DURHAM – It was a night billed as a celebration of the Triangle’s female entrepreneurs. But there was one group that was noticeably underrepresented: Men.

WRAL TechWire photo

Startup Grind’s winners Jessica Mitsch (left), Heather McDougall and Courtney Tellefsen.

Only a smattering of the opposite gender turned up to the event hosted by Startup Grind and Smashing Boxes on Wednesday night, even though both men and women were welcomed to attend. When it became apparent from the low number of RSVPs that men were not racing to participate, a follow-up invite was sent out reiterating the event’s purpose.

In the end, about 80 people turned up to Smashing Boxes headquarters in Durham – and around 15 men could be counted among the crowd of women.

“I wonder where all the men are?” asked Courtney Tellefsen, founder and CEO of The Produce Box, who was among those honored. She won the award for top social impact entrepreneur.

“All these women have coworkers, brothers, husbands, bosses, employees, so where are they?

“They should be here because we want to feel supported and validated, too. We also want to be recognized in front of our peers.”

Female-focused events not inclusive?

Men were hard to find at the Startup Grind event. (Photo by Chantal Allam)

Each month, the Triangle chapter of the international startup connecting organization, Startup Grind, hosts events aimed at educating and connecting entrepreneurs with other entrepreneurs and resources around the Triangle. Events typically have 35-55 participants, and men almost always make up the majority of attendees, said the group’s director Mark Bavisotto.

But this year, when it came time to host its annual May event dedicated to promoting female entrepreneurs (this time with a first-time awards ceremony), there was some backlash.

StartupGrind event

Bavisotto said he received around seven complaints from men – and one woman — arguing that a night honoring just women wasn’t “inclusive” enough.

“I was surprised by the critical feedback,” he said. “I’m trying to push inclusion, and they say you’re doing just the opposite by having a women’s event.”

He added: “A lot of men don’t understand the kinds of issues that women face. The only way for them to know is to attend events like this. But they look at it like they’re celebrating female founders, why do I need to be there? That’s what aggravates me.”

He wasn’t alone.

“I don’t think it should be an affront to men for us to have an event that celebrates what we do,” said Megan Hughes, a video game developer and founder of Donkey Whisper Productions. “There shouldn’t be a divide, and we don’t exist in a vacuum.”

Still, she’s appeared resigned on the matter.

“There are more men here than I expected,” she laughed, looking around. “I have very low expectations, so this has exceeded them.”

For Pepper Landson, CEO of pharmaceutical company Praetego, this was her first time attending such an event and didn’t have anything else to judge it by, but she did add: “The smart men know this is a place to be.”

Male attendees express surprise, disappointment

Among the handful of men there was Darren Smith, Director of Business Development at Fahrenheit Group, which is one of the sponsors. He’s a regular at these events, and said he was disappointed by the one-sided turnout. “Looking around, I’m very surprised. This area is so diverse in supporting entrepreneurship, I would think just as many men would be out as any other night,” he said.

Gene Barlaz [included in photo at the beginning of this post, an investor with First Steps Capital, also expressed disbelief.

“They’re fools,” he said, explaining the no-shows. “The bottom line is, companies that have a woman on the team, are more than likely to succeed.”

Certainly, those men in attendance didn’t need any convincing.

Wes Guzman, sales consultant at Trinet, specifically brought his daughter Leah Guzman to check out the proceedings. He hopes she will start her own business one day. “These events are excellent for girls,” he said. “She can see other women that are just like her starting their own thing.”

Wes Guzman (left) brought his daughter, Leah Guzman, to Startup Grind’s event honoring women entrepreneurs. Photo by Chantal Allam