Nilima Achwal is the founder of The Female Founders Lab, a global, virtual ecosystem of female impact entrepreneurs creating ventures that will radically transform our world to be more regenerative, sustainable, holistic, democratic, and just. Nilima is a globally recognized entrepreneur, speaker, venture coach, and writer working to transform systems and industries through social entrepreneurship. Previously, she founded a taboo-breaking social venture called Iesha Learning, bringing sex education and gender sensitization to half a million middle schoolers across India. She also conceptualized and launched a social enterprise incubation program that was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which succeeded in raising seed capital for early-stage entrepreneurs in sustainable energy, holistic education, inclusive finance, regenerative agriculture and food systems, and new paradigm healthcare. Nilima has been published and featured in VICE, USA Today, and Harvard Business Review, was named in the top 100 global social entrepreneurs by Echoing Green and top 8 tech ventures by TechStars India, has given two TEDx talks, has starred in a reality show about social entrepreneurs reaching 10 million viewers, and has published 15+ business case studies for Kellogg School of Management and Ross Business School.
Nilima reached out to me in the spring of 2020 and amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. She had a story to share that tools us on a rollercoaster ride from Michigan to India and now California. This was by far one of the longer interviews I have done to date, not least because Nilima’s purpose-journey is so fascinating. I typically try to distill the highlights from each conversation but her backstory was too intriguing to omit; if you want to learn more about how she became a social entrepreneur herself, which later led to the launch of the Female Founders Lab, please scroll to the second part of her interview!
Not your cookie-cutter accelerator
“When I was building my sex education venture in India on the heels of the rape crisis in 2014, I went through numerous accelerators including some of the big tech startup accelerators. I always felt like the success of my venture was deeply tied to my purpose and vision for humanity, but in these programs, I didn’t hear anyone else talk about purpose or vision. It felt like a cookie-cutter framework to teach any given startup how to raise money from equally cookie-cutter venture capitalists. I didn’t feel seen nor acknowledged for what my mission truly was and the way that I wanted to build my company.
I don’t want other female impact-driven founders to contort themselves into a shape that is presentable to the existing VC ecosystem, but otherwise not a good fit for building world-changing businesses.
So I decided to start my own accelerator. In my experience, female impact founders have such magic and wisdom that simply don’t fit a cookie-cutter approach. Our ideas are choosing to come through our bodies because there’s a much larger design at play in the way that our world is moving and how our industries need to move. And there needs to be an accelerator that can hold the bigness of such a vision. I wanted to create an accelerator that can help female purpose-driven entrepreneurs listen to that vision so that they can build their venture anchored in that purpose, and find values-aligned capital, advisors and support. I don’t want other female impact-driven founders to contort themselves into a shape that is presentable to the existing VC ecosystem, but otherwise not a good fit for building world-changing businesses. When it comes to mission-driven businesses, one size does not fit all; especially when you’re empowering female founders.
There are so many ways to create value through mission-driven businesses. Why would we limit ourselves to one approach?
I want to create a space of more possibilities in terms of how we create and build our companies. We need alternative financing mechanisms to create systemic change. We can have a multi-stakeholder approach instead of just having this linear sell-a-widget-and-scale-it-model. There are so many ways to create value through mission-driven businesses. Why would we limit ourselves to one approach?”
The Female Founders Lab
“The Female Founders Lab is a completely virtual acceleration ecosystem. The Goddess Accelerator has two programs:
The first one is for idea-stage founders who start with an idea and need support in crystallizing their big vision, testing their actual value with potential customers, and creating a simple offering. Idea Lab is a six week program, in which you actually end up launching a service or product.
Founders who are driven by purpose and changing the world have a perspective and a vision that’s far beyond anything that most people in the VC world are even aware of.
Pitch Lab is geared towards founders who are ready to raise capital. This is my flagship program that I’m the most excited about, not least because I’ve aggregated some amazing leaders from different industries, think food systems, healthcare, education, etc. These leaders include female founders who have raised millions in capital, so participants get to learn from the best. More importantly, they get one-on-one coaching with me over several months, customized to their needs and their venture goals. My goal is that anyone who goes through Pitch Lab should raise capital within a few months after graduating.That’s the standard that I’m holding myself to. In the larger vein of things we’re creating a network of women who have a unified vision towards how to shift these industries. And the power in such a network is unbelievable!
Authenticity and Vulnerability for the New Economy
In my career I have learned that you can tell when someone is speaking from their heart. You can also tell when they’re putting on a mask and playing a role they’re supposed to play to impress some potential funder or partner. For mission-driven founders, their ideas are so important to them that they’re willing to risk everything to change the world. That’s some deep courage right there. If you talk to someone even for just five minutes, you can tell if that person is operating from that place of courage and vulnerability, for if they’re still remaining small and doing something that doesn’t have that much impact or isn’t their core purpose.
Frankly, I don’t think that the startup and VC ecosystem was built to house mission-driven founders.
It’s become a rat race of a game in which the rules are masculine and linear. And everyone’s playing the same game. Founders who are driven by purpose and changing the world have a perspective and a vision that’s far beyond anything that most people in the VC world are even aware of.
As purpose-driven founders we must realize that we are the leaders of the New World!
The way that we’ve been raised in society is to go to school, get good grades and try to get validation from others. We always have a teacher, someone who we’re trying to please. As girls in particular we are told to be nice, we crave validation from others, we want to feel like we did a good job. The major shift that needs to happen for purpose-driven founders is realizing that we are the leaders of the New World. The new economy is something that hasn’t been created yet.”
What drives you in doing this work?
“I feel that throughout my life, every experience I had prepared me for the next thing I did. For a long time, I followed the masculine blueprint, overworking myself, getting good grades and “achieving.” But I realized that there’s literally no point in doing something if it’s not exciting and purposeful for me. The first leap of faith I took on myself was being a Kiva Fellow in Bolivia, where I rode on the back of motorcycles to far flung slums and villages, and interviewed hundreds of low income women entrepreneurs accessing micro-loans for their businesses. Later, I moved to India on a one-way ticket to immerse myself in social enterprise (where I ended up launching a seed stage accelerator and my ed-tech venture.)
Each step of the way, I knew I had to follow my inner wisdom, that was leading me closer to my inner genius and magic, where my real work lay. Every experience built on the next one, but it wasn’t “forethought” or linear – I followed my instincts and acted from a place of courage.
Having been through it myself, I can play a unique role in helping founders rediscover that vision and tenacity in themselves.”
A journey of purpose: Nilima’s background
“I graduated back in 2009 from the University of Michigan six or seven months after the global financial crisis. I think there was a sense that our systems were not as reliable as we made them out to be and in that, an implicit permission to take a new path toward creating something better.
I became a Kiva Fellow in Bolivia doing grassroots work and interviewing micro-loan borrowers. Then I moved back to Michigan and worked as a professional business case writer at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business where I wrote curriculum about how to scale social enterprises, particularly in emerging markets. My research set the context for me to want to immerse myself in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem and understand the challenges on the ground. I decided to book a one-way ticket to India – I pretty much drew an X on my calendar and decided to figure out my next steps and move by that date.
And so I did. I moved to India and started working for the largest and oldest social enterprise incubator there called Villgro Innovations Foundation. After my one-year Fellowship, I actually stayed and I launched an accelerator program with the aim of helping seed-stage social entrepreneurs raise capital. As part of that experience, I was working with social entrepreneurs from every single industry from all over the country. I was able to bring in mentors like Silicon Valley CEOs, people from IDEO and experts from the field of the lean startup methodology. We had a 75% success rate of founders actually being able to raise their first rounds of institutional capital during the program, which is very high in the acceleration space. I attribute that rate to the fact that the program was so high touch in terms of really helping them with their product-market fit, really making sure they had access to the right people, and nurturing them along the way. At that stage, I secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to scale the program, which was their first investment in incubation in India.
Then, it was time for me to pivot again. I knew that I had originally come to India to learn about social enterprise so I could start a social venture around gender equality, and it was time. Around the same time, there was the highly publicized rape case that happened in Delhi in December 2013. Suddenly, Pandora’s box sprung open and it held this really, really deep social taboo and trauma. Too many Indian women had gone through such an experience but had never been able to talk about it. Socially speaking, this incident marked a pivotal point in India’s social history. So I went on to start my own social venture. I founded an ed-tech venture called Iesha Learning that would break the taboo on gender and sexuality through a fun, game-based curriculum that teachers could carry in the classrooms to change attitudes and behaviors of middle- and high-school age students.
At the time, people were coming up with lots of different sorts of solutions to gender inequality. The rallying cry seemed to be “Let’s make a safety app!” (or “death penalty to the rapists”).
The problem is that apps aren’t necessarily going to solve the root cause of the problem.
To give you an example of how productized and how mechanical some of these solutions were that were coming out of the venture space: One innovation that won some of the most prestigious awards in the country at the time was an electric bra. If you went out and someone put their hand on you or tried to molest you, it set off electrical shocks to the molester. Which – as a woman – is ridiculous! Designed by a team of engineers – with the best intentions at heart I’m sure – it’s not something that’s going to heal and transform the system.
So I decided to create a sex education program for middle schoolers with the hypothesis that we can actually change attitudes and behaviors at the age of puberty. I created a ten-module course where we talked about puberty, the menstruation cycle, sex, gender roles, consent, filtering the media messages that are coming at teenagers, etc. My intention behind building this product was to fundamentally change kids’ attitudes, so they could grow up to be respectful, empathetic adults. No small intention. We were working toward creating a transformative outcome. And that’s what I look for in founders today.
Does the product itself create a transformation, even at a micro level that if scaled, could change the entire system?
The pilots of my learning program showed some incredible results: One slum school called us in because it was the most toxic bullying environment that you can imagine: Girls were getting harassed on the way to school. Boys were making sexual comments to their teachers. Some girls would be missing school because they were scared to come to class during their period. The school administration was at their wits end because these eighth-graders were completely out of control. So we ran our program for two weeks and at the end of the program, I did a focus group with the students.
The feedback was mind boggling. One of the boys came up to me and said ‘I used to think that it was normal and right to force a girl to do no matter what. And after you taught your course, I realized what consent means that I will never ever do that again. Thank you so much for teaching us! I’ve started educating all the other boys in the school about consent, too.’ One of the girls told me “You know, I used to be really scared when I got my period, I thought that I had cancer or I was dying or something. And now I’m confident, I realized it’s all natural and normal. And now I’m being much more participative in class and even the boys know it’s normal! The other day our teacher was on her period and this boy offered her a chair and he said ‘Ma’am, do you want to sit down? I know It must be hard for you.’’
I had no words. It’s incredible that actual behavioral shifts are possible. We returned to the same school four months later and were received with standing ovations.
After the pilots I started wondering how to scale this across the country and decided to team up with organizations that already had distribution channels in schools. Ultimately, I secured a partnership with Tata, the largest corporation in India, who are now distributing our program to half a million students across 15,000 classrooms across the entire country.
I moved back to the States and took a sabbatical before starting the Female Founders Lab.”
San Francisco, California, USA
Systems changemaker. Venture coach and accelerator founder. Believer in “goddess leadership”.