By LAURA LOREK, Publisher of Silicon Hills News

Ceresa, a leadership development platform, announced Wednesday that it has raised $1 million in seed funding.

Austin-based Next Coast Ventures and LiveOak Venture Partners led the round.

Ceresa plans to use the funds to expand product development. It has created a data-driven, personalized program called the Ceresa Leadership Accelerator that provides 100 percent virtual coaching, mentoring, and support for startups to Fortune 500 companies.

“We believe that the lack of diverse leadership in corporations today is not because of a skills gap, it’s an access gap,” said Anna Robinson, co-founder and CEO. “There is a lack of access to role models, mentors, coaches, and high-impact leadership resources for underrepresented groups.”

Ceresa did a few pilot programs in 2018 and officially launched in 2019. The company, based at 1702 E. 6th street in downtown Austin, has 11 employees and plans to add a few more in the next six months, Robinson said.

The program starts off  by having participants write a mission statement and they must answer the question posed by a Mary Oliver poem “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Participants must also make a list of eight people they wish to get feedback from and a questionnaire about them is sent out to those people to answer anonymously. At the end of the first few months, Ceresa has dozens of data points to use to match that person with the perfect mentor. Then they meet once a month with a structured agenda.

“For participants, the impact has been even higher than I even thought it would be,” Robinson said. “It’s a very deep journey for people. It’s quite transformative.”

“In the matching, there is often a little X factor that is the magic in the match,” Robinson said. “It’s hard to say what it is because it’s different for everyone. But we’re looking for that and we’re trying to draw it out of them for their match.”

In one case, Ceresa was matching a data scientist with a technical expert at Disney who was an executive who ran animal programs and animal animation for its studios. It was a really great match, Robinson said.

“The one thing we found in the match is they had both been zookeepers,” she said.

People who have gone through Ceresa’s nine-month program reach out to Ceresa all the time and tell them how much the program has changed their lives, Robinson said.

The platform is virtual, easy, affordable, research-driven with credible content, and has a focus on diversity, Robinson said.

There were a few different pieces that drove Robinson to create the Ceresa platform.

Robinson had been at McKinsey for about 12 years and she wanted to do something more mission-driven. She left as a partner but didn’t know what she wanted to do. She had a health scare that just gave her the realization that she needed to focus on the lack of diversity from a gender perspective in leadership. She has three young daughters and that provided even further motivation to change the status quo.

“I kind of knew it, but when I was looking at all the data with fresh eyes, I saw that we literally made no change at the top in two generations,” Robinson said. “That was a bit of oh my gosh, realizing that my daughters could have these same conversations in another 40 years.”

In Fortune 500 companies, there are 33 female CEOs, less than 7 percent and only three Black CEOs, less than 1 percent, barely changing in a generation, according to Ceresa. 

That’s when Robinson decided to do something to change that with Ceresa, which derives its name from Ceres, a Roman goddess of agriculture, fertility, grains, the harvest, and motherhood. Robinson founded the company with tech executive Nicole Tanzillo.

The platform is extremely flexible. And the journey for the participant is the same no matter what stage the company is at, Robinson said.

Ceresa is not a training platform, she said. Its theory of change is that while there are some core skills that are needed to progress in a career, the focus is on leadership development.

“Things that differentiate people who have a path to the top are those people that have more self-awareness, they actually have access to coaching that helps them do that reflection and set their goals,” Robinson said. “They also have access to these broader networks of mentors. That can happen organically for certain people. But for a lot of people that is just missing.”

Ceresa is focused on letting people learn from people who have “walked the path you want to walk,” Robinson said.

“That’s what is missing for a lot of people that don’t have that privileged access to networks,” Robinson said.

McKinsey’s leadership program is one of the best in the world, Robinson said. And yes, it is focused on skills building, but really it is an apprenticeship program, Robinson said. It is also focused on softer skills building, and a lot of people don’t have access to those kinds of programs, she said.

“I had incredible mentors there and that just doesn’t exist for so many people,” she said.

The platform can be particularly helpful for young women who may struggle to find a leadership mentor among male colleagues. In the wake of the #Metoo movement, male executives have reported that they have been more reluctant to mentor a female colleague, according to research done by Survey Monkey and the Lean In Foundation.

Ceresa solves that problem because the platform is virtual and structured. It stays on topic, Robinson said.

The people going through the program are mostly first-time managers through vice presidents, Robinson said. They have had everyone from 23-year-olds in their first jobs to senior vice presidents and general managers later in their careers, she said.

“Everyone can benefit from it,” she said.

To measure the impact the program is having, Ceresa measures the engagement rate with its platform, which is more than 90 percent, Robinson said. The company also does satisfaction surveys and its satisfaction rates are 4.8 out of 5 points, she said. They also track feedback data on what participants want to work on, she said. As a result, a company in the program can get great insights on things it needs to do to retain and support employees, Robinson said.

LiveOak Venture Partners invested in Ceresa because the startup is led by an experienced team, and they are solving a big problem for companies in a disruptive technology-enabled fashion, said Krishna Srinivasan, founder partner at LiveOak Venture Partners.

Companies are looking for scalable and efficient ways to develop their talent and Ceresa has the solution, Srinivasan said.

“Ceresa, with a novel technology-enabled platform, has quickly surged as a leader to tackle this vast, underserved market and already demonstrated evidence of huge business and cultural impact for some of the thought-leading corporations in this arena,” he said.

Next Coast saw the potential of Ceresa’s platform from its first discussions with the founders, Mike Smerklo, co-founder and managing director at Next Coast Ventures, said in a news release.

“Ceresa is changing the face of leadership development – bringing together a user-first platform with a modern leadership curriculum to transform how enterprises develop their talent,” Smerklo said. “We are excited about what’s to come.”