Ansley Fender, Founder and CEO of Atlas Solutions, is no stranger to risk. She’s been a homeless teenager, a classically trained violinist, a pregnant grad student, a small business owner, and now she’s a non-technical founder of a software as a service (SaaS) company that streamlines grant management. All of these experiences have shaped who she is today, she says, and prepared her to compete in an arena where women are underrepresented and underfunded.
Fender’s tech startup, Atlas Solutions, provides end-to-end management of the grant and government contract funding cycle for that 2 trillion–dollar market. In October of 2020, Atlas received $20,000 in pre-seed investment from Elevate Ventures’ Community Ideation Fund and is currently running a pilot with MVP software developed with those funds.
Fender’s early life laid the foundation for the resilience need to survive the competitive startup world. “I was a homeless teenager,” Fender said, “so the drive to hustle started really early. You learn to deal with the cards you've been dealt. I still went to school, and I maintained straight As.”
Music brought Fender from Florida to Bloomington, Indiana, to attend the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. After injuring her hand, she transferred her credits into an arts management program at SPEA. “Music is very high risk—arguably more high risk than starting a company,” according to Fender. “Thousands of violinists graduate every year, and there are only a couple of hundred positions available in orchestras worldwide. So I actually de-risked myself by leaving music school.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree, Fender started on a masters of public affairs in public finance. When she got pregnant, she worked from home doing books for nonprofits. That spiraled into a full-blown business, and she quickly saw that as much as 30% of grant funding was used to cover administrative costs. Nonprofits get into a vicious circle, Fender noted, of applying for more grants to pay for the labor to manage their other grants.
Siloed software is one of the biggest problems, Atlas has found. The accounting deadlines for financial reporting, for example, may not align with the program schedules for executing work to meet grant milestones. The resulting conflicts cost precious time and hard-won dollars to reconcile. Atlas’s pilot is currently testing the software’s tracking and reporting capabilities while the team builds out a new feature, a grant-finding tool powered by machine learning.
Fender speaks candidly about the stresses of being a CEO. “Being a startup is not all about the fancy IPO or billion-dollar exit. It's antidepressant meds and homeless teenager stories. This the actual reality of being a CEO of anything, a tech company or non-tech company. You've got a baby screaming in the background while you're trying to pitch.”
Nonetheless, Fender says, her experiences have developed a repertoire of skills that she uses today as a CEO. “As a violinist, the number of hours you'll spend on a single measure, drilling it to perfection, is mind numbing. There's spontaneity, but also muscle memory—and that's the heart of a good pitch. You have to know exactly what you want to say, and you have to improvise, to react to the people listening. You get a really thick skin really quickly, and you get used to rejection.”
Only 3% of venture capital dollars go to female founding companies, and while 2020 was one of the biggest years for venture capital, the share received by women-led companies went down. To date, women have led fewer than two dozen IPOs.
Despite these daunting numbers, Fender is currently looking for a technical co-founder or CTO to bring not only skill, but more diversity to her organization. “I would love to find a person of color or someone who identifies as LGBTQ,” she commented. “It might hurt my odds, but I think it's important to have representation. It's hard to balance all of this, to keep in mind what's best for the company, and what's also best for morality and my own personal beliefs.”
Atlas Solutions will raise an angel round later in 2021 and is currently participating in nationally ranked startup accelerator gener8tor’s gBETA program.
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