When Raleigh entrepreneur and NC State professor Rosanna Garcia heard news last fall of a grassroots-led women’s march to take place in D.C., she knew it was her chance to lead by example.

A march on Washington, the founder of social media analytics provider Vijilent thought, was a much-needed vehicle by which women entrepreneurs could let their voices be heard about the gender injustice in their fields. Specific to female startup founders, there were the struggles with fundraising and networking and earning credibility with male counterparts.

She quickly organized and fronted the money for a charter bus to bring as many local women to the event as she could.

The demand was so high that she ended up needing two.

Fast-forward a few months of arduous planning to Saturday, when the faces of over 100 Triangle women were seen at the march amongst countless posters, signs and bobbing heads topped with pink hats on the front lines of D.C.’s misty streets.

In the group were Raleigh startup community members Heather McDougall of Leadership Exchange and the local women entrepreneurs organization e51, Liz Tracy and Jess Porta of HQ Raleigh, and Papilia Founder Sophia Hyder.

McDougall says she felt a responsibility to attend the event as a female, a mom, an educator and an entrepreneur.

“For all of us, diversity and the protection of our fellow community members is essential to a vibrant political and economic ecosystem,” she says. “Our strength draws from the vibrancy of our community and we have the responsibility to stand up for ourselves and those around us.”

Triangle women were present at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, including some from local startups and organizations such as (left to right) HQ Raleigh Director Liz Tracy, Alyse Lopez-Salm of Ipas, Leadership exCHANGE and e51 Cofounder Heather McDougall, HQ Raleigh’s Jess Porta and Papilia Founder Sophia Hyder. Credit: Heather McDougall

The Raleigh group also represented a mix of professions and industries outside of entrepreneurship, including a pediatrician, an architect, an art museum manager, a non-profit worker and a professor from NC State’s Poole College of Management. There were a few local college students in attendance as well, from NC State and Wake Technical Community College.

The vision for the national Women’s March movement is one of standing in solidarity, of giving women around the world the platform to express that their rights, safety, health and families deserve to be valued and protected.

Within these values is a particular relevance to women in business and entrepreneurship, and Garcia says these women are starting to stand up more for gender injustices they encounter.

“I’ve seen an ‘awakening’ by women that our voice is important for our country to flourish and I feel there needs to be a reminder that women are equals to men,” she says.

The event reaped an unprecedented turnout, now referred to in the media as one of the largest demonstrations in history. The New York Times reports crowd scientists estimated at least 470,000 people in areas on and near the National Mall around mid-afternoon Saturday.

But the march was certainly not limited to Washington D.C.

North Carolina made its presence in the movement known, with tens of thousands of marchers rallying in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. Sister marches also took place in other cities throughout the U.S. and in countries across the world, counting toward a total turnout of 2.9 million people.

National movement resonates with NC women

Back in November when the national Women’s March movement was in its seeds, Garcia read an article written by Sallie Krawcheck, UNC Chapel Hill graduate and cofounder of New York-based financial services company Ellevest.

Krawcheck discussed the power of businesswomen’s voice:

“Women control $5 trillion of investable assets, direct 80 percent of consumer spending and make up more than half of the workforce. We have a lot of power IF we care to do something about it.”

The article sparked Garcia to write one of her own on Vijilent’s blog, citing Krawcheck’s words in her rationale to join the Women’s March on Washington in solidarity with businesswomen across the nation and globe.

She then booked a one-day charter bus trip and spread open invites to her contacts at HQ Raleigh and the Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs at NC State (an organization she cofounded).

Tickets sold out quickly for two buses of local businesswomen and professionals. A group of girls from Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh also reserved about 30 seats to join.

After a 4 a.m. bus departure and five hours on the road, a group of Raleigh women gather in D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. The mix includes college students, entrepreneurs and businesswomen (top), as well as a group of Saint Mary’s School students (bottom). Credit: Rosanna Garcia

Garcia says SMS has become a strong partner for NC State AWE in encouraging the girls to take interest in entrepreneurship. She felt the march would have a powerful impact on them as they grow into adulthood and begin their professional lives and careers.

“Younger businesswomen will see the power of women and I think will feel that power at this walk,” Garcia adds. “They will take that with them in their daily lives…These girls are our future.”

While viewing the march as great way to connect with local women and students, Garcia also considered the event an exciting opportunity for her company. She wrote in her blog post:

“The march on Washington will be symbolic for Vijilent of the next four years. Starting a company is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. With the recent election results, my team and I have become even more passionate about making Vijilent a success. Not just for ourselves, but as a way of showing how women and minorities have so much to offer. I believe the next four years will be one in which Vijilent will grow as a company while women nationwide will stand up and be recognized for the force we are.”

Believing in the power of women as a collective is a key theme in Garcia’s organizing.

By supporting and uplifting one another, she says the march is an example of how women (and men too) can come together to exercise their voices in a positive and meaningful way.

A recap of the Women’s March, as it happened

As the march events unfolded, the overall mood captured (by this attendee, at least) was one of consistent social vibrancy and electricity. This kind of energy was too strong to be dulled by the local weather forecast: gloomy grey skies, semi-chilly January air and light rain showers.

The day began at 3:30 a.m., when excitement levels were high in spite of a universal half-awake daze among bus riders. It was a five-hour straight shot to Washington D.C., with no stops along the way.

In the latter half of the ride just as the sun was rising, heads began to pop up from naps and riders ran through the day’s logistics (i.e., reiterating timing for the march, swapping details on what people know about rally speakers, etc.)

Upon arrival in D.C., the group immediately headed toward the heart of the city for a pre-march rally. Along the way, the subgroups began to split off and go in separate directions with plans to meet later in the march.

All around, streets, alleys, bypasses and any leftover space quickly overflowed with marchers, many clad in t-shirts with printed phrases like “Nasty Woman” and “The Future is Female.”

They carried signs displaying anything from “We Are All One” to “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” to “Stop The War On Women” to even a simple “Yikes.”

Distinct chants bounced off buildings and echoed throughout the city. One common phrase heard throughout the day was “This is What Democracy Looks Like.”

Regardless of which specific message marchers conveyed through their signs and shirts, there was a general sense of camaraderie.

Strangers from all walks of life were introducing themselves, telling each other about their respective families and friends, taking selfies and exchanging phone numbers.

Casual conversations and even small talk seemed to operate outside of average everyday social transactions. They were resemblant of something deeper and more personal to both parties, a symbol of a theme recurring throughout the day: “Love Trumps Hate.”

Rosanna Garcia, a Raleigh entrepreneur who organized a group of local women to join the Women’s March on Washington, poses with fellow marcher and Wake Technical Community College student An Tran. Credit: Rosanna Garcia

At the pre-march rally, which took place in the morning, actresses like America Ferrera and Ashley Judd jumpstarted a surge of momentum through the crowd.

Equal rights activist and writer Gloria Steinem also made an appearance, and delivered an address especially relevant to marchers who arrived via bus, relaying that the event required 1,000 more buses than the inauguration.

She added notes of praise, saying the marchers represent an “outpouring of energy and equal diversity.”

Throughout the duration of the rally, the speakers’ words slowly became less and less audible from the post the group had chosen. Surrounding conversations grew louder and over time it became difficult to decipher what they were saying until the rally’s end.

Around the time it wrapped up, attendees poured onto Independence Avenue and began preparing for the march set to go toward the White House.

But since the crowd had exceeded organizers’ expectations, an alternate plan had to be implemented on the fly, as there were too many marchers in position to actually make any movement at all.

Of course no one was aware of this in the moment. Cell service had gone out throughout the city. Quite quickly, confusion took hold and casual conversations gave way to speculations about what would come next.

Individual groups eventually began forking off into separate areas, to either find their way home or make alternate plans like a makeshift march.

Organizers were eventually able to reconvene marchers in a more formal fashion toward the end of the afternoon, though not at the same magnitude of the march kickoff.

As the day wound down, crowds slowly dispersed and the sun began to lower.

The Raleigh group met back at the bus parking areas as planned, and Garcia made sure to give a final announcement before heading back to North Carolina, thanking the group for coming and representing a larger movement.

She said, “This really showed the power we as women have in numbers, and we can take that power with us today.”

The Women’s March movement does not end here

After the fact, one of the big takeaways for Garcia was the march’s impact on the young students.

“I feel Saint Mary’s girls will remember [that it’s] peaceful, yet, powerful to know as America’s future leaders they can do anything they want in any arena including entrepreneurship,” she says.

For the female entrepreneurs in the group, Garcia hopes it sends a message that businesswomen are stronger together and should lift each other up in their businesses.

But most interesting about the march, Garcia told me, was that it seemed less about hope, and more about the commitment to do something powerful.

McDougall felt a similar takeaway in a question of “what’s next” for North Carolina innovators.

“Entrepreneurship differs from activism because [it] not only brings awareness about a problem, but it goes a step further to create new innovative solutions—what is commonly referred to as ‘creative destruction,’” she says, adding that she looks forward to the challenge.

Saturday’s event was just the beginning, according to the national Women’s March movement platform.

Organizers are putting out a 100-day game plan for action, starting with a call for women to send a postcard to their senators about what matters most to them and to create a plan of how they’ll continue fighting for it in the days, weeks and months ahead.

This call-to-action marks the first of 10 to come on the Women’s March website, encouraging women around the world to unite and work to advance their communities.

With millions of participants around the globe, the sheer volume of Saturday’s march reinforced one of Garcia’s key points to her own followers: There is strength in numbers.