Networking opportunities for female entrepreneurs

Sunday, 01 October 2023

Susan Muldowney

    Apropela supports female entrepreneurs to grow their companies more quickly by introducing them to high-profile connectors. Now it’s set to open more doors for women by taking its model across the world. 

    What will it take for an organisation like Apropela to reach its use-by date? It’s a question on the mind of its chair, Melissa Widner, who co-founded Apropela (formerly Heads over Heels) in 2010 with a mission to connect women-led businesses with investors and growth opportunities. For Apropela to become irrelevant, the entrepreneurial ecosystem will offer equal opportunities for all. Widner says that day can’t come soon enough. In the meantime, there’s much work to be done.

    “When we talk about the ultimate vision, it’s to have no need for organisations like ours, because there will be parity,” says Widner, who is also CEO of fintech funder Lighter Capital. “Women are very entrepreneurial — they actually start as many or more companies than men — but they just don’t grow at the same pace. One of the reasons for this is a lack of access to the networks needed to scale a business.”

    Forging connections

    Australia’s ecosystem for female entrepreneurship is evolving, but access to capital remains a significant barrier. Organisations like Apropela are helping to drive change by giving women more access to the same powerful networks as men.

    A not-for-profit, Apropela’s model is based on recruiting female founders — who are known as its “portfolio-company CEOs” — and coaching them to pitch their business plans and requests at events attended by prominent leaders in business, government and the community. Interested parties make connections and arrange further introductions to their relevant contacts.

    “We track every offer that’s made and we measure how often connectors follow through on those offers — that’s close to 100 per cent,” says Widner. “We also track how often introductions lead to connections, how helpful they are and whether they are game-changing. We hope that each entrepreneur will have one or two game-changing connections.”

    To date, Apropela has helped more than 100 portfolio-company CEOs achieve more than 6000 high-impact connections with the help of 1800 connectors. Its alumni includes Expert 360 founder and Telstra non-executive director Bridget Loudon, Kristy Chong OAM of Modibodi and Lisa Schutz MAICD of Verifier.

    Its founders had always aspired to take Apropela beyond Australia, but assumed they’d need teams on the ground. When COVID-19 lockdowns forced its events online, Apropela suddenly had the model required to go global. The expansion also prompted its recent rebranding.

    “When we did our first event in the US, I’d introduce Heads Over Heels to people and kind of felt funny saying it,” says Widner, whose previous roles include general partner at US venture capital firm SeaPoint Ventures. “Heels sounds like stilettos, and it doesn’t represent what we’re about. Given we are starting to host global events, we realised if we’re going to change the name, the time was now. However, our mission is absolutely the same, which is to help more women-run companies grow by opening up connections.”

    Female Access to Australian Private Capital Funding


    Funded startups that have a woman founder


    Private investment level from venture capital and other sources in FY22 (more than double the FY21 level)


    Private funding percentage to solely women-founded companies


    Percentage of private funding to companies with at least one woman founder


    Five-year average proportion of private funding that went to solely women-founded companies

    Source: Techboard/SBE Australia, Funding for Women Led Ventures report.

    Behind the numbers

    Kate Harper GAICD, who joined Apropela as CEO in November last year, says these connections take many forms.

    “They might lead to sales or to finding a board member or a mentor,” she says. “Even though we’re not an angel network, our companies have also raised a lot of money through connections they’ve made [at Apropela]. One CEO who presented at one of our events got $6m in funding.”

    A former investment banker and specialist in executive/board search and consulting, Harper says Apropela supports female-founded companies in high-growth mode.

    “They don’t necessarily have to be profitable, but we want to ensure that when they come to us, we can give them the biggest bang for their buck. So they need to be in that sweet spot of scaling where our connectors can introduce them with confidence to potential customers at the big end of town.”

    Research from Deloitte shows that just 0.7 per cent of funding secured by startups went to solely women-founded companies last financial year, despite funding for startups increasing tenfold between FY18–FY22.

    Widner says that while the numbers may appear dismal, they’re not telling the whole story.

    “What’s skewing the numbers is that you’ll have $800m rounds or $1b rounds, and they might go to a later-stage company run by a male. It’s skewing the fact that there are many female companies receiving funding now, even though it might be smaller dollars because they’re at earlier stages.”

    While the availability of funding for women is changing, so are those writing the cheques, emphasises Widner.

    “Ten or 12 years ago, there were hardly any women in venture capital, and there are still very few at the partner level,” she says. “But, on the bright side, there aren’t many venture firms today that don’t have women on the investment team, even though it may be at the associate or analyst level.”

    She notes that this is a big change in the right direction. “Many VCs are keen to highlight how many women-led or women co-founded companies they have funded. When you start to measure things, they start to change. The fact that Australia’s most successful unicorn is Canva, and it is run by a woman, is a huge plus. People can see you can make money investing in women.”

    Going global

    Apropela’s model is supported by its strategy council, which comprises leaders from various areas of the entrepreneurial environment. They include Reserve Bank of Australia board member Carol Schwartz AO FAICD, former Telstra CEO and current chair of Xero and Tyro, David Thodey AO FAICD, and Myer Family Investments chair Sid Myer AM.

    “As we build our strategy council, we look for people who can not only give us good advice, but are also great connectors for our portfolio companies,” says Widner.

    Harper describes Apropela’s connectors, who volunteer their time, as its “real differentiator” and says non-executive directors are especially valuable. “They bring a strategic understanding of a number of sectors and are good at joining the dots across different industries.”

    Apropela has forged strong connections of its own within the Australian female entrepreneurship ecosystem. Harper cites Scale Investors, the female- focused angel syndicate network, and SBE Australia, which runs the Springboard women’s accelerator program, as programs that are punching above their weight.

    “We are constantly referring entrepreneurs to each other,” notes Harper. “I’ll often say to an entrepreneur, you’re too early-stage for us, but Scale would like to talk to you, or you should do a program at SBE Australia.”

    Apropela’s Australian model now features a mix of virtual and live events. Future plans include expanding into countries such as New Zealand and hosting more events in the US, where Widner says a similar model doesn’t exist.

    Widner and Harper both agree that advancing the huge potential in women’s entrepreneurship will require more role models and greater access to powerful networks, which remains the focus of the company’s work.

    “It took us a long time to perfect the model, and now it’s just a matter of helping more entrepreneurs,” says Widner. “We’ll do that by looking to other geographies and continuing to get our message out to more connectors.”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Network Effect’ in the October 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.

    Latest news

    This is of of your complimentary pieces of content

    This is exclusive content.

    You have reached your limit for guest contents. The content you are trying to access is exclusive for AICD members. Please become a member for unlimited access.