Hacker houses are celebrating a comeback for entrepreneurs as remote work drags on. While the founders adapt to quarantine in style, a group of college women in their twenties aren't waiting to finish college to immerse themselves in the lifestyle.
Founded by college juniors Coco Sack and Kendall Titus, Womxn Ignite is a home for female and non-binary college students studying computer science. The idea arose from Sack and Titus' exhaustion with the correspondence school in Yale and Stanford respectively. After too many boring Zoom lectures, they took a gap semester and looked for a productive way to spend their free time.
"There are many (programs) aimed at younger women to get them programming in high school, and there are many syndicates and founding groups for women who are late in their careers," said Titus. "But there wasn't anything for someone between the ages of 20 and 25 to try to find your way around, raise your voice, and assert yourself."
So they started their own program. The duo rented a wedding resort in California and were looking for other women who would try the lifestyle and take a year off. As more than 40% of the students consider a gap year, the demand became clear very quickly: over 500 people applied for a place in the house, and only 20 were selected.
Womxn Ignite is organized as a live-in incubator. The participants are sorted into teams according to their areas of interest and then pushed to solve a specific problem.
For this purpose, the teams go through various mentoring sessions. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, Womxn Ignite sets up mentoring sessions based on women entrepreneurs. Guest speaker talks will also be held during the week for high profile entrepreneurs, including Melinda Gates and Whitney Wolfe Herd from Bumble.
At the end of each week, a team gives a presentation on the progress made with problems, solutions, customer validation, and product development.
Titus says the goal is not to get everyone out with a business, but to leave more people in your network and ideas on how to start your business. A participant writes a TV show about a black woman in the technical field. On the other hand, a company is being founded to make programs like Womxn Ignite easier to launch on a large scale.
In between, it is mainly used for team-based collaboration and networking. There are themed nights and “platonic date nights,” where participants are paired and encouraged to explore the local area or do an activity together to get to know each other. On weekends, women are invited to talk about their obsession with niches, be it ethical concerns of facial recognition or nanoscale materials.
Titus and Sack state they won't charge more than $ 5,000 to enter the program, but more than half of those attending receive scholarships from unnamed investors.
The diversity of a cohort is important in trying to create a community that systematically empowers women of all origins. The racial diversity of Womxn Ignite ranges from mostly white, but is closely hit by Black and LatinX, followed by Middle Easter and Asian Indian. Attendees came from all top schools including Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth, and MIT.
The community of women, many of whom are planning to return to school, doesn't just focus on classic accelerator tropes like demo days or first exams just because they are in a phase of life. Instead, the program ends with an optional question: will each participant invest 1% of their annual income in a syndicated fund for the next 5 years? So far, most have signed yes, the co-founders said, although the majority will return to school in some way.
The fund will be used to invest in other female founders and to grow as Womxn Ignite members grow in their careers.
"Hopefully that number will grow," said Titus. "We have summarized what we can think about together, how we would like to spend and invest money to support other founders like us."
Clara Schwab, a Womxn Ignite participant, said the contract will help women become more involved in venture capital earlier in their careers, a male-dominated field.
"And I don't know of any other environment or situation where me and 19 other really talented, bright, ambitious women, all of whom are interested in technology, come together and enjoy discussing something like that," she said.
The co-founders plan to add another cohort in February and then focus on building a digital community for the participants.