The Prosper Women Entrepreneurs (PWE) is a business accelerator for startup companies powered and led by women. Right after its establishment the organization’s goals were to protect and develop women-led projects in St. Louis, Missouri where the PWE is based. Today, it accepts applications from women from all over the world and aims to support female business in the homogenous male management reality.

The Prosper Women Entrepreneurs as a startup-accelerator

Idea: In 2012 a business group from St. Louis, Missouri read statistics published by the Kauffman Foundation and American Express OPEN about women-led companies and their impact on the US economy. The group expected to find St. Louis-based start-ups powered by women somewhere between the top and the middle of the list but the city was ranked last. After exploring this information, the group decided to run a business accelerator that would advance women-led companies originally from St. Louis, after – from the US, today – from all over the world. So they created the Prosper Women Entrepreneurs.

The Prosper Women Entrepreneurs (PWE) is an organization consisted of two different divisions: the Prosper Institute and the PWE Startup Accelerator which we are talking about. The Prosper Institute is a non-profit company focused on teaching and mentoring women in the business community. The PWE Startup Accelerator is, unlike the Prosper Institute, a for-profit project whose mission is to increase the number of women entrepreneurs on the capital market and to help them not only start their business but to develop it.

Jennifer Ehlen was one of the founders of the Prosper Women Entrepreneurs and its affiliate organization the Brazen Global. Both companies are aimed at supporting women-led businesses. Today, Jennifer is a Managing Partner of the PWE Startup Accelerator and the CEO of Brazen Global. Before beginning to work for those projects, Jennifer was the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University and a Director at Thompson Street Capital Partners, where she worked with management to help evaluate investment opportunities for the St. Louis-based private equity firm.

In an interview with the online media EQ, Jennifer said that while she’s been the Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the mid-2000’s she often felt like the only woman in the room. Since then St. Louis has come a long way but the city is still ranked dismally for women entrepreneurs. The situation has changed a few but there’s lots of work to do. She says the main goal for today is to create a completely inclusive ecosystem for women startuppers and minorities.

A formula for such a system consists, according to Ehlen, of ‘more women and minorities sitting at the table as investors in our investment firms and angel groups, more women and minorities receiving early stage capital, more women and minorities working on management teams’. The PWE is the best proof that this system works: ‘Prosper has 2 male managing partners out of 6 on the capital side and 3 male board members out of 11 on the Institute side’. And the PWE Business Accelerator is one of the companies that helps women to show the world that they can lead.

How does the PWE Business Accelerator work?

Mary Waiss, the Fall 2016 graduate of Prosper Women Entrepreneur’s (PWE) Startup Accelerator and CEO at Precision Image Analysis Medical, describes the program simply: ‘This is CEO School. Just like parenting, for which there is no school, there is also no formal process to learn to be a successful CEO. PWE offers a unique opportunity to learn directly from other successful executives to help you propel your business in a meaningful way.’ And it’s true.

Twice a year the PWE Startup Accelerator selects up to 6 companies in each class for a total of no more than 12 companies a year. Each class lasts three months during which the company provides mentorship for the selected organizations powered by women. The PWE Accelerator also invests $50,000 in every women-led start-up. In addition, the program matches the companies to mentors, networks and other resources that could affect their growth positively. There’s also no need to relocate the company: All company founders commit to being in St. Louis for the two days a week that the program is provided over the three month period. 

There are some other funding resources available to the selected business projects. They are eligible for further follow on funding from the PWE Startup Accelerator fund. Important is that the PWE Accelerator also actively introduces the women-led start-ups to other regional funding sources and mentor their approach.

And, as the results show, the accelerator not only supports women in the first stage of launching the business but also helps them to build a correct business model and to achieve success and to obtain financing in the future. For example, in February 2017, one PWE alumna was inducted as Pipeline fellow for the business she runs together with another woman.

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