'Crushed': Grant program supporting female founders misfires 'success' emails

‘Crushed’: Grant program supporting female founders tells women their ‘success’ notification was a mistake

Female founders report feeling “crushed” and disappointed after receiving an email notifying them they were successful in making it to the next round of the Boosting Female Founders program, only to receive a follow-up email hours later informing them that a mistake had been made and they were actually unsuccessful.

Our business, Women’s Agenda, was included in the misfired email list. We received the “you’ve been successful” notification around 3:30am and, like many other female founders Monday morning, shared the news with our teams and started planning the next steps.

As an independent media business with big goals and ambitions ahead, employing a small team here in Australia with no outside investment, this initiative could be a gamechanger for a business like ours. The first round was merely an “expression of interest” approval and certainly no guarantee of funding should you get through to the next round, but we assumed we’d have a good chance of making the cut for that next application.

But it wasn’t to be. Around nine hours later, just before lunchtime, we received the follow-up email informing us that actually we had been unsuccessful. The email came from a named individual, but it was depersonalized and lacked any kind of meaningful care or consideration, given the news it delivered.

What we have since learned is that we were far from alone in receiving the wrong email in the early hours of Monday morning, and hundreds of other female-founded businesses also shared a moment celebration, only to find themselves bitterly disappointed later on.

One such founder is Yasmin Grigaliunas, the founder and CEO of World’s Biggest Garage Sale, who told me the unsuccessful email came as a crushing blow.

“The copy-paste template and impersonal content was a joke,” she said. “Under the circumstances, it lacked empathy and heart and quite frankly,. was an appalling customer experience.”

She understands that mistakes are inevitable and they happen, but the mistake was then poorly managed.

She said that on receiving the initial email around 5:30am, she had felt elated, relieved and ready to start the week. She messaged the team as well as a number of other female founders relieved that, “finally, finally, someone on a grant panel sees us!”. She then started planning the time and energy to pursue the next steps.

Yasmin Grigaliunas, the founder and. CEO of World’s Biggest Garage Sale,

Another founder is Pip Stocks, who leads B2B martech platform Hearsay.io, and told me she was “gobsmacked” reading the second email and being told that she was unsuccessful. “Female founders currently get less than 3 per cent of all global funding, so when a possibility presents itself and you get a win, your heart flutters and you think maybe… just maybe… I can dare to imagine that I can do this.

“And in one fell swoop, delivered with no care or consideration, the opportunity evaporates.”

The Boosting Female Founders Initiative is a centerpiece of what the Morrison Government is “doing for women”. It’s run out of the Department for Industry, Science and Technology, which is now led by Christian Porter.

It’s an initiative that’s particularly important right now, encouraging women to build and innovate in their businesses and provide a support net to help make it happen. These grants are significant — offering co-contributions of up to $480,00 for successful applicants — aiming to address at least some of the imbalance occurring in female-founded businesses accessing funding.

Janine Owen, the founder of Grant’d, a business supporting startups with grant applications (pictured at top of page), told Women’s Agenda her team received numerous messages from their client letting them know they too were celebrating the news that they were through to the next round, after also receiving the “successful” email in the early hours of Monday morning.

“Imagine the unbridled excitement coursing through the female founders who had received this e-mail, especially after the year that has been for many of us,” she said.

Of course, these businesses — like our own — understand getting through to that next round is still a long way off actually receiving the funding, but receiving that email certainly makes you feel one step closer to getting there, and enables you to keep at least a little more hope and optimism alive regarding growth plans and opportunities.

And as Janines says: “Given that female founders have long had the cards stacked against them despite having the potential to contribute up to $25b to the Australian economy, it would be more than fair to assume that a number of champagne bottles were uncorked this morning in celebration.

Many such women would also have been celebrating from lockdown. Plenty would be contending with remote learning with their kids, additional caring responsibilities, concerns about how to sustain their businesses within this new Delta Covid world, and wondering where to go next.

So for a small moment, they had a win. It lasted a few hours.

“This couldn’t have been a more crushing development for 1,800 applicants, particularly those currently caught up in the COVID-19 lockdowns which are now exacerbating an already precarious situation where 72% of Australian businesses have reported reduced revenue after a year of COVID-19,” adds Janine.

“In fact, business owners have been identified as a segment that is at high-risk of poorer mental health outcomes amidst economic instabilities. And at a time when the mental health of many business owners is at an all-time low as a result of the pandemic, the hypocrisy of the Federal Government in plugging the importance of mental health support for affected business owners even as it fails to support BFF grant applicants with sensitivity and respect in the wake of their error is loud and clear.”

A humanised approach needed

Janine spent a fair bit of time speaking to many of those disappointed female founders on Monday monday, and found they shared stories of juggling businesses alongside caring for families.

She says this experience shows that these grant processes need to be humanised. Having been the recipient of a “you’re successful” emalil followed by a “whoops, actually you’re not” a few hours later, we have to agree.

“When we say humanised, we’re talking about grant makers recognizing that there are real people behind every application – and treating them as humans with ambitions, goals, and visions rather than as numbers,” says Janine.

“We’re talking about moving away from automated processes, towards proactive relationship and engagement building processes that allow grant makers and grant seekers to see and understand each other.

“We’re talking about increased transparency and information sharing between grant makers and grant applicants at every step of the grants process, towards achieving mutual understanding and rapport.

“We’re talking about actively empowering humanity to shine through bureaucracy and smart-forms.”

Humanity and empathy in government? Now there’s a good idea.

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