Never Let a Good Crisis Go To Waste

Janis Collins, co-founder of The Refinery, explores reacting to a crisis with Sarah Biller, a leader who chooses to act. The conversation is part of a series with authentic leaders around “Finding Your Sweet Spot”, and was featured as part of an Open Doors event for HUBweek, an innovation festival for Greater Boston.

Sarah Biller was working at a large Asset Management firm in 2007 — a noisy and frenetic place — when suddenly, there was deafening silence. One of the worst economic disasters since the Great Depression had begun. Sarah recalls, “We all knew what was happening, but would we just stand-by and watch the financial markets collapse?” Something inside her clicked, and she knew she had to help head off this kind of disaster in the future. In the wake of the credit crisis, Sarah raised venture capital, convincing investors about why and why now she needed to build a solution to predict risks and prevent future credit disasters in the bond market.

What made Sarah act instead of shrink in the face of crisis? She could see a solution. She knew the data and tools existed to predict risks in the financial markets — it just needed someone to pull it all together. Despite many doubters, Sarah dug in her heels and convinced investors she could build that solution.

Sarah trusted her values. “I learned who I was in mid-crisis. I shed the stigma of failure because I planned to solve something about which I was passionate. My core values and beliefs drove me.” Bill George, former CEO of Medtronics and author of Discovering Your True North stresses the need to “identify the values and principles that guide your leadership.” See your failures as learnings and “crucibles” that shape who you are and your leadership capabilities.

Core values are also critical to sustainability. Brenda Barnes, CEO of Sara Lee, advises: “If you are guided by an internal compass that represents your character and values, you are going to be fine…. Don’t lose that internal compass.” Sarah kept hers going. In 2009, she launched Capital Markets Exchange (CMX), a venture backed technology platform that uses natural language processing, machine learning and predictive analytics to alert institutional investors to a credit crisis with enough time to act.

Acting doesn’t mean doing it alone. Sarah believes in “extending ownership to the people you work with, and enabling teams that are powerful and own it as if it’s their own path.” Bill George says, “authentic leaders have discovered their True North, align people around a shared purpose and values, and empower them to lead authentically to create value for all stakeholders.”

Since the successful build and launch of CMX, whose clients managed in excess of $6 trillion of Fixed Income assets, Sarah has continued her work in technology innovation at a Global Custody bank, where she was Chief Operating Officer for Innovation, and then founding the Fintech Sandbox, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support the creation and growth of Fintech solutions globally — one more example of empowering others in her mission.

Recently, Sarah has turned her focus to the underserved. Originally from West Virginia, she is all too familiar with the economic challenges of the “fly-over states”. Driven again to act, Sarah is looking to create solutions for economic mobility and equality. “We have opportunities to serve segments of society who have not historically been part of financial services and, in general, leverage the capital markets to do good more broadly.”

We are living in turbulent times with daily crises, and also an abundance of leadership opportunities. For those eager to take up the leadership mantle and solve real problems, consider the lessons of Sarah Biller.

1. In the face of crisis, leaders are driven into action by their core values to solve real problems.

2. Authentic leaders recognize that failures are opportunities to learn more about themselves and to grow.

3. Empowering others to lead, aligning around shared values, is essential to the problem-solving journey.

Never let a good crisis go to waste — use it as a driver to create solutions, to clarify your core values, and to “find your sweet spot”.

For more critical leadership insights, we recommend, FORGED IN CRISIS — The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times by celebrated Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn. Forged in Crisis, available on Amazon, spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.



Avoiding Mistakes in Your Cap Tables with Eshares

Many businesses create their first ever cap table in Excel. But for any startup, you will soon need to move on to a software platform. Using cap table software, will provide you with efficacy, transparency, and protection from simple errors — all improvements that will help you and your investors feel secure.

At eShares, we see over 250 cap tables a month. Almost everyone has a least one mistake. The best way to have a healthy cap table is to collect the correct data from the very start. This will make the essential step of transitioning to software much easier, when the time comes.

Below are four important pieces of equity data you should be tracking from day one at your company:

1. Dates

The date you grant a stock certificate or option informs many aspects of its lifecycle. It determines the vesting schedule, the taxes a holder must pay when selling and many other critical details. In addition to tracking the grant date, it’s important that the date of exercise and date the stock certificate is awarded are the same. You should also track the date of terminations as that is used to determine your employee’s Post-Termination Exercise window.

You won’t believe the number of companies we have seen that have allowed former employees to buy their stock options, even thought it was after their PTE window had closed, just because this wasn’t being tracked.

2. Transactions

Early investors and early employees will have multiple option and stock grants. It is critical to track which option is being exercised to create which certificate. You will need to match certificate ID numbers, dates and entity names. You also need to note if these certificates were issued on paper or electronically. This will make recording these events in a cap table software much simpler later on.

3. Convertible Notes

As an early stage company, you probably raised your first tranche of money using convertible notes. Many view convertible notes as debt and tracked them as such, in a forgotten in a folder until a conversion triggering event.  In reality, they should be viewed as equity and tracked in the cap table.

4.  Percentage of ownership, not simply number of shares.

Stock certificates only track the number of shares given to each party. To gain real insight from your cap table you and your investors need to know the percentage ownership.  Make sure your cap table clearly shows the percent ownership for each stakeholder to avoid inadvertently diluting anyone.

If you want a powerful Excel cap table template to use prior to switching onto a software platform, check out the eShares template here.






Hiding in Plain Sight—Top Tech Startups You Didn’t See Coming

Fueling the Growth with #UberPITCH Showcase

Fueling the Growth with #UberPITCH Showcase

When I mention the statistic that less than 4% of venture funding goes to women-led companies, someone always says, “Maybe women aren’t starting as many high-growth potential companies as men,” or “Maybe the ones women start just aren’t as good.”  And, I wonder, do people really believe that nonsense? It must be unconscious bias kicking in.


If there is one thing we at The Refinery (an accelerator for women-led tech companies) have learned, it’s that there are more high quality, high-growth potential women-led tech companies than any of us suspected. And, they are solving both business and consumer problems.


Here’s our proof: The Refinery teamed up with Uber and the Kauffman Foundation to host a $100,000 Pitch Competition for the top women-led tech companies from 5 cities. In keeping with Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest, we focused on the emerging startup ecosystems of Kansas City, Baltimore, Stamford, New Haven, and Providence to uncover companies that investors may not already know about.


And, we created a winning scenario where selected companies in the qualifying round would get a chance to pitch one-on-one to an investor for 7 minutes, and then receive 7 minutes of feedback while riding in an Uber.


With grassroots marketing, using mostly word of mouth and our network, we launched the competition with a short application timeframe. Collaborators such as 37Angels, Pipeline Angels, Astia, MassChallenge and DreamIt Ventures helped us get the word out.


What happened was amazing. Within a 5-week window, we received over 300 applications from women-led tech companies in our selected cities and several from as far away as North Carolina and Texas. 


Limited by space in the 5 cities, we were only able to select the top 150 companies (less than half that applied) to pitch in the Uber qualifying round, leaving many more amazing companies behind.


Investors who had heard the pitches in the Ubers had the tough job of selecting the top 25 (again, leaving many qualified companies behind) to move on to a showcase and pitch-off for a position in the top ten spot. It was a near impossible task to pick those top 25 companies. As one of the investors riding in an Uber, I was faced with 4 out of the 6 companies I listened to being completely qualified and impressive. One of the other investors told us it was the most qualified group he had encountered in a “speed dating scenario.”


The showcase and pitch-off was an impressive collection of companies, and our judges during both the semi-finals and finals had the equally tough job of selecting the top companies for the cash awards. It was an exciting day and night in which every company that pitched seemed better than the one previous.


One our VC judges said, “I am so impressed by the quality of and prospects for the finalists. It is so encouraging to see these entrepreneurs embrace start-ups and create new businesses.”


Investors voted with their money. An attending investor told us the event far surpassed his expectations, and that he hoped to invest in several of the companies. One month later, the investor wired his investments to two of the top ten companies that pitched.


The moral of the story? Women are creating amazing, high-growth tech companies that solve the problems of businesses and consumers. They need to be uncovered, provided visibility, and in some cases, the guidance and confidence to ask for the money to get funded. Why aren’t they getting visibility? That’s for the next blog.


For more information on our amazing Fueling the Growth Pitch Competition Semi-Finalists, please see our website.



Take the Quiz



Take the Quiz--Are you Ready for The Refinery?

1. You are stuck. Many times around 2-3 years, you need to make decisions about where your company is going, but it’s hard to do without guidance, strategic thinking, or just plain validation.  The Refinery will help you move forward by answering the big questions:

·      How do you create a repeatable sales model for sustainable growth?  Is your messaging and branding geared to your Target Customer? Have you really thought through your channel strategy? What about a strategic partner? Upsides? Downsides?

·      Should you take outside funding and if so, how much? From whom? How do you get to them? What information should you share? When are you ready? Are your financials in good shape?

·      What does your team need to look like for success? How do you hire quality people for your startup that will stay with you? What do you pay them? What should you look for in an Advisory Board? How do you find them? Pay them? Fire them? How do you become an effective CEO?

2.  You don’t have time for training.  Clients who have gone through our program say they learned more about their own company in 12 weeks than they could have anywhere else in 2 years. Our program is a personalized, mini-MBA. We do hands-on problem solving with your company.  We continue to enhance, iterate, and customize the material for every cohort.  In addition, as a checkpoint, we regularly review the program with Harvard executive education leaders.

3. You don’t know which financial model or tools to use.  You will leave our program with tools and templates that will go with you as you grow you company. Whether it is our financial model, milestone roadmap, funding strategy, human resource packet, pitch deck, or one–pager, you will have the confidence that your financial modeling is sound.

4.  You have received lots of free, contradictory advice.  We know many people love to provide free advice, and we have watched many a startup flip flop direction because of all the varied advice they receive. Our mentoring program was specifically designed to avoid this. You will meet and work with incredible expert mentors in a structured way.  We have tapped into the intellectual and financial capital of Fairfield County to participate in our program.  All mentors are curated and matched to each company. They know your space and how to navigate it.

5. You need to talk to someone outside your company or family. Growing your own company can be lonely, and there is nothing like having a peer group to share resources, solutions, and problem solving. You will join a community that can relate to your challenges, revel in your successes, and provide a tip or two along the way.

If you answered “yes” two or more times, consider joining our Winter Boost



Fueling the Growth Semi-Finalists


The Refinery, Uber and the Kauffman Foundation are pleased to announce the 25 semi-finalists from five U.S. cities who will be pitching to investors in the Fueling the Growth with UberPITCH competition on Wednesday, November 16, at the Stamford Innovation Center. The semi-finalists will pitch their businesses from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET to a group of investors, who will then select 10 finalists to pitch again in that evening, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., to split $120,000 in grant awards. All 25 semi-finalists will be showcasing their companies from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., just prior to the finals pitch.   

The semi-finalists were selected out of a field of more than 275 who applied to compete in the investor pitch competition. On October 26, 150 women tech entrepreneurs pitched to investors while taking a fifteeen-minute Uber ride. Thirty investors heard the pitches in five cities, including Providence, New Haven, Stamford, Washington DC and Kansas City. The investors selected the top companies from those rides to be the semi-finalists. 

“Our goal in hosting Fueling the Growth with UberPITCH was to get as many women entrepreneurs, as possible, in one on one meetings with investors to pitch their companies and get feedback” said, Refinery co-founder, Janis Collins.

The 25 semi-finalists competing in Stamford on Nov. 16 are listed below by city:

Kansas City - ConsultUS Technologies, PopBookings, Mobility Designed, Play-it Health

New Haven, CT - My Gene Counsel, Torigen Pharmaceuticals, SepsisDx, RepVisits

Stamford, CT - Curative Orthopaedics, Liquidaty, Scouted, Fairygodboss, FROTH

Washington, D.C. - Wellinks, Electric Feel, The Mentor Method, MoneyComb, Corrie Health, Unbound, RedShred, SameGrain

Providence, RI - Bioarray Genetics, Vitae Industries, Sproutel and BREONICS.

More on The Refinery

The Refinery is an accelerator that fuels the growth of early stage ventures with diverse teams.  In two years, The Refinery has achieved rapid results: 62 companies mentored by 75+ subject expert mentors, through five program cycles, who have raised $10 million+ in funds. Further information can be found on The Refinery’s website.

More on the Kauffman Foundation

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that aims to foster economic independence by advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success. Founded by late entrepreneur and philanthropist Ewing Marion Kauffman, the Foundation is based in Kansas City, Mo., and has approximately $2 billion in assets. For more information, visit our website, and follow the Foundation on Twitter and Facebook.

More on Uber

Uber is a technology platform that is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 400 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.  For more information, visit