Women-Led Crowdfunding Platforms Change The Game

By Catherine Gigante-Brown

In 2012, Maz Kessler was consulting with several girls’ and womens’ organizations on branding and technology when she made a disheartening discovery: “The more I learned about how little funding was available to women’s initiatives compared to other issues, the more shocked and frustrated I became,” she recalls.

And so, in part inspired by “the feminist ‘brand’ undergoing a revolution, a revitalization,” Kessler decided to launch a crowdfunding platform to fund women-powered initiatives. The aptly named Catapult was born.

Kessler is part of a growing movement to use crowdfunding to support women-powered projects; Plum Alley similarly supports women-focused endeavors. Through Catapult, donors can support projects that help mothers survive in Cambodia and fight against gender violence; through Plum Alley, they can contribute to female-founded endeavors like Graced by Grit and fuel a multivitamin drink created especially for women.

Is a crowdfunding revolution upon us?

“Catapult” To Success

When raising seed funding for Catapult, Kessler eschewed a typical pitch deck and instead produced a two-minute video highlighting her vision for a crowdfunding platform that promoted a more equal world. “It worked,” Kessler says with a smile. “Within a very short time, we were able to raise enough to design and build Catapult.”

Kessler credits the support of Jill Sheffield, a staunch advocate for girls and women, and president of Women Deliver, with getting Catapult off the ground. “Women Deliver helped us through the early stages of development and was willing to take the leap with us into completely unknown territory,” Kessler recalls. “Not only did they give me a desk in a corner of their office, but they supported us throughout the launch process.”

To date, Catapult has sponsored more than 430 grants to almost 200 organizations in 86 countries worldwide. In just two years.

Says Kessler:

“In human terms, this means 270,000 girls are going to school for the first time. It means 707,523 girls and their families have been reached through programs that are putting an end to child marriage. And that more than a half million girls around the world are being supported by anti-trafficking programs that were funded through the Catapult platform.”

In October 2015, Catapult attended the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in France to help turn awareness into action. “We featured six important issues, including Ending Gender Violence and Leadership and Political Participation,” Kessler says. Next up? Building a powerful new online feminist campaigning platform that will be launched at the AWID Forum in Brazil in April 2016.

maz kessler
Catapult founder Maz Kessler (Photo credit: Rachael Wright)

As the company continues to expand, Kessler hopes to tap into her diverse professional resume. “I’ve been lucky to work in different fields during my professional life,” she says. As a songwriter and music producer, she earned a Grammy. She then migrated to the tech sector — as FunArts Software’s cofounder, a groundbreaker in socially-intelligent and voice-user interfaces. Next, she made the move to social justice.

“When I look at other successful platforms like Donors Choose, I can see the enormous potential crowd-based platforms can deliver,” she explains. “Taking Catapult to scale is a major focus.”

“If Catapult can achieve this level of real, measurable impact in just two years, think of what’s possible in 10.”

The “Plum” Line

Before founding Plum Alley, Deborah Jackson was an entrepreneur and angel investor for start-up pitch nights . . . and, like Kessler, she soon observed something troubling.

“Deborah noticed that woman-led entrepreneurial ventures were comparatively untapped yet had the capability of immense growth,” says Julia Maltby, Plum Alley’s director of campaigns. “She created Plum Alley to provide tangible support and growth opportunities for female-founded companies that were changing the landscape of entrepreneurship.”

Jackson herself is widely respected in the financial arena. Her two-decade-long career raising capital for companies, governments, and other issuers in both the public and private markets began at Goldman Sachs in 1980. Most recently, TechWeek named Jackson one of the 100 most prominent people in tech in New York. Her compelling story was told in a chapter of the 2014 book Innovating Women.

deborah jackson
Plum Alley founder Deborah Jackson

Originally, Jackson’s efforts to support women entrepreneurs manifested itself in an e-commerce website, but after it became clear that the largest obstacle these companies faced was early-stage capital, Jackson morphed Plum Alley into a crowdfunding platform specifically designed for women entrepreneurs and gender-diverse teams.

“Research shows that women are, on average, more successful at crowdfunding than their male counterparts,” Maltby adds. “Plum Alley affords the opportunity to connect women entrepreneurs to a larger audience, and allows consumers to financially support women-led teams.”

Plum Alley’s unique fundraising platform is predicated on a model of support; “Plum Alley contributors come from a project creator’s extended network to fund a project or a dream,” says Maltby. “We have a dedicated staff available to aid entrepreneurs in everything related to their campaign, and often, components that extend beyond the campaign’s life.”

The assistance teams receive from Plum Alley is unprecedented. “We’re here to help entrepreneurs get funded,” says Maltby. “These women are incredibly talented and driven — their visions and foundations are unmistakably clear.”

Maltby points out that something often gets lost between ideation and creation, and a heightened realism can keep entrepreneurs from moving forward. Which is why the supplementary guidance at Plum Alley is so vital to success. “We develop these short-term partnerships not because female entrepreneurs need direction, foresight, and business sense, but because women are notoriously overlooked for early-stage funding,” she notes. “It’s entirely too easy for them to be convinced that it’s just not worth the effort. We’re here to help them see that it is.”

As Plum Alley evolves, Maltby says the organization will continue to address the funding disparity between male and female-founded teams. “We’ve long passed the stage of merely discussing gender imbalance in the market and have dedicated ourselves to creating sustainable, impactful solutions,” she explains. “There’s an important difference between asking for a seat at the table and building that table entirely.”

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