By Gwen Edwards, Managing Director of Golden SeedsJune 18, 2020
Like many great ideas, this one started with a conversation. Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore were discussing the benefits that small businesses offer the world and brainstorming ways to support them —especially underserved companies owned by women, people of color, the LGBTQ+, military communities and those with disabilities.
Their shared passion gave rise to Hello Alice, a for-profit social enterprise that uses machine learning to match business owners to personalized opportunities and resources. Named after the character Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” (who, like many entrepreneurs, “believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”), Hello Alice is making the business ecosystem more inclusive and accessible. Carolyn, Co-Founder and CEO, recently shared her experiences and insights with Gwen Edwards, Managing Director of Golden Seeds, who led the due diligence team for Golden Seeds.
GE: Tell us about the origins of Hello Alice.
CR: Hello Alice is what I wish I had when I started my first business 15 years ago. After a career in investment banking, I made a long, hard, expensive transition into entrepreneurship. It wasn’t until I sold that company that I realized how much I learned. When I started a second business, I discovered networks and opportunities I didn’t know about the first time, and doors opened up. With Hello Alice, our goal was to put all entrepreneurs on an equal footing, giving them the knowledge, opportunities and connections they need to thrive from day one.
A free digital platform that makes smart, instant connections between business owners and resources they need to accelerate sustainable growth, Hello Alice utilizes machine learning to prioritize access for women, minorities, veterans and other underrepresented business owners. The platform provides access to knowledge, funding, networks and services.
As a result of this, the company has a valuable data set that is utilized by companies to guide their sales, marketing and diversity goals. We give companies an opportunity to tell their brands’ unique stories while nurturing community interaction, analyzing individual businesses and engaging their target prospects, with the goal of creating lifelong loyal customers.
GE: Can you tell us about your partnership with your Co-Founder Elizabeth Gore?
CR: Elizabeth, who’s chairwoman and president, is the greatest Co-Founder. We have incredible alignment of our business and personal values and deep trust and respect for each other. There’s never a question about what we’re trying to build, what’s important and what direction to take. We don’t agree on every decision, but we know we’re coming from the same place.
And our working styles are complementary. Elizabeth goes full speed ahead, like she’s wearing a jet pack, pushing everything forward. I’m the opposite — off in the weeds working on the details. Our push/pull creates a happy medium. We realize neither of us would work as well without the other.
GE: What market need are you solving at Hello Alice, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this?
CR: Statistics illustrate the unfilled need and the problem we are solving: Only 2% of women-owned businesses have revenue of more than $1 million a year, and only 2.2% of venture capital funding goes to women-founded companies.
Women, minorities and veterans are often under resourced. Business owners and other groups were tackling this issue at a micro level, but we’re targeting it at a macro level.
We believe that each person’s situation affects their ability to succeed — where they live, how much capital they’re starting with, their networks, education and more. We knew technology could solve the problem at scale because the needs are pretty formulaic: how to get money, attract the best talent, acquire customers and so on. We use artificial intelligence to build machine-learning algorithms and decision trees and make specific recommendations based on a user’s profile. The information gets better as we get more user input.
GE: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
CR: Fundraising was painful and slow, but the struggle was good for us. If money came easily early on, we wouldn’t have made smart decisions. Having to bootstrap forced us to test and iterate quickly and to prove key metrics. Investors asked smart questions and we learned from them. I encourage others to respect the process. If it’s too easy you won’t get what you need.
Staffing has been another challenge. As a lean startup, we needed generalists who could do many things. But as we grew and started working with bigger partners, we needed specialists and experts. Adjusting staffing was difficult for us personally — every team member contributed to our success — but we had to let some people go as our business needs changed.
GE: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
CR: COVID-19 has been a game changer. We’ve always recognized that funding is the number-one need for small businesses, and it became more urgent with the pandemic. We pivoted quickly and worked with our partners to get as much money into their hands as possible. MasterCard made a $250 million commitment to small businesses, which we’re fortunate to be a part of. We’re also working with Verizon for grant funding, mentorship, site content and more. We launched a grants program that any business owner can apply to. But money alone isn’t the solution; entrepreneurs need guidance and support, and Hello Alice provides that.
GE: What advice do you have for early-stage founders?
CR: Be transparent about the challenges you’re facing and how you’re addressing them. You also have to be clear on priorities. You might hear about 10 different needs and you have to decide which are most important — and say “no” to some. If you are transparent, people are more receptive. Sometimes that means more conversations. I remind myself that as the CEO I am aware of everything going on in the company and always have the complete picture in mind however, my colleagues may only see one small piece. Taking 15 minutes to give them context will save confusion and frustration.
GE: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds. How has the network been helpful to you?
CR: The personal interactions with Golden Seeds are amazing, and the networking is invaluable. Many of those in our network are women, which is rare in a male-dominated business world. It’s nice to talk with other women facing similar issues. It’s easy to get in your own bubble, but now we’re exposed to diverse businesses all over the country, and the community support is wonderful. We also value the professional experience of our investors. We view them as part of our team and consider what they can bring to the table. Golden Seeds was a no-brainer. They’ve given us so much value beyond money alone.
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