprecedented value to its founders because of her personal experience going through the program:

When I started recruiting my team for the chapter, having been through the program, I was very convinced why this was going to be helpful for the ecosystem. People were immediately interested in joining the team. That helped; trusting what the Founder Institute brings, trusting the result that has been proven for the last 12 years in so many markets.

FI’s Pre-Seed Focus Acts as Feeder System for Existing Accelerators, Not Competition

Micheletti highlights the common fear that FI threatens existing accelerators, which is quickly put to rest when they see that FI’s pre-seed specialization acts as a feeder system for their programs:

FI goes into a new city, there’s some established players who are funded by the government and they see FI as competition because they’re like, ‘What’s this Silicon Valley program doing in my ecosystem? This is going to affect my budget and I’m not going to be able to get the government grants that I used to.’ But they quickly realize that we can actually help them because we act as that feeder system. Because we’re focused on pre-seed, we’re able to create companies that then go into their program. We’re able to create companies at scale with zero dollars.

Leaving the Corporate World to Make Faster and Longer-Lasting Impact

Commenting on Dimitrova’s marketing and growth background, Micheletti asks why she made the shift away from her corporate career and dove headfirst into becoming a startup ecosystem builder and FI chapter leader:

Seeing the constraints in those big organizations and how projects die out instead of continuing to innovate and do something good in the world – it drove me crazy. I was looking for a way to have influence in a faster and more direct way with my work and startups are a great way to do that; it’s fun, you get to learn, you get to meet so many people, you get to be part of a change that is needed. Taking my marketing and growth experience into startups is actually very valuable because most startups are thinking mostly about that so it’s very relevant.

Producing Talent is One Thing, Retaining It Is Another

Micheletti says Toronto has been called the next Silicon Valley, but every ecosystem has its own set of challenges. Bryce, an entrepreneur turned FI Director in the Waterloo-Toronto Corridor, says the region produces some of the world’s best talent but struggles to keep it within the ecosystem:

Toronto/Waterloo has really been primed on the global stage – there’s a lot of purpose-led tech and trust in what’s coming out of the ecosystem. One of the universities in Waterloo is the top third supplier of engineers to Google. And a lot of that talent has been leaving the country to work elsewhere. It’s about not only retaining Canadian talent, but how can we look globally to bring other talent into Canada. While there isn’t a barrier in Canada to start a business, bringing in talent for the purpose of working at startups is challenging. The talent aspect, especially from a tech perspective, is one of the biggest challenges that the Toronto/Waterloo ecosystem is facing.

Starting an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem from Scratch

Lecheta shares the challenges of cultivating an entrepreneurial ecosystem from scratch in Brazil where, just five years ago, most people did not know what a startup was:

FI Brazil has been running for about 5 years – in the beginning, it was a lot of struggles with government and bureaucracy, and people did not actually know what a startup was five years ago in Brazil. It was very tough to find the top entrepreneurs around the region to be mentors because there weren’t many startups in Brazil to be those examples. But we’ve consolidated that network of mentors, grads, and the level of entrepreneurs has also increased a lot.

Lecheta says one of the biggest challenges Brazil faces is breaking the bubble of its São Paulo and Rio hubs, to reach founders in the smaller cities and rural corners of the country, and provide them access to a world-class accelerator:

Before, a founder would have to leave their region and fly into São Paulo to build their company. Now, people from anywhere in Brazil can just login on Zoom every week and get the experience of a high-quality accelerator without even leaving their house. We are getting much broader region reach so people from rural areas with agri-tech solutions are being able to cheaply join the sessions, and high-level mentors can do more office hours because they don’t have the commute anymore. It doesn’t matter where you are in the country – we can provide access to a top-level accelerator so you can build your business from wherever you are.

For the remainder of the roundtable discussion, Micheletti poses two final questions:

  • What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs building their companies in your startup ecosystem?

  • What advice do you have for other startup leaders (men and women) interested in running accelerator programs or building the ecosystem?

Why You Should NOT Put Your Story First in Your Pitch

Brewer: It’s critical to put the numbers in the front of your pitch. I’ve watched the reaction of investors and judges and if you start with the story, you’re doing something that’s just a little too femme or retail. They lose investor traction or attention pretty quickly. They have huge numbers but by the time they get to their numbers, they’ve already lost the attention. So what I’m going to be doing in the next training cohort is teaching them to put the numbers upfront.

Micheletti says this strategy is not specific to female founders, referencing his experience working with veteran entrepreneurs:

I’ve seen the same exact thing on the veteran side. A lot of the time, they lead with ‘veterans first’ because that’s what they do, but Jason Calacanis had this really great piece of advice which was like, ‘Talk about how you’re building a really great company first and then talk about how you’re also a veteran.’ No one is going to invest in you if you’re not building something that is actually gaining traction.

Changing a Country in One Generation Through Entrepreneurship Education

Brewer says that the key to building an entrepreneurial ecosystem starts with embedding entrepreneurship education into every subject taught in public schools:

We need more incubators and innovation hubs at university level. This is probably relevant to 70% of countries around the world; if you want to start something, the majority of citizens are coming from universities where they’re just doing memorization and rote learning. They’re not being taught entrepreneurship, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, so they’re coming into incubators without any of those skills. These citizens need training and the younger you introduce it, the better. You could change an entire country and the culture in one generation by introducing entrepreneurship in school. You could embed it in science, history, and math. And then a whole generation grows up and graduates with this problem solving, critical thinking mindset and they’ll build solutions for the country.

How to Express Opinions & Negotiate With Conviction

Dimotriva says that conviction is often more effective than logic when expressing an opinion or leading:

It’s about having confidence when you’re telling someone what to do or expressing an opinion vs. trying to convince them logically. It’s basically leadership through knowledge vs. leadership through conviction and being secure in your own opinion. It doesn’t mean you cannot learn and your opinion is correct but it means that you know your experience and you’re sure that what you’re saying has a ground.

The Goal is Not to Be Right, But to Have a Better Argument

In navigating conflict and arguments, Dimotriva says the goal is not to disprove someone else’s argument, but to have a better argument:

Your goal is to introduce them to a point of view that is going to bring them closer to what they want to achieve. I always imagine lawyers trying to defend one side or the other. Both lawyers have a good point, but at the end of the day, it’s about which lawyer has the better argument.

Be Bullish, Be Bold, Don’t Apologize

Bryce says that the best advice she can give to female entrepreneurs is to be bullish, be bold, and unapologetic:

Don’t be afraid to talk business. You know your business better than anyone and don’t shy away from creating a big vision for yourself. We received feedback really early on saying, ‘You’re being too small, this opportunity could be bigger, so stop being so reserved in where you think this can go.’ That was a great piece of advice that unlocked a really exciting path to progress for us.

In a Populated Ecosystem, Identify the Gaps and Find Your Niche

For anyone starting an ecosystem, Bryce says to take a look at what exists and see where you can fill in the gaps:

For us in Waterloo-Toronto, there’s a lot of accelerators here so how do you carve out a niche and position yourself as offering something to help a certain segment. We positioned ourselves as the go-to for the working professional who has a business idea and wants to get things moving. We’ve bene able to carve out that niche for us and differentiate ourselves in a fairly populated ecosystem.

Founders Are Performance Athletes, Recovery is Key

Lecheta says many founders neglect their health and their companies can suffer for it:

You have to take care of yourself as a founder. Whatever you do will be a reflection in the company, especially in the early days. If you neglect your health, it accumulates. It’s awesome what FI did adding mental health to the curriculum because if you’re building a significant company that’s going to last a long time and impact millions of people, you need to be well and at performance. When building startups, you are a performance athlete. You don’t see anyone winning a gold medal if they’re eating junk and staying up late. The health of the founder reflects in the health of the company.

The Importance of Breaking Out of Your 'Comfort Network'

For anyone starting an ecosystem, Lecheta encourages leaders to break out of their 'comfort network' and not be afraid to cold call the best of the best because, chances are, they are excited by the opportunity to mentor the next wave of entrepreneurs:

It’s very easy to be in your comfort zone; you might know a few entrepreneurs in your region and call them as mentors but if you’re going to commit to help founders, you should do your best to expand that [network]. In your local ecosystem, there’s probably mentors you’ve never even heard of – they’re not doing mentoring because they’re building their businesses and that’s the best mentor you can have. It’s easy to fall back on the same mentors and events but our founders deserve the best because they’re going to build the best companies and they’re only going to do that if they have the support they need. You’d be surprised how willing people are to give back because they’ve been through that path. You see how much better founders you attract by having the best mentors.

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If you are a startup ecosystem leader or advisor, and want to build an equity portfolio by adding value for startups in your city or region, you can learn more about becoming an FI accelerator program director at

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