The pharmaceutical exec turned venture capitalist and mentor has spent 12 years starting, building and selling businesses. She’s got a global network of connections, and now a team of seven people in a large incubator atop shops and restaurants at Raleigh’s North Hills ready to work with entrepreneurs locally and around the globe.
The only catch? They must be women or building products for women.
Cindy Whitehead is founder of The Pink Ceiling, her fourth startup but first focused on mentoring and investing in female-focused startups.
With hot pink chairs, lockers and lighting, a large pink gum-ball machine and rosé on tap, the space is called the Pinkubator. Local members get up to 18 months of custom support from Whitehead and her team at The Pink Ceiling, the chance to pitch investors, as well as many of the benefits of co-working at a cost of $500 per month.
For $99 per month, virtual members get time biweekly with Whitehead and her team, access to the Pinkubator network and Facebook group and special pricing for The Pink Ceiling’s consulting services and other vendors.
According to Whitehead, members will benefit from her “front row lessons in what it means for women to advocate for themselves and for each other.”
Applications went live
yesterday for startups who’d like to join the Pinkubator at its February 1, 2017 grand opening.
Pink lockers and huddle areas are among the features of the Pinkubator, which opens February 1 in North Hills. Credit: The Pink Ceiling
Whitehead has been vocal about her commitment to female entrepreneurs since she rallied the FDA to approve her company’s controversial drug Addyi in August 2015 and then sold its parent company Sprout Pharmaceuticals (in which ExitEvent parent Capitol Broadcasting was an investor) for $1 billion to Valeant Pharmaceuticals. In early 2016, she launched The Pink Ceiling, a consultancy supporting, and sometimes investing in, female-founded companies or businesses with products targeting women.
Whitehead is driven to boost the percentage of venture capital that goes to startups with at least one female founder—now at just about 10 percent according to CrunchBase.
She also hopes to increase the number of female venture capitalists. According to a CrunchBase study earlier this year
, just 7 percent of partners in the top 100 venture capital firms are women. Only when more women are at the table with female founders will that first percentage begin to accelerate, she says.
Some of Whitehead’s first investments have been local. There’s Undercover Colors
, a Raleigh startup with similarities to Sprout. A group of NC State students won national press and controversy after announcing plans to launch a nail polish that changes color when dipped in an alcoholic beverage laced with drugs.
Rather than backing away from some very negative press, the men worked to perfect the science behind their product to counter any criticism, Whitehead says. In 2017, they expect to launch polish that detects “a basket of drugs” in a variety of alcoholic beverages, she says.
After initially making a call to offer advice, Whitehead is now board chair and a key player who helped the men raise $5.5 million in November to top $8 million in capital raised to date. (ExitEvent parent company Capitol Broadcasting is also an investor.)
Pinkubator membership includes coworking for three months or longer for teams of women or startups working on products for women. Credit: Nieto Photography 2016
Whitehead also made investments in Biometrix Tech
, a wearable sensor startup founded by a pair of female Duke University athletes to help protect athletes from injury, and another female-founded startup with a patented sensor device based on research from the founder’s work at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center.
Whitehead expects the Pinkubator to help her team (many of which worked with her at Sprout) identify more local science and health technology opportunities, as well as national ones. The incubator should also fill a gap in entrepreneur support that became glaring during her last couple of years on a national stage.
“The gap I saw is a truly personal approach to help pull entrepreneurs through the process no matter what stage they may be in,” Whitehead says. Most incubator and accelerator programs she believes offer “entrepreneurship in a box.” From her experiences, it’s anything but.
“You need a support network who has been there done that and has the ability to help shape strategy,” says Whitehead, who has no interest in being a passive mentor or investor. “We are looking for things where active involvement will give them a leg up.”
Whitehead firmly believes the next $1 billion company could come from North Carolina, and her belief in this region isn’t because she’s a native—her family moved frequently during her childhood years with the most time spent in upstate New York and Washington D.C. She chose Raleigh to start her companies because of its access to talent and a hypothesis that she could also attract talent to the city.
The Pinkubator includes conference space for members and The Pink Ceiling staffers. Credit: Nieto Photography 2016
“There’s entrepreneurial spirit in this community, and there is grit and smarts, particularly as it relates to the sciences,” says Whitehead, who emphasizes that women who “break convention” will be her sweet spot, rather than someone with the next jewelry line.
As Whitehead reflects on her journey, she remembers the day after Nightline broke the Sprout story
on national news in 2014. As she rode the elevator to Sprout’s offices in the Captrust Tower (not far from the Pinkubator), it was the first time fellow tenants understood what happened on the 10th floor.
Whitehead hopes her experiences and newfound notoriety can help propel other startups to make that kind of impact too.
Here’s one of the tag lines of the Pinkubator, The Pink Ceiling’s new incubator in North Hills. Credit: The Pink Ceiling