Serial entrepreneur Kristina O'Neal, partner and cofounder of hospitality design firm AvroKO and its sister agency, Brand Bureau, has launched Hospitable Bridge, a VC fund/accelerator studio dedicated to funding and supporting female entrepreneurs of color, who are making positive change in the hospitality world. Hospitable Bridge aims to provide women-led mentorship and $15,000–$50,000 in pre-seed investment for founders whose startups are still in the early stages of growth.
“With less than two percent of all venture funding going to women-owned businesses, and significantly less than that going to women-of-color-owned businesses, we saw an opportunity to leverage our hospitality knowledge and provide a platform and vehicle to champion, support, mentor, and fund female-founded and female-led business ventures whose missions are to innovate in a way that’s truly needle-moving for the hospitality industry,” says Kristina. “Research shows that women-led startups have the power to generate 10 percent higher revenues., but are often overlooked at the VC level—Hospitable Bridge aims to change that and highlight the power that female entrepreneurs bring to the table.”
We dive deeper in a one-on-one chat with Kristina about why she created Hospitable Bridge, what she hopes to achieve, and how you can get involved.
What inspired you to start Hospitable Bridge?
There are many female founders in hospitality businesses that have the creativity and drive, but lack the financial support and true hospitality-based mentorship to help build their businesses from the start-up stage into a sustainable and profitable engine. We need these voices in leadership positions in order to build a healthier, more inclusive industry—and that is best done with a network of support from the hospitality industry itself.
What do you hope to achieve with Hospitable Bridge?
We want our founders to feel supported in the unique ways they each require and to help them move through some of the choppiest early stage periods in growing a business, when things can often fall apart. This is typically in the initial capital and brand building phase and in the “client conversion phase”, where more technical and financial resources are required to build the company or to easily pivot after the first phase of feedback.
While there are many broad coaching-based programs for female founders (which we love!), we wanted to do something that would be intimate in scale, concrete in our offerings financially, and collaborative in nature in order to allow for our own teams to take part in aiding the founders with building their businesses. We think this approach will give our founders more resources early on that can directly translate into building sustainable businesses.
What are the main criteria for Hospitable Bridge companies? Are there certain types of businesses you are looking to support? Do they need to be based in the US?
We believe that diverse, visionary female founders will help shape the business communities and practices of the future. With that in mind, our focus is on our founders and their personal mission, from the first review process through to graduation from our accelerator studio.
While people may initially imagine hospitality businesses as food and beverage or hotel focused in their aim, Hospitable Bridge focuses on a complex web of services supporting better practices in the hospitality industry as well as aids an underserved segment of the community through hospitality-related services. This broader definition allows us to support business models that range from feeding the elderly in marginalized communities, to finding low-cost design services for economy hoteliers, and teaching the restaurant community how to shape more inclusive dining experiences. We expect this matrix of hospitality services to grow and grow as we build our Hospitable Bridge network.
At the moment, we are only accepting applications from US based businesses. As AvroKO World is a global entity, we may be opening applications to our global community after this test bed year.
Which of the Hospitable Bridge projects are you most excited about and why?
We have started a new micro-grant program for smaller community-based initiatives in addition to the larger seed capital investments we are making in companies. This gives us more flexibility and reach to support BIPOC/AAPI women doing beautiful things in and around hospitality. Micro-grants are between $1,000-$2,500 and are distributed on a rolling basis.
How can women apply to get funding from Hospitable Bridge?
Many application processes are so arduous and lengthy that they prohibit individuals from feeling encouraged to apply. Right now we have a very simple outreach process, where interested parties and those recommending businesses can easily e-mail email@example.com and introduce the company and concept. If the company is a contender, we’ll have a series of dialogues and information sharing sessions to see if the company is a good fit for Hospitable Bridge, and for the founder to see if she feels good about how we may be able to help her company grow.
You have had an amazing and accomplished career, founding successful international design firm AvroKO, design firm Brand Bureau, and the AvroKO Hospitality Group which has 7 restaurants and bars on three continents...and now Hospitable Bridge. Why do you keep starting new businesses and how do you juggle all of this?
My Partners and I (and the many amazing leaders at the head of these companies) have collectively built the businesses so that they puzzle together and support one another in unique and integrated ways. Our restaurants and bars, for instance, are experimentation spaces for ideas our clients might be less keen to try without proof of concept; and they also keep us in an active learning state for restaurant technology, profitability, flow, management, and programming. Our Brand Bureau creates early phase brand and environment strategy and design, often hand in hand with our AvroKO Design studios, and our teams in all of our studios are invited to support our Hospitable Bridge companies in small or large ways in order to help founders with their businesses and shift the dialogue in our industry at large
All of these entities work together synergistically, and when we see an opportunity to add to the AvroKO World family in a meaningful way, we tend to jump at the chance.
Have you ever started a business that failed? If so, what did you learn? If not, how does everything you touch turn to gold?
We have never been risk-averse, which means we have had plenty of failures over the last 20 years. Business failures have certainly taught us as much as our successes and while each one was painful in its own right, looking back now they feel natural and important to every win that has followed.
It’s our willingness to experiment unabashedly, and to pivot quickly when needed, that has been maybe one of the most important features living inside the seed-history of all of our companies. Everything that has been built in AvroKO World is a compilation of some inherent success and failure, but the companies that have endured are the ones that were free enough to continuously shift without constraints…and then shift again and again as better data and feedback becomes available.
You seem passionate about encouraging women to start businesses, why do you think women make good entrepreneurs?
As we support more women as founders, and help ensure that their companies get the chance to flourish, we are changing the dialogue for how business works and how our culture works at large. It’s a massive ripple effect with compound interest. Every time a woman founds a company and succeeds, it allows for our business systems to evolve with a more balanced view for how companies can and should work. This may include how diverse they become, how many other women become leaders in that business, how meetings are run, and how voices are heard in those meetings, how the work/life balance is constructed in that company, and how women giving birth or going through menopause are supported.
statistics show that female-founded businesses are better structured for growth and yield 10% higher cumulative revenue over a 5-year period vs. male-founded startups
Many business systems and structures have been built on male needs, perspectives, and preferences which continue to be in dire need of re-balancing. Women founders—particularly women of color—are part of this movement to shift our business paradigm overall, but statistics also show that female-founded businesses are better structured for growth and yield 10% higher cumulative revenue over a 5-year period vs. male-founded startups. Women founders may be the most dominant force for change in our future-at-large, for both business and cultural evolution.