I’m not going to recount for you the statistics. Just look around the room at a typical startup event and count the females.
It’s clear that the Triangle area, like many regions, has a problem attracting women to entrepreneurship. And a key finding from last Tuesday’s gathering of about 20 of the most entrepreneurial ladies in town—all passionate about the issue—is that it’s taboo to talk about it.
But, hopefully, not anymore.
Tuesday’s meeting at Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network in Durham—a grassroots event organized by Blackstone’s Program Manager Sheryl Waddell (pictured right above) and Leadership exCHANGE executive director Heather McDougall—was all about sharing the challenges these women had faced in business, brainstorming ways to make it easier on them and developing a plan to introduce more women to the field.
I’ll get to the discussions. But first, a bit about the founders.
Waddell co-founded a wireless data communications company in Bethlehem, Pa. in 1995 and held the title vice president of sales and marketing (Despite her title, she knew what it was like to be viewed as a ‘booth babe’, she said). Though the company sold in 2002 and was considered a success, she laments not taking a bigger leadership role at the company. She wished she’d had the confidence and mentorship to have been the CEO.
McDougall is a feminism theorist who focused research for her Indiana University PhD in political science on Eastern European revolutions and the women’s movement. For the last 15 years, her organization has sent some of the brightest college students around the world to summer leadership camps, and she still sees barriers to the female students’ success.
“We face this dilemma, ‘Do we really focus on women or do we just say we’re going to focus on entrepreneurship?'” McDougall told me. “My response is there’s obviously a problem, so we need to go ahead and say it and tackle it.”
Waddell read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In last year and though she disagreed with most of the Facebook COO’s theories, she was inspired to put together a group for women in startups providing mentorship, networking and education to help them create better companies and be better leaders. When Liz Tracy at HQ Raleigh learned of Waddell’s ambitions, she introduced her to McDougall.
They began to look for groups similar to what they hoped to create, and finding none at a professional or university level (besides Women Presidents’ Organization which requires members have $1 million in revenue and pay a hefty fee), pulled together a larger group to come up with a plan. Fifty female investors, entrepreneurs, professors and startup community supporters were invited to participate.
And that leads us to last Tuesday, a night full of dichotomies. One woman shared how she pitched investors at eight-and-a-half months pregnant and won their support for her gutsiness.
Another shared a tale of an entrepreneur-friend asked by an investor how her pregnancy would impact his investment.
The more experienced entrepreneurs shared stories of being held back early in their careers; the younger ones are more fearless. They call who they want and ask for what they need.
But most of the women admit they lack the networking advantage of men—many eat lunch at their desks and hurry home to their kids after work rather than hit a bar or the golf course. Others lack formal training—existing entrepreneurial workshops don’t teach about bootstrapping, employment law and human resources, building a team, project management or negotiating contracts.
And they recognize the lack of a ‘deep bench’ of successful female entrepreneurs—the women who have been successful are easily pulled too thin.
All agreed the advice and mentorship of another woman would be valuable to the growth of their business and leadership skills. And they’d like to be involved in building up the next generation of female entrepreneurs too.
So what’s to come?
The yet-to-be-named group already has follow ups planned—an evening networking event, showcase of female-led women’s rights organizations and screening of the film Girl Rising March 7 at the new HQ Raleigh and a boot camp in April.
But the women will need help determining the path of the group and ensuring it fulfills its mission of helping female entrepreneurs be successful.
To share your thoughts or get involved in the movement, contact Heather McDougall at [email protected]