Pipeline Fellowship helps women break into angel investing.
The seven women who were gathered in a nondescript Microsoft conference room chatted like old friends. They had only recently met, but the group had been in frequent contact — money was on the line, after all. Three months prior, the group began the Pipeline Fellowship, a program that teaches women how to become angel investors. The class concludes with a funding round, and that’s what the women were doing on this November day. Seven startups had come to Bellevue to pitch their companies, and one would walk away with the $35,000 the group had pledged to invest.
Natalia Oberti Noguera, dubbed “The Coach” by Marie Claire magazine, primed the cohort for a tightly scheduled day with seven pitches in quick succession.
Oberti Noguera founded Pipeline Fellowship in April 2011 in New York City. She is energetically passionate about teaching women how to be angel investors. Oberti Noguera started the angel investing boot camp after hearing a prominent angel investor — she won’t say whom — say at a conference that he looks for “someone like me” — a man — when reviewing companies for potential investments.
“I was glad he said it out loud, because a lot of people were thinking it and not saying it,” Oberti Noguera says.
Women made up 19 percent of the angel population in 2013, down slightly from 2012, according to the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire. Of companies seeking angel capital, 23 percent were women-owned.
“My take was pattern recognition — we are comfortable with people who look like ourselves,” Oberti Noguera says. So she set out to turn the world of angel investing on its head. “If it is about pattern recognition, let’s get more women and people of color into angel investing, because they’re probably going to be more interested in investing in women and people of color.”
Each Pipeline cohort completes a three-part curriculum. First, participants are taught investment basics such as interpreting financial statements, determining valuation, and establishing a portfolio strategy. Next, fellows are matched with experienced investors who share best practices and highlight red flags commonly exhibited by startups. The final step of boot camp is called the Pitch Summit, during which the fellows hear business proposals from women-owned social ventures and, as a group, select one business to fund in exchange for equity.
More than 80 women have completed the program, and the number is rapidly growing. In 2015, 23 cohorts are scheduled across the country.
“I’m super passionate about activating local capital for entrepreneurs,” Oberti Noguera says, explaining that she would rather go where investors live and teach them in their own environment, rather than have them attend a program in New York City.
“We are building a hub of capital for Seattle-based entrepreneurs, which is really exciting,” she says. “They probably have in their networks women or people of color who might not have thought about going to secure financing and now they have this point of reference. We’re expanding accessibility to this alternate source of capital.”
Oberti Noguera’s experience tells her that women are more comfortable pitching to a panel of women. There’s that pattern recognition again. “Just being candid, we’re not being invited into the room,” she says.
Seattle cohort participant Kathleen Winder, director of partner marketing at Microsoft, says it another way.
“In some of the communities that I have seen — I see these a lot (at Microsoft) — they’re designed and optimized for a different segment, and I’ve seen women repeatedly not do well in that scenario,” Winder says. “They repeatedly freeze up during presentations or doing a more administrative function. There are really sharp PowerPoint organizers at a pitch summit, and that’s not going to get them funding. That will get them visibility, but not get them where they deserve to be. This format is helping them get there faster.”
Oberti Noguera says entrepreneurs might not realize that they can benefit from financing. A business might be running fine, but the owner doesn’t realize that if she can get a little extra funding, she can hire that other person to help with order fulfillment, bookkeeping, or marketing to help scale the business.
“It begins that critical capital injection that gets that company to the next level. Whether it’s to become more self-sustaining, scale, make a bigger impact, or provide what they need to get to the next level to be considered for a bigger-stage investment,” Oberti Noguera says. “They might be hesitating, wanting to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, not realizing that even if they don’t get funding, the feedback they get from the room and the potential contacts is more valuable than stepping up to pitch and not getting funding,” she says.
Pipeline Fellowship’s Pitch Summit offers a comfortable avenue for entrepreneurs who might have shied away from pitching to angel investors in a traditional format.
“I’d say that the majority of entrepreneurs that are applying to Pitch Summit, this is the first time they are pitching. And yet, why haven’t they?” Oberti Noguera says.
At the end of the Pitch Summit in November, each panel member congratulated the entrepreneurs on their presentations and offered words of encouragement for the future.
“I loved watching you guys warm up,” Anne Bradley, a privacy counsel for Nike in Portland, told the participants. “It was really nice to hear you warm up into your own authentic voices, and really share what was passionate for you. It’s incredibly compelling to hear why you care about it.”
Winder says she got involved with Pipeline Fellowship because she was looking for a way to be involved in entrepreneurship outside of Microsoft.
“(I wanted to) have a connection that really had nothing to do with Microsoft and help develop the Seattle community in a way that was additive,” Winder says. “This has been an incredibly valuable and important experience. I’m getting more out of it than I expected, and my expectations were plenty high.”
Each Pipeline fellow must be an accredited investor, meaning she earned $200,000 alone or $300,000 jointly each of the past two years, or have a net worth of at least $1 million. A spot in the Pipeline Fellowship costs $4,500 and a $5,000 investment commitment. The cohort meets for two days per month for six months to study different aspects of angel investing.
“Learning by doing is the signature piece,” Oberti Noguera says. “They get to review applications from entrepreneurs, select eight to 10 to pitch, and then select three companies to further consider.”
And, ultimately, each member of the cohort has skin in the game.
“There’s a template to success in these scenarios, and the more we dive in, the more we look at it, the more we see it,” Winder says. “A lot of these women have had successes in other startups and exit strategies, and here they are again.”
It might not be a surprise that Oberti Noguera describes herself as “pro-Lean In,” referring to the New York Times-bestselling book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. In the book, Sandberg encourages women to unapologetically pursue professional ambitions and goals. In the same unapologetic way, Oberti Noguera encourages women and people of color to enter the room instead of waiting for an invitation. Pipeline Fellowship has provided a conduit for that
“Educated women with confidence that have experienced other successes in their life are trying something new, and that’s what men have been doing for a long time,” Winder says. “The scenario of the confidence gap is one of the most important parts. You can’t will your way out of confidence.”
Pipeline Fellowship is the sandbox for women to experiment and learn in a safe environment, whether it’s the investing side or the pitching side.
“I think society is proving time and time again that what we focus on we make change with, and that’s what I think is going on here,” Winder says. “I think that for this group of women, it’s the start that matters.”