Last year, 140 women from all walks of life came together for an inaugural event at NC State University, hosted by the Jenkins MBA program.
Inspired by events like Duke University’s MBA Women’s Leadership Conference and Kenan-Flagler’s Carolina Women in Business Conference (held on the same day this year), the MBA program created the Innovative Women’s Conference to bring together a community of women from all walks of life to discuss business, innovation, science, technology and entrepreneurship.
It reflects a growing focus on entrepreneurship in the program’s coursework and in the activities it promotes outside of class and in the Triangle startup community. It’s also a partial contributor to a year-round effort that started this fall called Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs. More on that below.
MBA Student Association members Catalina Aguirre, Nina Keidel, Padmaja Soundararajan and Jen Wiles have organized the conference, which starts with a networking happy hour at HQ Raleigh this Thursday night and moves into a full day of speakers and panels Friday. Key panel topics cover health, the power of persuasion and sustainability and speakers include Sarah Penley, program manager at Cisco, Janet Hadar, vice president of operations at UNC Hospitals and UNC lecturer and entrepreneur Valerie Fields.
Wiles believes that by providing a platform for these successful women to share their stories, struggles and successes, more women will be inspired to work toward leadership roles in all industries, but especially the entrepreneurial sector.
“We are hoping to spur conversations and ideas while having each woman leave with more interest in what her peers are doing in the Triangle,” she says. “We want them to be more motivated to fulfill their own goals.”
The event is open to anyone in the community, and the organizers are expecting the number of attendees to grow from last year. But they’re more focused on the engagement between the women than really fast growth. According to Wiles, the informative and intimate nature of last year’s event sparked a lot of great conversations.
It contributed to a groundswell in the local startup community around women in entrepreneurship, with the ramp up of the e51 group in Raleigh and SOAR, a mentorship organization tied to American Underground and Groundwork Labs. At NC State, a professor and entrepreneur new to the Triangle got inspired by the movement and applied for a grant from the university to start an initiative focused on empowering young women.
Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs was created by Dr. Rosanna Garcia, an associate professor in the Poole College of Management and founder of the startup Vijilent, which participated in the first Triangle Startup Weekend Women in 2014. She moved from Boston for the 2014-2015 academic year and immediately noticed a lack of female entrepreneurs in the Triangle.
As she began asking women why they weren’t starting companies, she realized they lacked knowledge on finance, venture capital and marketing. Garcia began to envision a network-building hub for women entrepreneurs meant to “meet women wherever they are in their stages of life” with community workshops and clubs on local college campuses. She attended this year’s Female Founders Conference held by Y Combinator in Silicon Valley for more inspiration.
According to Garcia, the main problem for women entrepreneurs is that many existing programs are focused on women who are already in business. This stops women who don’t think they’re far enough along from participating or applying.
In early 2016, Garcia and her associate Kate Arnett-Hitchcock plan to start a mentoring program for these women. They are in the process of creating a Facebook page, modeled after a page run by Y Combinator. The page is only open to the women in the program and serves as a safe place to ask for and receive help.
The AWE team also hopes to open an easily accessible space for women to work and share their experiences and stories. Garcia calls it a safe place for women to learn, grow and follow their entrepreneurial interests.
The group held its first event in October, and continues next Friday Nov. 20 with a basic training event for women interested in entrepreneurship. This is a change from a previous plan to host a local contest to feed into the Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER national pitch competition (Interested companies can still enter the Durham competition).
A top 10 finalist last year was CJ Scarlett of the local Tiger Eye Sensor, a hands-free, voice-activated wearable device that is designed to help deter crime and violence. Garcia hopes to continue the Triangle’s track record this year.
But her bigger mission is to create a sustainable organization that empowers female students with the tools, resources and support to start companies in the Triangle.