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Helping Female Returners Back into the Workforce Without Losing Their Compensation Power

I founded Prowess Project to achieve gender equality in the workforce and I’m motivated by the idea of seeing it within my lifetime.

For the first 13 years of my career, I was in tech marketing. Often, I was the only female in the room and being in marketing, my techie counterparts saw me as disposable (marketing is just colors and party-planning, right?). The mantra that I was constantly battling was "if we build it, they will come" ...eyeroll.

Unsatisfied with marketing, I spent time soul searching and realized that I had "background anxiety" about how having children someday would affect the career that I so diligently built. I did some digging and according to Harvard Business Review, if a woman is out of the workforce for just three years, she loses 37% of her total compensation power for the rest of her life. I was shocked and furious, so I decided to do something about it. And Prowess Project was born.

Prowess Project provides expert talent by certifying accomplished women who have taken a pause in their careers and now want flexible, empowering work. Our technology matches the underutilized (wo)manpower with companies based on skill, experience and emotional intelligence providing a natural fit at a lower cost.

When creating the Prowess Project, we wanted to solve the problems for both the women returning to work and the companies who would be hiring them. With that in mind, we interviewed 100 “returners” and 100 hiring managers to better understand their challenges.

For the returners, I was surprised by the #1 barrier that was holding them back: confidence. Women had to go to 4 different destinations to get workplace reentry resources, training, community and a job pool. That forced them to piece together their own re-entry path. We realized to actually solve these women’s problems, we needed to have an easy-to-navigate user flow that combined all those key components in one place.

For the hiring managers, the top reasons why they dread hiring is they are inundated by resumes, the hiring process takes up too much time, and onboarding was slow and painful. When asked why they hesitated to hire women who had a resume gap, we heard that they weren’t up to speed on the latest technology and they didn’t have the time to train them.

With the feedback from both the returners and hiring managers in mind, we created a mandatory 16+ hour certification + 1:1 career coaching for our talent to complete before entering the job pool. The certification covers confidence, emotional intelligence, communication, managing team dynamics as well as project management best practices, the latest tech and remote work.

As for the matching algorithm, we decided to match on not only skill and experience but also behavior style-compatibility. Both the hiring manager and the candidate take a 10-mins personality assessment. Their results are run through our algorithm providing the hiring manager three candidates complete with compatibility score. The optimization is cutting the interview time from the industry average of 24 days to 3 hours. We’re also seeing that the candidate’s onboarding shrinks from six weeks, to two.

Who is the target demographic for Prowess Project?

Our target demographic for the talent pool are educated, experienced women who decided to take time off of their careers to raise children, take care of parents, recover from an illness or need to step away from a toxic work environment. Most of them are trying to find work on their own but realized that their tech skills are out of date, network has dried up, and need help.

Our target demographic for customers are one of the following: creative entrepreneurs who want to spend time working on their craft, not the business operations; hiring managers of companies with 10 - 500 employees who are overwhelmed managing up and down and are frustrated by the time is takes to hire; or agencies who need a “traffic cop” to build processes and ensure that all resources are getting out of the door on time and on budget.

The funniest request we’ve had from a customer was after he received our list of the three most compatible candidates for his open role based on our algorithm. Given that people spend more time with their coworkers than spouses in most cases, we dive deep into the candidates/prospect personality, communication and learning compatibility score to ensure a good professional match. We explain that our algorithm is a cross between a job marketplace and dating site. Well, we didn’t realize how true that actually was.

We presented four candidate options to a prospect. He responded that it was probably best that “candidate B” be removed because they dated a few years back. Ha, clearly the algorithm was more accurate than we thought :)

How did you fund the idea initially?

I started Prowess Project with $11,000 of savings and A LOT of blood, sweat and tears. My business partner, Leah Steinkirch, our Chief Development Officer, is the inspiration for our entire business. Before I started Prowess Project, I was a partner of a marketing consultancy. One of our partner’s suggested that we employ his wife to help us with operations. That was Leah. She and I started chatting and her story was my biggest fear realized. She had two degrees in counselling, was a top salesperson at Merck, and taught herself bookkeeping and graphic design. She took off three years to raise her children and was in her second year of trying to get back in and could only get free internships. Here she was, this extremely accomplished woman who was getting passed over for roles because of a three year gap.Not on my watch.

It was easy to convince Leah that we had to do something about this problem. We began meeting for coffee weekly. Before long, she joined Prowess Project fulltime and has been the backbone to all our operations thus far.

What motivates you when things go wrong?

When things go wrong, I am motivated by the stories that I hear daily about women who are trying to return to the workforce and are facing roadblocks. The roadblocks range from toxic work environments to financial instability due to recent divorce, medical bills or lack of autonomy to the family funds. For women who can’t pay the $500 fee for the 16 hr certification and 1:1 career coaching, we are looking for corporate or private donors to sponsor scholarships for these women. Shameless plug, I know :)

All in all, we have so much work to do to reach gender equality in the workforce. Aside from the unfortunate situations that women are in, the success stories that Prowess Project has been apart of is even more inspiring. See one below.

Prowess Project changed the trajectory of my life. Without the scholarship I received from Prowess Project, I would not have been able to take part in this life changing training. As a single mom, it means the world to be self sufficient. Thank you Prowess Project!” - Jodie S.

What advice do you have for someone starting today?

I know that you’ve been told it was going to be hard... it’s harder. I know you’ve been told it will take a while… it will take longer. BUT the wins make you feel so triumphant that it’s worth all the sacrifices. Business is all about how you treat people. Invest in relationships, pay it forward. Connections (authentic ones) are currency, nurture them.

The number one thing that is holding us back right now is funding to grow our team. We have several qualified women (a waitlist of 30+ in fact) who can help us build our empire, however, right now we can’t pay them the wages that they deserve. Given that our mission is gender equality, it isn’t right to ask these accomplished professionals to work for free, even if they insist.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

Being that we are trying to achieve gender equality, it’s hard to see companies in our same space as “competition”. I choose to see them as collaborators. At our current rate, it will take 217 years to reach gender equality, we need LOTS of “competitors/collaborators” to make even a dent.

What apps do you use on a daily basis?

Top tools we use :

  • Slack - Communication is key and for a distributed team, it’s even more so. Slack helps us stay on the same page and capture the brilliant ideas we have along the way, and place them in a “parking lot” for later.
  • Airtable - If you don’t use airtable, start today. Airtable is Excel on steroids. We absolutely love the functionality as you can slice and dice data in any way that you can imagine.
  • Google Suite - Smell ya later, MS Office. Google Suites has been a lifesaver for us. It provides so much functionality for one low monthly fee. Applications include Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Presentations, Sheets (Excel), and so so so so much more.

What does the future look like?

Prowess Project is about to turn one year old and this year has been a wild ride. I’m ecstatic to announce that we will be profitable in our first year and are growing revenue at an average of 38% MoM. Our goal in 2020 is to triple our revenue in hopes of expanding our team.

At the moment, we are part of the Loyal VC portfolio. What I like about Loyal VC is they have a “try before you buy” model where the founder and the investors start with a 10 month mentorship agreement and pay us $10K. At the end of that period, we have a ⅓ chance of getting an additional $200K in funding. This allows us to continue to focus on growing the business vs. chasing venture dollars.

I do believe that we will be looking for angel funding soon. That said, I am a huge believer in not all money is green so mission-alignment will be key. Prowess Project will be a ecosystem for both employers and employees to find quick, compatible hiring services, resources and community. It’s happening and we appreciate all your help to spread the word.

Company Name: Prowess Project
Founder: Ashley Connell



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