DURHAM – It initially started as a one-off event a year ago when Governor Roy Cooper declared November 19 as Women Innovators Day – a day to celebrate women entrepreneurs across the state.
But the declaration attracted so much interest that a group of friends independently decided to make it a regular staple on the local startup scene calendar.
Monday night, more than 80 female innovators heeded the call of Women Innovators Day, meeting up for the third time in just over a year at Smashing Boxes’ ultra-modern office in downtown Durham.
Networking and small group discussions were the agenda, with attendees discussing everything from relationship management to financial strategy in an intimate setting.
“There are not a lot of opportunities for women in the area to really come together and realize how many females entrepreneurs there are,” said attorney and co-founder of Fallone SV, Katelin Kennedy, who is one of the organizers based out of HQ Raleigh.
“This event attracts women who are not starting the traditional [tech] startup companies. It really runs the gamut. There’s a lot that we can learn from one another, and we’ve seen a lot of great connections come out of it.”
The rise of women-led businesses
By all accounts, women-led businesses are a growing sector of the local startup scene.
According to American Underground’s latest annual report, 30 percent of companies at its headquarters are female led – an increase of 4.5 percent from the previous year.
At HQ Raleigh, they are also making space to fit this growing demographic. Last year, the group kitted out its new facility at Raleigh’s Capital Club with amenities like satellite daycare and a “mother’s room” to attract female tenants.
But even with these accommodations, many female entrepreneurs argue it’s still hard to network and access funding.
Events like Women Innovators Day is hoping to change that, say organizers.
“It’s a space where we can talk about the different types of funding that are available, and also offer connections and warm introductions,” said Braden Rawls, another organizer and CEO and co-founder of Vital Plan.
“The power of a warm introduction goes a long way, so having a network like this allows you to move a lot faster.”
She should know. About five years ago, she started up the Cary-based natural health company with her father, Dr. Bill Rawls, out of his medical practice. Since then, they’ve gone from strength to strength, raising about $2.5 million in equity since 2015.
Rawls said she “considers it an advantage” to being a female chief executive.
“You just have to be mindful of being a female going into male-dominated environments where most of my investors and advisers are male. I’ve really have learned how to present the company, and it gets people’s attention to have a female CEO leading the business.”
Women supporting women
Angel investor Jan Davis was also among those milling around, making connections.
“I’m always looking for interesting companies,” she said. “I’m not going to make any decisions tonight, but it’s always good to get to know women entrepreneurs and figure out what makes them tick.”
Davis serves on a number of boards, including Megalytics Inc. and the Launch Place Seed Fund, and has been part of Triangle Angel Partners for the last seven years.
As a woman, she says it’s great to be able to help other female entrepreneurs. But more to the point, it’s also in her best interests.
“Selfishly as an investor, companies that have more diverse teams including women and people of color tend to provide better returns. Women-led companies are kind of an overlooked opportunity as an investor because they tend to not have as many options for raising money. Often it’s a good deal financially. And then morally, it’s important to help underrepresented communities succeed.”
In regards to the local ecosystem, Davis says she is impressed by the work of co-working spaces, and some of the accelerator programs that are geared specifically towards women. But as a whole, there is still much work to be done.
“[It’s like] the old saying, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.’ There are not enough successful women entrepreneurs or women investors. I know in our angel group, the percentage of women who are interested in being angel investors is really small.”
For Jordan Lacenski, owner and cofounder BrandBoss Creative, the key to success is all about accessing a female network. She traveled all the way from Greensboro for the event.
“Females network differently, and we have a different way of managing,” she explained. “As a CEO of your own business, you can’t know everything. Surrounding yourself with people that have strengths that you do not, can only help everyone in the end.”
In January, she plans to help launch SheWolf Collaborative, an online network for female CEOs.
“I’m married and I love my spouse, but his job has moved us quite a bit. And as an owner, it’s caused my business to suffer quite a bit, relocating and finding a new community and networking all over again and getting to know that culture of a place that you now live. For me, finding those women was like survival. Every place that we’ve lived – Florida, Montana, now here – it was vital to the success of me, my sanity and my business. The network of women has helped me grow.”