The Ascent Project

Empowering Women Founders

Powered by Fishburners, Sponsored by Westpac

With Westpac’s backing, Fishburners will be launching two programs under the Ascent Project aimed at increasing the representation of female founders in the startup ecosystem. 

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Our Mission

We’re doubling down on our mission not only to boost inclusivity and representation but establish them as enduring pillars in the startup ecosystem. In doing this, wish to not only inspire change but be the architects of a better, more diverse and inclusive future.

Westpac’s Commitment

Westpac Business Lending is committed to promoting financial inclusion and removing barriers for all business founders, including women.

In March 2023, Westpac announced new measures to help small businesses to get started or to grow with business loans for businesses looking to start-up or scale-up. These measures also help support Westpac’s $500 million commitment to back more women in business and comes as research from the bank reveals accessing finance is one of many challenges faced by female business owners*.

Westpac research shows 51 per cent of women plan to apply for finance to support short to medium business growth, yet more women find it harder to access finance compared with men (29% women to 21% men)*.


*Research conducted by Lonergan Research in October 2023. It was an online survey conducted among a representative sample of over 500 Australian SME Business Leaders.

Program Details

The Ascent Project offers two distinct programs tailored to meet the needs of female entrepreneurs at different stages of their journey. Recognising the unique challenges and opportunities female founders may face, these programs aim to equip founders with the connections, resources, and guidance needed to navigate the complexities of entrepreneurship.


The Ascent Project: Incubator Program

Are you an aspiring female business owner ready to transform your dreams into reality?

Look no further, The Incubator is a 6-week program designed to empower female founders to kickstart their entrepreneurial journey, supported by a community of like-minded individuals.

What is the Incubator Program?

In this program, you will:

  • Use critical tools to successfully discover, define, validate and solve a problem.
  • Complete a Design Sprint & build a business case
  • Leverage User-Centered Design, Design Thinking & Lean Startup methods
  • Explore the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and define broader areas of interest
  • Develop and test a value proposition with potential customers
  • Design and test an initial business model with end-users
  • Build and pitch your idea for Demo Day

Who should apply?

The Incubator warmly welcomes:

  • Idea-stage startups or aspiring entrepreneurs (if you don’t have a startup but want to become a founder, please apply!)
  • Individuals looking to test and validate their ideas, which will form the basis of their new startup
  • Those seeking an opportunity to join a team of fellow aspiring or early-stage entrepreneurs

Ready to Begin?

The Incubator has 30 spots available for women and non-binary founders. All you need is one free evening a week and a desire to get started!

Let’s turn your dreams into reality.

The Ascent Project: Accelerator Program

The Accelerator Program is a is a 7-week program for small businesses ready to scale their business. This program equips you with the principles, tools, mentorship and connections needed to secure funding and scale your venture further.

More details on the program structure, timeline, and application process will be coming soon.

Application and Program Timeline (Incubator Program)


Applications open for Incubator Program

April 26, 2024

Applications close for Incubator Program

April 30, 2024

Start Date of
Incubator Program

June 7, 2024

Demo Day
Incubator Program

Application and Program Timeline (Accelerator Program)

June 28, 2024

Applications open for
Accelerator Program

July 26, 2024

Applications close for
Accelerator Program

August 5, 2024

Start date of
Accelerator Program

September 27, 2024

Demo Day
Accelerator Program

Meet The Facilitator - Dr. Leila Alem


Leila is an innovation expert with over 25 years of experience in designing digital products and services. She helps businesses leverage emerging technologies to transform and create value in the digital age. Leila uses design thinking and agile methods to co-create digital strategies and roadmaps with clients across various industries, including aviation, mining, and healthcare.

She has a successful track record in building innovation programs and coaching startups, leading to commercialisation and awards. Leila is also an Adjunct Professor and a sought-after speaker on unlocking innovation through technology.


Almost any and all! We are tech-agnostic and industry-agnostic! So, the world is your oyster. 

In saying this, both programs have been designed for tech startups (but don’t let that scare you or hold you off! You don’t need to be technical to start a tech startup!) This is just to say, that service or consulting-style businesses are less suited to the program and will therefore not be prioritised in selections. 

* Reminder that a non-technical background or having little to no-experience in technology or startups will not hinder your application. We’re here to give you a leg in (and up!), so don’t hold yourself back. We’ve got plenty of mentors, resources and tools that can help you navigate tech as a non-technical founder.

Depending on the program you choose, it will run for either 6 or 7 weeks. During this period, you’ll be expected to attend one, two-hour evening session per week, held after regular working hours. 

Additionally, you’ll need to allocate time to focus on developing your startup idea and collaborating with your mentors—this aspect is flexible and depends on your own schedule and commitment.

Yes, co-founders of any gender are welcome to join the Accelerator Program alongside you. 

We recognise that many successful startups are founded and run by diverse teams. The goal of this program is to support and empower women and non-binary entrepreneurs, so we encourage you to apply with your full founding team, regardless of gender.

Places in the Accelerator Program are awarded to startups, not individual founders. So having a male co-founder will not take an opportunity away from another female founder. Our aim is to build a cohort of diverse, talented teams that can benefit from the resources and support offered through the program.

Thanks to the support of Westpac, both programs are 100% free to join. No fees, no income sharing, and no equity. 

Fishburners is a not-for-profit and does not invest in startups. However, while we do not offer investment; connections and funding-readiness support will be provided in the program to assist you to raise investment or seek funding from alternative sources. Westpac will also be providing support tailored to the needs of the startup founders.