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Ad Astra Launches ‘Venture Builder’ Offering Bespoke Support for Female Founders

San Diego-based Ad Astra Ventures is launching its Venture Builder, a new form of venture capital support for women entrepreneurs. The Venture Builder model offers diverse founders a highly customized level of support from the gender-lens investment fund. Three female-led companies, Lilu, Sēkr and The Sash Bag, will benefit from Ad Astra’s inaugural Venture Builder. The program applies the best of Ad Astra’s business accelerator and bootcamp curriculum and leverages its leaders’ decades of experience as early-stage investors.

About the Venture Builder

This is a highly personalized program. Ad Astra’s partners, advisors and investor-mentors walk alongside founders. They engage in active conversations to deeply understand each leader’s unique strengths. Partners also assess the company’s core value proposition, product-market fit, marketing and sales plans and funding approach. They then use their detailed analysis to deliver a strategic assessment. The assessment specifically highlights areas where they’re able to actively partner and support the founder and her company. 

“We don’t start with capital, we end with it,” says Vidya Dinamani, who is a co-founder of Ad Astra Ventures alongside Allison Long Pettine and Silvia Mah. “Together with Ad Astra’s carefully selected network of mentors, we roll up our sleeves to understand the specific areas where founders need support, then engage our curated network of industry and subject-matter experts to guide the founder to success.”

The boutique approach of the Venture Builder model chiefly aims at long-term success through active participation. This undoubtedly results in stronger, more confident leadership and a foundation for thriving, resilient companies.

First Venture Builder cohort

The following diverse companies are part of the first Venture Builder cohort. They all are female-founded, two are BIPOC-founded and one is LGBTQ+-founded:

  • Lilu is developing a suite of innovative, tech-enabled products for nursing moms. Adriana C. Vázquez, CEO, and Sujay Suresh, COO founded Lilu in 2016. The company’s first product, the Lilu Massage Bra, is an FDA Class I device. It chiefly aims to address the notorious inefficiencies of breast pumps. It uses their patented pneumatic massage technology to mimic a baby’s natural motions. This accelerates milk output and alleviates discomfort and pain. Lilu customers “love this bra” and have called it a “life saver” and “breastfeeding savior.”
  • Sēkr is making outdoor travel easier, safer and more connected. It is a social plus app where people find campsite destinations, amenities and community in the outdoors. Founders Breanne Acio, CEO, and Jessica Shisler, Ph.D., COO launched Sēkr from their campervans. Sēkr serves a range of customers, from full time travelers to the occasional camper. (Previously The Vanlife App).
  • The Sash Bag produces a sleek and innovative alternative to traditional handbags. Sash Bags wrap around your torso and have four exterior and six interior (zippered) pockets. They also possess a built-in wallet to hold all your personal belongings. The bag is called the fanny pack of the 21st century. The Sash Bag lets women be hands-free and organized on-the-go when carrying a purse just isn’t practical. The founder and CEO is Nichole MacDonald.

A new way of investing

“Women entrepreneurs intuitively approach business fundamentals, such as risk, differently than men and our Venture Builder empowers this difference,” said Long Pettine. “We look past established norms and treat each founder as an individual, which equips women leaders to show up differently with an assurance in who they are.”

Through Venture Builder and the Ad Astra Fund, a community of female founders is growing. The community looks very different from the traditional models. This is especially important today as the coronavirus pandemic has hit female-run businesses harder than most. The effect of COVID also contributes to an existing disadvantage when it comes to raising capital and establishing work-life balance. In fact, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women extends beyond layoffs and women leaving the workforce, to the venture capital funding of female entrepreneurs. Startups with all-female founding teams drew an all-time-high of 3.4 percent of all venture capital dollars in the U.S. in 2019, according to Crunchbase. However, that declined to 2.4 percent in 2020 and that percentage stayed consistent through the first two months of 2021.

“There is nothing cookie cutter about our approach to VC funding,” said Mah. “We are championing a new way of investing and encourage others to adopt this approach, not just because it’s the right thing to do in support of women entrepreneurs, but because it’s the smart thing to do.”

About Ad Astra Ventures

Founded in 2018 by Vidya Dinamani, Allison Long Pettine and Silvia Mah, Ad Astra is dedicated to growing and building female leaders through thoughtful programming and investment opportunities. Among the organization’s programming is a 12-week business accelerator for high-growth startups led by one or more females. With a thriving portfolio of 13 companies to-date, Ad Astra is building a global community of founders, investors, executives and philanthropists who are putting more women in leadership positions. Learn more at

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