And just like that, they were crowned the winners after all: Montana Martinez and Pia Herting managed to win over the judges at the Henkel dx Ventures Xathon 2021 with their mentoring platform, Circle. For one weekend in November, the two joined almost 100 other female founders at Henkel’s Female Business Hackathon, held at four different locations in Berlin as well as on a specially created digital platform. Montana and Pia won the final pitch in front of a top-class panel of judges – despite being defeated with the same idea at last year’s Xathon. In this interview, the two talk about this setback, the motivation that arose from it – and what they are planning to do with the prize money following this year’s victory.
Congratulations on winning the 2021 Xathon! What has this experience been like for you?
Pia: The time went by so quickly! It was a great experience to be among so many other female founders and experts. We founded our company during the COVID-19 pandemic, so we rarely had an opportunity to hold meetings in person or have face-to-face exchanges. That’s another reason why we both really enjoyed being with other people.
Montana: It was incredible to experience the spirit of all these young female founders. The Xathon is ideal for working on your own business model and improving it with the help of feedback and exchanges. And we absolutely managed to do this, as well as making great advances during this short time. Last year, we were already totally fascinated by the structure and scope of the event. Our love and enthusiasm for the Xathon have increased even further this year.
You just mentioned it: You took part in 2020 and didn’t win. What motivated you to participate again this year?
Montana: Our motto is ‘Get back up and carry on’! Pia and I are a strong team of female founders, and last year’s defeat brought us even closer. It definitely motivated us to continue on our joint path. We had only just founded our company a few days before the event, and we had no idea what lay in store for us. Even though we didn’t win, this was the first time we both realized just how much our idea had to offer and how much untapped potential there was.
Pia: I remember it well: After last year’s Xathon, we were sitting in the kitchen, feeling completely overwhelmed by all of the new impressions, all of the things we’d learned. What on earth was a Business Model Canvas? We had no idea, and we had to learn things like that in a very short time. But last year’s defeat really helped us to approach things in a completely different way in 2021. I would say that we were much more focused and worked in a more targeted way. We knew exactly what we wanted to achieve. The fact that we actually won this year was of course the best thing that could have happened.
Montana: And even though we didn’t come first last year, we still won something: courage. Courage to stand by our product, and to defend our idea in the face of adversity and skepticism. We recognized the power hidden within our plans. That was a very special learning experience.
How did you two meet?
Pia: Montana and I met in Shanghai. We were both at university, doing our semester abroad. This time spent in a foreign country was extremely exciting for both of us and has had a lasting impression on our friendship. So much so that, when we finished uni, we decided to start a business together.
Montana: Founding a company wasn’t even our primary goal! I was already doing my first internships in a large company. But I quickly realized that I was lacking support and had no access to mentors, male or female. That’s how we came up with the idea of starting our company, Young Female, and creating our platform, Circle.
What is Young Female about?
Montana: Young Female is about providing mentorship to young women. We want to create a platform that will make it easier for young female professionals to find direction at the start of their careers. We connect them to experienced individuals with strong personalities. Our first product is Circle, the first digital female mentoring platform in the German-speaking world. Its purpose is to support young female professionals in the working world. Our algorithm allows us to find the ideal match.
And this product is aimed at young women starting out on their careers?
Pia: That was our starting point, yes, but many other groups have since joined us. For example, we now have a lot of women who are changing jobs or even careers; they are looking for direction and need good mentors, especially in these exciting times. And since the Xathon, a lot of female founders have joined our platform who got to know us through the event. Of course, we are particularly happy about this, because it means that we as young female founders can now help other female founders.
How exactly does the platform work?
Pia: At the moment, we offer mainly 1:1 mentoring and training sessions, but we are already working on group concepts. We have a subscription model that runs for six months. For 39.99 euros, our customers can use the platform and find their perfect mentor. Compared to other coaching or counselling services, this is quite affordable. That is very important to us, because, after all, the young women we work with are at the very beginning of their careers and cannot afford to pay for expensive mentoring services.
Your corporate philosophy is “What goes around comes back around”. Can you tell us more?
Montana: (laughing) We have Beyoncé to thank for that! Last year, during our founding phase, we listened to her song “Best Thing I Never Had” – a lot! That phrase features in one of the verses. And at some point, we realized just how well that motto suited us and our idea. After all, our platform is based on a kind of circular idea, hence the name of our product: Circle. If our mentors themselves need help or inspiration, they, too, can use the platform. Moreover, once participants have found the path that is right for them, they can pass on their experiences to others.
Winning the Xathon comes with a prize money of 25,000 euros. Have you thought about what you’ll do with the money?
Pia: Yes, we want to continue working on our product. We want to further develop our Minimum Viable Product, i.e. our prototype, and get it up and running as soon as possible. The prize money will really help us make this happen! I find it remarkable that you’re always hearing about record financing and billions of euros being given to start-ups. But for us as young founders, even these 25,000 euros are an enormous amount of money and worth so much!
So, what happens next?
Pia: We will continue to work on our product and further improve it. We have our first major financing rounds coming up in the next few weeks, which will be very exciting.
Montana: We want to become even better and also work on our personal growth. We ourselves have noticed that we have undergone a major development, partly due to the Xathon, of course. We want to build on that. Oh, and of course, as soon as the pandemic allows, we will be hosting our launch party! We definitely have some catching up to do there!