Four Questions for Anne Cocquyt

We had the pleasure of interviewing Anne Cocquyt, founder of THE GUILD and author of Dare to Launch. Anne spoke in January at our Women & Entrepreneurship event and discussed the barriers women face in pursuing their ventures – from seeking mentors to raising capital — and how higher-education-based accelerators can better support female entrepreneurship.

You are the founder and CEO of the GUILD, an educational program for female founders, what is the idea behind the GUILD and what inspired it?

The GUILD was born when I realized that there wasn’t a place for women to connect and discuss business ideas. Back then – we’re talking 2013 – no safe place existed where you could go and spit ball or find a seasoned entrepreneur who looked like you and helped you answer all the burning questions about how to start a business.

I was one of these women who had just landed in the US and started a consumer product company with my husband with no background in e-commerce whatsoever. I had been in IT management consulting before. I wanted to find other entrepreneurs like me and connect with then. That’s when I started a ladies club and over the past decade the club morphed into a tech startup and we then pivoted to become an educational hub for founders to connect, ask questions and get answers from experts who were bought into the mission of a community of novices and experts supporting each other – the modern form of the medieval GUILD.

With our signature GUILD Academy program, we hope to open the doors to entrepreneurship for thousands of women to experiment and explore entrepreneurship and get the tools to take their ideas to the next level, create big thriving companies with products the world needs.

What are some mindset changes that need to be made, particularly when it comes to fostering more women entrepreneurs?

The entry points into entrepreneurship in today’s world are either through family, through high school, college, MBA programs or accelerators. In my experience, the career choice of starting a business on your own, aiming high and building something big is not a choice many women consider when thinking about the future.

The curriculum in schools hardly ever includes entrepreneurship classes or exercises. Accelerators typically only accept founders who already know how to pitch and have started working on an idea with very early traction. This leaves many potential entrepreneurs in the dark. If we really want more women to consider applying for the programs, we need to explain the potential of this career choice to them. We need to show them other women who have found their dream jobs as a startup founder, spotlight their stories in the media and get them the funding they deserve.

We also have to redefine what type pf person we think of when we think of an “entrepreneur”. There are many different types of successful entrepreneurs – and books written about it. Once we understand that entrepreneurship is an option, once we see successful women choosing this path and once we understand that there are programs that support the budding entrepreneurs with affordable training and community, I believe we’ve achieved a great step towards the much needed mindset shift.,h_240,al_c,q_80,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01,enc_auto/Book%20Cover%20Dare%20To%20Launch%203D%20-%20Cocquyt.jpg

Many universities and institutions of higher education play a key role in helping students and researchers turn their work into a business venture, as they often provide the seed capital and mentoring. In which areas do you think that university-based accelerators are falling short and how do you think GUILD can change this?

 I have mentored and judged students at University of San Francisco, California College of the Arts, Stanford and UC Davis to name a few. I see that many of the programs give students amazing opportunities to experiment in a safe space, give access to some of the best startup operators and connect the founders to funding channels like state-funded grants as well as venture capital. If a university in Germany or elsewhere in the US lacks any of the above, the chance that good entrepreneurs succeed is lower.

The startup world moves extremely fast. The funding landscape changed completely in 2022 when I published my entrepreneurship best seller DARE TO LAUNCH. I already adjusted the book to reflect the new climate in 2023. The curriculum has to adapt quickly as well. Not all universities can easily make change to their curriculum or find relevant experts.

Some companies born in academia lack an experienced business co-founder who can market the product, hire the right team, raise funding and operate the business. We had many entrepreneurs with PhDs in our GUILD Academy program. Many struggled answering the question of how to make money and get the word out and had many aha moments during the course.

We help entrepreneurs understand where they need help, either acquire those skills, find co-founders or hire. We keep our curriculum up to date and renew video modules or linked content every quarter. We offer universities to license our program and I speak at colleges and universities as a guest speaker.

During your presentation, you showed us a picture of one man sitting with a table of all-women playing cards. How would you describe “the only” and what does it mean for women entrepreneurs?

When you are the “only” guy at the poker table or woman in the room, the hurdle of speaking up, asking a question, or making a decision is not just your own, it’s a representation of your gender. Suddenly, you’re not just Anne asking a “dumb question” – you’re “the woman” who asked the question. I had this happen when the minister of economics visited in Silicon Valley and I as the only woman among the founders wasn’t introduced even though I had been specifically invited to be there to represent my gender.

It’s ten times harder to speak up and make a point in this position. You may remember Karen Blixen walking into the gentleman’s club in “Out Of Africa” and getting a drink at the bar at the end of her stay. She is such a great example of “the only” and what it means. She’s a trail blazer. But at what cost!? Did she have to suffer 10x more than anybody else to be accepted!?

That’s what I want everybody to be reminded of when there is not the same amount of women on a stage, or in an accelerator. We have to create a safe space for “the only” to be the trail blazer without having to suffer 10x more than anybody else. We have to give her the word, we have to make others aware and do everything we can to multiply the “only”. At the GUILD, we offer an audit to accelerators and give recommendations how to attract, retain and fund more female founders.