Ashley Connell, CEO and founder of Prowess Project, is on a mission to help women have more equitable careers as they balance work and family. Her four-year-old company trains women looking to re-enter the workforce after a career hiatus, and then uses a proprietary algorithm to match them with employers in need of part-time or fractional talent based on their skills and their personality compatibility.
It’s a calling she had when she read troubling statistics in a Harvard Business Review study that revealed how women are penalized when they leave the workforce to start a family. Forty-three percent of women leave their careers to have children across industry sectors lose a staggering 37% of their earning power when they spend three or more years out of the workforce, according to the report.
“I was furious at the statistics,” says Connell. “A woman’s income decreases $16,000 a year with every child she has. There shouldn’t be a penalty for motherhood. Once I realized that could be my fate one day, I became obsessed with addressing this massive problem.”
Just as troubling is the challenge women face trying to reenter the workforce, Connell notes. They often face rejection and are in need retraining and upskilling.
As she explains, there is a great supply of female talent companies can tap than ever before. Some 5.4 million women were pushed out of the workforce to care for their children and family members during the Covid pandemic according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Taking a Leap of Faith
Five years ago, the 32-year-old who co-owned A10 Partners, a marketing consultancy in Austin, decided to close shop so she could pivot and launch a business that tackled this issue. “I wanted to find a way to help women maintain their career goals while having a more flexible work schedule so they had time for their caregiving responsibilities as well,” she recalls.
But like most female founders who don’t have access to capital, or connections in the venture capital or startup community, Connell realized she needed to build her own network of advisors and other experts who could help. “In business it’s all about who you know. As a female I was excluded from social events like golf outings that could help me make these key connections,” she notes. “I couldn’t access the ‘all-boys network.’”
To overcome these challenges Connell realized that startup accelerators could fast forward her ambitions. “They offer a goldmine of knowledge where you can get access to people who want to help you build a network,” says Connell, who participated in four accelerator programs in total.
Her first step was landing a spot at the Founder Institute’s Austin chapter. The pre-seed startup accelerator offers a four-month part-time program for entrepreneurs that helps them develop business ideas and turn them into companies. Its advisors are experts across business disciplines who are on tap to guide founders on their startup journey.
While there, she began to research the challenges mothers face in the job market. She surveyed them through support groups for moms on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. She also attended local community groups for women so she could meet mothers face-to-face to learn what a work/life balance career would look like in an ideal world.
What she learned was that female professional mothers were well suited for skilled part-time remote jobs; many had the educational and career backgrounds coveted by employers— especially in operations, tech, and marketing. While out of the workforce, they were using their varied experience to run PTAs, volunteer organizations and programs at places of worship.
“They had a patchwork of skills and weren’t certain on how they could be used to relaunch their careers,” says Connell.
To validate her concept, in January 2019 Connell launched her startup, Prowess Project, while at the Founder’s Institute. She self-funded it with $11,000 of personal savings. Then she took some short-term stints as a project manager and online business manager for a few tech companies like Cloud 9, a telehealth company that provides mental healthcare, to see what their operational needs were firsthand.
She learned that many small- and mid-size companies and consultancies couldn’t find “a right-hand woman” who could help them run the business so they could focus on revenue-generating activities.
By the end of the program at the Founder’s Institute she had three clients and was ready to take her venture to the next level.
Connell brought on Leah Steinkirch as the chief operating officer, who was an independent contractor at A10. A former online business manager and project manager skilled in everything—from dashboard metrics, website design and financial reporting to workflow automation— Connell thought she was the ideal partner to help map out a strategy for building the business.
Besides Stainkirch’s talents, she understood the unique challenges women face trying to reenter the workforce after motherhood. Steinkirch, who has a master’s in psychology, had been a top salesperson at Merck and run ops for two other startups. After 15 years in the workforce she decided to take three years off to raise her two children. After more than a year of failed attempts to get a job and restart her career, all she could get was an unpaid internship.
Together the partners entered the Austin Impact Accelerator in June 2019 to continue to flesh out their business model and network. One great connection was Matt Glazer, chief strategy officer at Blue Sky Partners in Austin, a consultancy specializing in scaling businesses and nonprofits. “He gave me encouragement whenever I wanted to quit and give up and was on-call 24/7 if I had a question on anything related to scaling my business,” Connell says.
Once they left that six-month program, Connell and Steinkirch brought on David Evans, a software engineer and tech advisor to help jumpstart the technological development of their platform. He agreed to take on the project for a small equity stake in their business.
A year later, Loyal VC, a global venture capital firm specializing in funding female-led ventures, invested $100,000 in the Prowess Project. This seed capital was secured in July 2021 and used to build a job platform driven by AI. Evans hired offshore software engineers to build the platform that matches job seekers to employers based on their management and tech skills, as well as their behavior style, emotional intelligence, and values.
Prowess Project focuses on only one type of job role: the online business manager. It works well with the patchwork of skills many women have and can be done remotely on a flexible schedule.
Finding the Perfect Match
Job seekers’ soft skills are gleaned through the data they provide when onboarding onto Prowess Project’s platform, answering questions about their behavioral style, values and how they manage their emotions. “This helps us assess a candidates emotional intelligence and temperament so we can measure their compatibility to employers,” says Connell.
Prowess Project has an optional training program costing job seekers $2,500 for a 40-hour course to learn all skills and processes needed to be an online business manager. Upon completion, women were matched with potential employers. Approximately 70% of the women who complete the training program are placed in jobs within three months. Jobs average 15 hours a week, the pay range is between $40 to $100 dollars an hour. Employers pay a finder’s fee to Prowess Project for each employee.
Since its launch in March 2022, Prowess Project has helped 500 women find flexible jobs. According to Connell, the business is profitable and revenues have grown 85% year-over-year. She expects revenues will hit $3 million in three years.
“We’ve done this without raising a lot of venture capital,” she says, noting she plows revenues back into the business to fund expansion.
Connell is now a mother of a 16-month-old daughter, who is her inspiration. “I want to change the career path for women so when my daughter grows up she doesn’t face the obstacles women face today,” she says.
Favorite quote: “Can’t speak Butterfly to Caterpillar people.”
Mentor: Jennifer Slaski-Halligan, a branding consultant who was my first boss and real-life Fairy Godmother. She taught me that thoughts become things.
No. 1 lesson learned: Entrepreneurship is a marathon not a sprint. You must fall in love with solving the problem, not how you solve it.
Advice I’d give aspiring entrepreneurs: Your time and team are everything. Stay in your “zone of genius” and delegate the rest.
This story and others on Times of E are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.