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Leveling the playing field – Communitech

Rachel Drew had laid a solid foundation for her startup but she knew there was more she could do to strengthen her go-to-market strategy, refine her customer-success process and gain deeper insights into her customer base.

She turned to Fierce Founders, the renowned Communitech program designed to help women and non-binary founders start, grow and succeed.

It was there she found the coaching and mentoring to help her take Cadence – an end-to-end estate-planning and settlement solution – to the next level.

“They've really helped us basically take what we've done and refine it more," says Drew. "They made the right changes just when they were needed.”

As the Fierce Founders program approaches its 10th anniversary in 2024, its impact on startups is more evident than ever. What started as a pitch competition in 2014 is now a comprehensive program with several specialized tracks and more than 300 graduates.

“Communitech recognized the need to support women and non-binary founders and increase their participation in tech, both as founders and at technology companies, in order to help our companies be more successful,” recalls Alayne Hynes, Director of Program Operations at Communitech. “In 2013, we applied for and received funding from the federal government through the Status of Women Canada.”

That funding supported Communitech’s Women in Tech (WiT) program, which launched in 2014 and included six days of programming that culminated in a pitch competition for $25,000 in prize money.

“It included a WiT peer-to-peer group, networking events, a mentorship program, skill development training and our first version of the bootcamp, which was called Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp,” says Hynes. 

That’s where it all started. 

The program was a hit, and Communitech quickly discovered that women founders thrived in a supportive environment that was tailored to their needs.

“Research at the time showed that women drive higher profitability,” says Hynes. “Also, tech can't afford to ignore 50 per cent of the talent available.”

From 2015 until the pandemic hit in 2020, the pitch competition had a $100,000 prize. Judges witnessed some great pitches, but they also saw some common gaps in the business plans.

“Founders needed more help building the fundamentals behind the pitch,” says Michelle Engelhardt, Senior Program Manager for Communitech’s Founder Services. “So, we switched to a bootcamp model where founders participate in workshops and one-to-one coaching time to help the founder apply what they have learned to their own business. The purpose behind the new topics covered is to help each founder think bigger about their market opportunity, validate their idea and build the necessary fundamentals to create successful scaling companies in Canada.”

Fierce Founders has become extremely popular with founders and has been made possible through the support of the Scale Up Platform, which is funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario.

"With each new cohort, our ranks grow stronger – now standing at an impressive 326 companies that have journeyed through these transformative programs," says Engelhardt. “We are now seeing the impact, companies that started in Fierce Founders with just an idea years ago are now raising their series A." 

Graduates have collectively raised more than $217 million in financing – a testament to the power of community and the impressive accomplishments of women and non-binary entrepreneurs.

“For many founders, building strong relationships with other successful women and non-binary founders who have overcome the same challenges they are facing is extremely inspirational and gives them the confidence that they can do it as well,” says Janet Bannister, founder of Staircase Ventures and member of Communitech’s Board of Directors. 

Fierce Founders offers three programs:

Fierce Founders Bootcamp

The six-week bootcamp bolsters the growth of early-stage companies by helping founders validate their ideas and think bigger about their markets. The program connects founders with a supportive community of fellow Fierce Founders and experienced advisors who have walked the same path. 

“In this first step, founders engage in weekly workshops and receive personalized one-on-one coaching – an uncommon advantage at this early stage in other programs,” says Engelhardt. “This support system has proven invaluable due to our extensive roster of over 30 coaches, each an expert in various domains, from marketing to fundraising."

Participants learn to shape their business model, validate ideas, grasp the market, analyze competition and seize business opportunities.

“Fierce Founders connected us to an array of professionals with experience and wisdom that we could never have accessed in any other accelerator or community,” says graduate Sarah Jane Flynn, CEO of Tourlitix Inc. “The level of expertise was unparalleled. We got more out of these six weeks than in months of working in isolation.”

Applications are open until Oct. 4, 2023 for the next cohort of this program. Interested founders can apply here. 

Fierce Founders Uplift

Unfolding over three to five months, this program provides founders with $10,000 in non-matching funds, networking with peers and expert guidance from Communitech's growth coaches. Founders are able to sharpen market insights, refine go-to-market strategies and hone leadership skills through personalized coaching and workshops.

"Our program aims to assist early-stage companies led by equity-deserving founders by providing initial capital and tailored growth plans," says Engelhardt. "Securing early-stage capital can be challenging, with many programs demanding substantial traction or matching funds, hindering founders from seizing opportunities. This program was designed to bridge that gap."

The kind of help is tailored to each company’s individual needs. 

“I felt supported every step of the way, as coaches were adding value and the content was relevant to my business,” says Assel Beglinova, CEO of Paperstack. “I enjoyed working with my coach, Heather, who brought a ton of practical advice, and extended access to her network when necessary.”

For Ingenyewity CEO Maria Plummer, the program has left her and her staff feeling more confident about the future. 

“The Communitech team and the Fierce Founders program has been instrumental in taking my company from ground zero to investor ready,” says Plummer. “Their advisors are phenomenal and really want to help entrepreneurs.”

Fierce Founders Intensive Track

This program offers founders a path to scalability. Participants can access hands-on support from experienced growth coaches, develop and execute a customized growth plan and have access to matching seed funds of $50,000 from the Federal Economic Development Agency of Southern Ontario through the Scale Up Platform.

“This program is for later-stage companies who thoroughly understand their market and customers,” says Engelhardt. “They have a team and are ready to press the gas pedal on their growth.”

Through Intensive Track, founders gain comprehensive knowledge that helps them make informed decisions that contribute to the growth of their companies.

“Communitech offers a strong roster of growth coaches, and the a la carte style of the program has allowed me to work with a variety of growth coaches with deep knowledge in sales, marketing, corporate finance, content strategy and human-resource management,” says Amina Gilani, COO of Sociavore. “I'd recommend the Fierce Founders program to any Canadian female startup founder.” 

The coaching and guidance continue after a founder completes the program. 

“Even after the program ends, we keep that relationship,” says Engelhardt. “Many founders stay connected and get assistance from our coaches for years.”

"Communitech helps tech-driven companies start, grow and succeed. Communitech was founded in 1997 by a group of entrepreneurs committed to making Waterloo Region a global innovation leader. At the time it was crazy talk, but somehow this community managed to pull it off. Today, Communitech is a public-private innovation hub that supports a community of more than 1400 companies — from startups to scale-ups to large global players. Communitech helps tech companies start, grow and succeed in three distinct ways: - Communitech is a place – the center of gravity for entrepreneurs and innovators. A clubhouse for building cool shit and great companies. - Communitech delivers programs – helping companies at all stages with access to capital, customers and talent. We are here to help them grow and innovate. - Communitech partners in building a world-leading ecosystem – making sure we have all the ingredients (and the brand) to go from a small startup to a global giant."

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