Babson College

Babson Lab leaders create win-win for female founders

IN STRIDE: WIN Lab Boston Director Ashley Lucas and Global Director Heatherjean MacNeil are taking growth to a new level for the women-focused accelerator. (FoundersWire Photo)


BOSTON—The Babson College Women Innovating Now Lab (better known as the WIN Lab) has made its reputation incubating female founders and their businesses.

Now its leaders have taken a page from the growth strategies they teach and applied it to their own model.

“Our big vision is to be the No. 1 accelerator for women around the world,” says Heatherjean MacNeil, global director for the WIN Lab. “I think we’re very ambitious in terms of how we’re going to get there. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds.”

In the course of a few months, MacNeil and her team of supporters, coaches and sponsors have executed some intricate plans, including christening Babson’s downtown campus at 100 High St., and expanding operations to its first remote campus in Miami.

Just last week, Boston’s 18 WIN-ners were whittled to a final three, with Own The Boardroom, Wanderful and LoveLeaf coming up in the money, pitching before a crowd of about 300 at The Atrium at the Davenport in Cambridge. Growth founder and CEO of ZappRX, Zoe Barry shared her message as keynote speaker, “Let’s get more XX in tech and more female founders funded.” Judges Smaiyra Million, David Chang, Sharon Kan and Patricia Forde made the final call for the cash. Million is one of the program’s entrepreneurs-in-residence. Chang, a local investor and growth advocate, was recently named the head of Babson’s summer venture program.

And a week before, Miami’s cohort celebrated its finals, with Zuke Music, Pierce Plan and Palmpress Coffee founders accepting prizes.

“Miami is the perfect ecosystem for us for a number of reasons. One, it’s emerging, so it’s raw, it’s early stage,” says MacNeil. “And there was a funder that recognized the need for a player to intervene early to create more of a gender-balanced entrepreneurial ecosystem. So it’s just been a great place for us to plant our roots and really become part of that movement of becoming.”

The Miami WIN Lab set up in the Cambridge Innovation Center, sited on University of Miami Life Science and Technology Park in Overtown, with Director Carolina Pina taking over the helm in February.

With so many companies applying to incubators and accelerators, deciding which ones to admit to the program is a challenge—but also a source of pride for the program’s supporters, she said. The WIN Lab’s mandate is to advance women entrepreneurs, so including companies at different stages and watching them develop becomes part of the value, where the women share the lessons they’ve learned with each other, stage to stage.

“It’s a little bit like the process of building an investment portfolio. We always have a nucleus of companies that we’re like, ‘Yeah, they’ll probably thrive. They check all the boxes.’ And then we grab our outliers, or we’ll meet an entrepreneur at that super-early stage, but you just want to sit and talk to them for five hours, because their passion is contagious and you believe in them as a human,” MacNeil says. “So we have a few of those. And some of them end up being our success stories, honestly. And then from a community perspective, we’re always looking for: What is that group dynamic going to look like and who will add value from that perspective, too—which I think makes us a little bit different.”

Boston director Ashley Lucas says the program has shifted in terms of the business stages they admit or “allocate seats to,” because the WIN Lab’s criteria differ from other accelerators. “We see a diverse group of people come into the program. And I think that Heatherjean has done an incredible job developing the curriculum so that you can lay it on top of an entrepreneur no matter where they are in the business.”

At every stage, female-led companies are still lacking support, the women (both former entrepreneurs themselves) say, despite a tide of evidence that women on teams create consistently successful growth patterns.

“There have been a series of wakeup calls, both from a gender and a minority perspective. The Diana Project run through Babson looked at women in relation to venture capital. There’s a phenomenon that’s happened, where suddenly the data is forcing people to look at the fact that only 2.7 percent of women founders raise venture capital, and that stat hasn’t changed in 10 years,” MacNeil says. “You can’t turn a blind eye to that. It’s so glaring.”

But it’s not as simple as getting investors to write checks to women. The history of entrepreneurship comes with a generations of subconscious bias—from how a woman presents, down to what kind of business she even chooses to build.

“We’re trying to solve it but we’re perpetuating it. And I think we’re very self-effacing about that,” Lucas says. “We’re really trying to figure out how to be gender-balanced in everything that we do so that we’re creating the right optic and creating the right setting that brings justice to the founders that we’re trying to serve, too. Because in many ways, it’s still a man’s world.”

She says the WIN Lab exists in a silo where men and women alike contribute to the program as investors and experts. “But they’re all coming from the perspective of, ‘I’ve been successful. I’ve lived the barriers. I see the barriers and I want to give back.’ And so we’re really good at curating a community of people that get the WIN Lab value proposition. They love working with our founders.”

As the WIN Lab continues to grow, eyeing the Asian market and a few others for expansion, they will continue to champion the women who attempt to conquer the innovation economy on the home front and abroad.

“We still need to figure out how to change the mind-set, change the behavior of the VCs, of the seed investors, of the power holders,” Lucas says. “And simultaneously, we’re trying to train women founders to walk into a room and understand where to go to build relationship capital, how to pitch, how to feel comfortable—which is the role of WIN Lab—and bringing those parties together to seek real change.

“I think those two things are still happening in silos, and so I think our work is really trying to figure out how to educate both sides, but educate them together so that there’s real change happening.”

The Boston WIN Lab program is open to Babson undergrad and graduate students and alumni. In partnership with the City of Boston’s Women on Main initiative, the program also offers five tuition-free fellowships to Boston-based entrepreneurs. The Miami program is available to any female entrepreneur from that region.

Boston and Miami are now accepting applications for their next cohorts. If you are a female entrepreneur in either of these communities that meets the criteria, apply HERE.

Immigrant founders: ‘Proven job creators we want to keep’


It’s not an overstatement to say America was built on the backs of founders who brought their ideas and energy across the oceans. From Alexander Graham Bell to Elon Musk and Michal Tsur, history is full of examples of men and women who arrived with a dream and launched an industry.

A study by the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan Arlington, Va., think tank, discovered immigrants found 51 percent (44 out of 87) of U.S. billion-dollar startups and are key members in more than 70 percent (62 out of 87) of these companies.

The research also showed that among the billion-dollar startup companies, foreign-born founders have collectively created more than 65,000 jobs.

Oyvind Reed wasn’t thinking in quite such lofty terms when he set out from Måløy, Norway, to establish a new beachhead for Videonor, a cloud-based video conferencing system founded in 2010.

“We built a big European operation but I saw we couldn’t sustain growth until we expanded in the United States,” says Reed, noting what sets his firm apart is a philosophy that allows its partners to build and brand their own capabilities.

To establish a corporate beachhead in Boston, Reed needed to navigate an immigration system that sets up roadblocks of time and money that American-born founders don’t face.

He arrived on an Electronic System for Travel Authorization, an automated system that determines eligibility to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. In reality, that meant spending two or three weeks in the U.S. before returning to Norway for a month, then repeating the process.

After conducting market studies and research, he eventually applied for an L-1 visa, which allows the temporary, intra-company transfer of managers, executives or individuals with specialized knowledge to continue employment with an office of the same employer, parent, branch, subsidiary or affiliate.

The process “was far more difficult” than anticipated, he notes, requiring 50-100 pages of documentation, much of it beyond what’s required in a business plan. For example, he needed to project the number of employees, wages and potential income for the first three years.

The task was made easier by the fact that his firm immediately hired an attorney to free him to build the business during the six-month process.

So what advice does he offer founders without the backing of a larger organization who need to navigate the system?

“Number One, make sure you talk to people. If you start this on your own, it will be extremely challenging,” he says, explaining there are Internet forums and blogs to help guide you through the maze. Also be sure to quickly identify the type of visa you want. “Otherwise you can go down the wrong path and waste a lot of time and money.”

The vast majority of founders must rely on the popular H1-B visa, whose numbers are capped annually and distributed through a lottery. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service offers a quick recap of options, including non-immigrant visa pathways that allow entrepreneurs to explore or start a new business.

There are also options beyond the lottery. The Massachusetts Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence (GEIR) program allows foreign-born entrepreneurs to stay in the United States under a cap-exempt H-1B visa by acting as a mentor as part of the GEIR and working on their startups at the same time. The program began in 2014 as a pilot between the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and University of Massachusetts.

Funded in part through a state budget appropriation, the program is being run in conjunction with the Venture Development Center at UMass-Boston, which has onboarded 21 participating entrepreneurs. A second center will launch this fall through Babson College.

Candidates must be startup entrepreneurs in a leadership position (CEO or co-founder) within an early-stage venture. They must have a master’s degree or above in STEM or related business fields, must be headquartered in Massachusetts and be able to affiliate with a venture center.

In exchange for access to a non-capped H1-B visa, founders must agree to affiliate with the educational institution, working part-time or serving as a mentor. They must also raise capital for their ventures.

William Brah, assistant vice provost for research and executive director of the UMass center, notes that current immigration law forces many highly recruited students to return home after graduation, despite being “proven job creators. They are the kind of people we want to keep in the country if they want to stay.”

When it comes to lawyers, many firms work specifically on immigration law, with fees often fixed on the basis of the type of visa sought, says Kristen Ness Ayers of the North Carolina-based Ayers Immigration Law Firm who worked with Reed.

For newly founded companies, her fixed fee ranges from $3,000-$4,000, including unlimited communication via email and phone. The need for original documents prevents electronic signatures on all official forms and on certain supporting letters.

Ayers has not found it necessary to speak and read a founder’s native language to prepare a case, “but I believe that it is helpful to be able to communicate in a client’s native language for purposes of developing a better connection.”

For founders without the deeper pockets of a larger organization, there is online legal help, including startups like Clearpath Immigration and Legal Hero and programs focused on championing immigrant founders, including Unshackled, a mission-centric fund for immigrant entrepreneurs that can help their selected foreign entrepreneurs handle issues of sponsoring work visas or green cards.

“America has been and continues to be built by and enhanced by immigrants launching businesses and lives here,” says Ayers. “These days it seems that many Americans have a narrow perspective … Remember that immigrants include founders and business owners and thousands of people who go through the difficult, stressful, expensive process of following the U.S. immigration laws to come to the U.S. to contribute to our great country and to grow our economy, to create jobs, to perform in movies or on stage, to start families, to live the American dream.”