Fine-tuning entrepreneurs out of start-up status

Meet Jennifer Gabler and Janis Collins. 

They are the co-founders of The Refinery, an accelerator growth program in Westport that is helping women-led companies throughout the Northeast go from unique product idea to disruptive global trend (think edgy, attention-grabbing, game-changing); a handful of employees to a financial advisory board; $3 million valuation to $20 million.

“What we are doing is working with these great ideas that are already cooking, already working and looking at how they really can be high-growth companies,” Collins says.

The way Gabler explains it:  “We’re taking them from Point B to Point C.”

The Refinery is wrapping up its first year, during which it has completed three of its 12-week programs, graduated 19 companies and raised more than $3 million in investment funding.

The way it works is Gabler and Collins typically recruit entrepreneurs and companies with a woman in a leadership position to apply to The Refinery program. Then they vet the applications. Which businesses have the potential for fast, high growth? Do they have good team leadership in place? Are they coachable? Willing to take risks?

Anywhere from six to 10 companies are chosen to participate at a flat cost of $2,500. Once a week, the participants commute from Connecticut, Philadelphia, Boston and other places up and down the Atlantic Coast to meet at the Westport Public Library. There, the group holds workshops and presentations on business practices and strategies while meeting up with mentors who have been assigned to guide the businesses through the program.

“You need to do all the components,” Gabler says. “It’s not a buffet. You go to some accelerators and you can opt in or opt out of some of the sessions. We really feel like you need to do all of them.”

And Gabler and Collins know what they’re talking about. Before starting The Refinery, both women were in business.

Collins started her first company 25 years ago, helping tech businesses get off the ground. She was also the director of the incubator LabMorgan at JPMorgan, which would invest in technologies and companies that could connect with JPMorgan customers.

“We use that same process here,” she says. “What are those concepts, ideas that are disruptive? What is it that’s different and unique in what they’re doing? We think that by making some kind of investment around it and connecting with potential customers it could really be a big company.”

Gabler has worked as a chief financial officer for numerous venture-backed and start-up companies.

“I met Janice three years ago and we started working together serially on individual companies, mentoring them and we worked well together,” Gabler says. “We thought it would be more efficient to do it in a program format where we could put multiple companies through and really leverage the extensive network that she and I have.”

What Gabler and Collins have done is create an ecosystem, as Collins put it, which so far includes 70-plus mentors and a diverse network of companies with growth potential.

The companies that have participated in The Refinery represent all types of businesses. They include allergy detection technology, an online marketplace for buying and selling home décor, dating apps, catering companies, men’s sports underwear and an online master calendar application.

“They have passion and commitment to what they’re doing and a belief that they will make a difference,” Collins says. “What we are helping to do is to back that belief, bring all the resources to bear so that they can achieve their goals.”

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