Just Own It
From biotech labs and bakeries to high-tech startups and multimillion-dollar food enterprises, more women than ever are launching and growing their own businesses. But despite their proven success rates and impact on the economy, women-led companies get fewer resources and opportunities than those led by men, especially in Wisconsin. Can Madison’s exploding entrepreneurial ecosystem give women an edge?
By Brennan Nardi
PHOTO BY DAN BISHOP
THEY MEAN BUSINESS: Standing, left to right: Laura Strong, Saideh Jamshidi and Natasha Vora; seated, left to right: Kelda Roys, Liz Eversoll, Teresa Holmes and Alicia Navarrete.
“A massive public failure and humiliation” is how Kelda Roys wryly describes the 2012 end of her political career when we meet on a bitterly cold January day in a Monroe Street coffee shop. Not only had the former State Assemblywoman challenged a popular colleague in the Democratic primary for Tammy Baldwin’s open seat in Congress, Roys went negative against her own kind, the affable Mark Pocan. Outspent two-to-one and finishing a distant second, Roys limped away.
The following spring, Roys, whose LinkedIn profile also lists attorney and licensed real estate broker, was searching for what would be next. So she signed up for Madison Startup Weekend, the local version of a global immersion event, where total strangers spend three days together: pitching business ideas, forming teams, creating business models and presenting them to local entrepreneurial leaders for feedback. Perhaps inevitably, Roys’s idea came roaring out of the flames of her torched political aspirations: a technology startup that would level the playing field for candidates, like her, who eschew corporate contributions.
A year later, she showed up again at Startup Weekend, only this time as one of the two featured speakers and the poster child for what can happen when what's become known as the “entrepreneurial ecosystem” spreads out across industry sectors and sizes in a community, a region or a planet.
The surprise twist in Roys’s story is this: her original startup idea was a hit, winning the popular vote during the pitch session. But she didn’t get the right mix of people to form a team, and so Plan A—to totally disrupt what she considers a corrupt campaign financing system—was shelved. Simultaneously, Plan B emerged—she’d actually been pondering this idea, too—when that same weekend she met the person who would become the co-founder of the business OpenHomes. The two would soon launch an online hub offering new tools for home sellers for one-sixth of the cost of a traditional real estate agency. It turns out Roys might actually get to disrupt something after all.
“It is not credible to me when you look at how access to information and mobile have transformed other industries like travel and insurance and somehow real estate is going to be the one force left unchanged,” says Roys, who picked up her real estate license in college at NYU to help pay tuition, selling high-end apartments in Manhattan. “Consumers deserve more options than just, do it all on your own and pay up front to a service, or pay tens of thousands of dollars for somebody that might do two hours of work on your property.”
A startup like Roys’s is what’s known as a scaleable business—her growth and revenue projections are ambitious, if not risky, but first she must attract more funding. And that is where angel investing and venture capital come into play. That is also one of the places and spaces where female-led businesses falter—at that powerful, crowded and male-dominated intersection of money and access.
“The tech world and the entrepreneurial world I would say are even more male than the political one. Not as hostile, certainly, but the norm is always a male,” says Roys. “And it’s still remarkable to come across women, especially on the investor side.”
Natasha Vora’s new business, changing the landscape of eyewear, is also disruptive, scaleable and backed by angel investors. Launched in September of last year, Iristocracy is an e-commerce website selling fashionable glasses and accessories. In addition it presents a different, safer and more lucrative business opportunity for optometrists. Iristocracy won’t fill a prescription like other e-commerce sites. Instead, consumers buy the product online and have the lenses filled by their own optometrists. But Vora’s vision goes way beyond designer specs and bling. Eventually, Iristocracy will also go digital to bricks and mortar by providing eyewear kiosks equipped with their virtual 3-D try-on technology (Oprah’s BFF Gayle King recently gave the e-version a whirl and a boost with a thumbs-up endorsement in the April issue of O magazine). Revenues will be split with the eye care provider. If the business-savvy Vora’s instincts are right, this relationship will neutralize Internet-based prescription providers with the consumer health message that you shouldn’t trust your eyes to just anyone. And she’s got the industry research to prove it.
What she doesn’t have—yet—is all of the venture capital she needs to build and grow the business. “We’ve raised over $500,000 to date from outside investors,” says Vora of the good news. The catch is that a lot of it is from outside Wisconsin. Our state doesn’t have much of a track record for attracting and growing venture capital firms just yet. And with a smaller pool of investors here, the competition for dollars is fierce. Add the simple fact that there aren’t as many female-led companies vying for early-stage financing from established Wisconsin investment firms, and you start to see the lop-sided picture that emerges.
Both Roys and Vora have a store of anecdotes about gendered experiences while pitching to investors. During the gener8tor business accelerator program last summer, which offers instant credibility and access for promising high-return startups because of its rigorous application process (a lower acceptance rate than Harvard, they boast), Roys says her pregnancy gave at least one investor group pause—“too many moving parts” was the reason given to decline to invest in her business. In Vora’s example, her male business partner reached out to angel investors that had hesitated with the exact same pitch, and secured the financing. “In a couple cases we felt like he had to go in and close the deal,” she says.
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
THREE'S COMPANY: Left to right: Jackie Mortell, Smart Solutions; Coz Skaife, Rosie’s Coffee Bar & Bakery; and Tera Johnson, Tera’s Whey.
Tera Johnson had similar experiences in 2007 and 2008 when she needed to raise $14 million to scale her business all the way to the top of the natural foods market. Her signature product, an organic and hormone-free whey protein powder called Tera’s Whey, is now a national brand. She successfully sold to a public company in 2013, and now mentors and coaches entrepreneurs and investors as founder of the Food and Finance Institute within University of Wisconsin–Extension, which has placed $3.2 million into the food and agricultural economies statewide. The Institute also provides services to worthwhile projects like the Slow Money Wisconsin Business and Investors Showcase, which connects potential investors to promising new local food and sustainable farm ventures. The companies that presented at last year’s showcase went on to raise $600,000 with the Institute’s technical assistance.
“When I was raising money for my own business, I only pitched once to a woman who was not there as a spouse but as an accredited investor,” recalls Johnson. “Part of it is that the investor team is very clubby, at least in this part of the country. When I was pitching it was to a group of people who already knew each other. And gender has something to do with that. It’s like it was a football team and I wasn’t on it.”
Whether it’s raising venture capital or doling it out, says Johnson, “women are underrepresented in all the data on all the startups nationally. That means they’re not selling companies and people who sell companies are the people who are more likely to invest in a company.
“There’s a whole other level to the glass ceiling,” she continues. “It’s not intentional, at the level of investment, it’s the result of not having as many women entrepreneurs.”
It should be noted that any case to be made for successful women-owned businesses of any size or constitution, be they startups or national brands, is not simply a moral proposition on the question of women’s rights and equality. Study after study now makes the business case for female-owned and female-led companies and investments.
“I can’t believe the criteria people are using when they ultimately decide to invest in something—it’s not analytical,” says Johnson. “Anything we do to increase the quality of the due diligence will probably benefit women entrepreneurs. If we really are making decisions based on hardcore numbers and pragmatism, that would help women.”
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS
Lest you think Johnson is just being bossy, as women who speak up and promote themselves and their ideas are often labeled, consider this study: VC firms that fund both male and female-led businesses perform better than firms that fund only male-led businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. Then there’s the fact that female-led startups launch with a third less capital, the Kauffman Foundation reports.
But here’s where reality bites: Since 2007, the only businesses in the U.S. providing a net increase in employment are large, publicly traded corporations—and privately held, majority women-owned businesses. Yet, ninety percent of women-owned firms have no employees other than the business owner, compared to eighty-two percent of all firms, and just two percent of women-owned firms have ten or more employees. That’s according to the 2013 State of Women-Owned Business Report by American Express OPEN.
There’s even a new name for the problem of fewer women entrepreneurs on the high-growth, high-return track. While the “glass ceiling” identifies the challenges women face as they climb the corporate ladder, the “glass wall” describes the lateral gender gap in entrepreneurship. According to the Amex report, revenue growth for female-led firms has exceeded the national average in every business revenue size class until they reach the million-dollar/one-hundred employee mark, where only one in five companies is owned by a woman (one in thirteen in Wisconsin).
In other research, companies backed by venture capital with female senior executives on board are more likely to succeed than those with only men at the helm, according to an analysis by Dow Jones VentureSource called “Women at the Wheel.” Yet, the same study found that only 1.3 percent of privately held companies have a woman founder, 6.5 percent have a woman CEO, and female corporate-level executives make up only twenty percent of that workforce.
The local upstream swim toward gender equity and women’s wealth generation might seem daunting to some, but not to the no-nonsense Pam Christenson. Former bureau director of entrepreneurship and technology development at the state Department of Commerce and current economic development director for Madison Gas & Electric, Christenson serves as president of StartingBlock, the project to relocate the hackerspace Sector67 and the accelerator gener8tor, plus other resources and services for the startup community, into a highly anticipated new development hub that’s beginning to take shape along East Washington Avenue. She’s also part of the emerging dynamic around innovative ways to launch and grow women-owned businesses.
“The statistics show that women are very successful when they start up businesses,” she says. “And so why aren’t there more of them doing it?”
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN? The Doyenne Group founders Amy Gannon (left) and Heather Wentler bonded over this question, and began plotting solutions, at a Madison Startup Weekend.
Like a lot of industry experts here and around the country, Christenson thinks even just small infusions of resources—be they financial or technical—can make or break a business idea. That’s why MGE is engaged in the early stages of several initiatives for women entrepreneurs that will debut in the next few months.
“We want to get that message out there that Madison is changing. It is a place that is welcoming, encouraging and supportive of startups,” she says. “Where we can actually make a difference one business at a time. I think that has a lot of potential.”
From Liz Eversoll’s vantage point—entrepreneur, investor and mentor—a seed fund for women early in the life stage of a business can be a game changer. “If we line up these [investments] then we have a progression for these companies to help them be successful,” say Eversoll, founder and CEO of SOLOMO Technology and a member of Wisconsin Investment Partners. She also thinks we need more—a lot more—companies here and around the state that get it.
“I think we need a matchmaking effort,” says Eversoll. “I think it could help accelerate startups and be beneficial to our established companies because they could get access to new technology and great talent to move faster while helping our startups move more quickly into the growth stage. It’s a win-win.”
JUST BRAND IT
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, is the chief voice of the state’s tech sector, surveying the landscape and spotting trends and opportunities for businesses large and small. He’s been a key player in making the case for venture capital creation and attraction, and he acknowledges that lack of access to private equity is a problem for the same reasons women entrepreneurs and research suggest. He also makes an interesting business case for investing in companies that are founded and led by women. “I think women are instinctively better at understanding life-work balance and I think that’s important in leading an entrepreneurial organization,” says Still. “Startup companies need to be focused but they also need to know how to pace themselves.”
If the climate for women entrepreneurs in Wisconsin isn’t as optimal as in other parts of the country, at least there’s a growing desire—and urgency—that everyone, and I do mean everyone, says looks and feels different. Every person I talk to is optimistic about what all of us can do to improve on the numbers and reverse our fortunes.
“I actually think that men have a lot of power to make things better for women,” says Roys. “This is true in a lot of realms but male entrepreneurs and male investors need to start seeing gender and being aware of, ‘Oh wow, I saw 300 pitches this year and two of them were from women.’”
She also sees power and possibilities in what women can do when they organize around a common goal. Right now an audacious platform to put Madison on the map for women entrepreneurs is gathering momentum inside an organization called the Doyenne Group, which recently rebooted as a 501(c)(3) non-profit with both an endowment and investment fund. Their aim is to establish universal benchmarks and accountability measures on what success for women looks like (number of businesses, revenue, employment, investments) and then plant the right seeds for women to cultivate and grow their businesses through microgrants, equity investments, peer mentoring, strategic partnerships … and clout. And not just more new resources and networks, but game-changing actions and outcomes.
Using the best, most high-powered tools around—women and their networks—Doyenne, French for “dean,” referring to the most respected or prominent person in a particular field—wants to turn up the volume on women entrepreneurship opportunities and resources as high as it can go and then amplify the message as far as it will travel.
“It’s not about doing more of the same stuff. It’s about taking the strengths we have—because there’s a lot of cool stuff and a lot of cool women here in Madison—and leveraging all of that to take it to the next level,” says Amy Gannon, who was just named interim dean—there’s that word again—of the Edgewood College School of Business and Doyenne’s co-founder.
Gannon and her co-founder and executive director, Heather Wentler, spent three hours with me at the idea-magnet Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, talking about their two-year journey to establish Doyenne as a credible and valuable player in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“Part of what we’re doing feels like a responsibility to all the women who want to support us,” says Gannon. “We’ve become a vehicle for them.”
“And we’re also providing a space for women who didn’t feel like they fit into the entrepreneurial community,” says Wentler, who also runs a small business called Fractal, teaching classes like soapmaking, 3-D printing and Minecraft (a popular video game) to elementary and middle schoolers. “A lot of women we talk to say, ‘Yeah, I own three stores, or my product has been featured at celebrity weddings.’ How come we never see you? ‘Well I don’t fit into that crowd. I’m not an entrepreneur.’ They don’t identify as an entrepreneur. We tell them yes you are, you’re valuable and you need to be here. And that was one of our initial missions as well.”
“Right, and to change the face,” adds Gannon. “When we talk about entrepreneurship in Madison, it doesn’t just look young, white and male. That’s one face of many here in the city.”
Like beer, brats and the Badgers have done, Gannon and Wentler say Madison needs to raise its profile as “the place to be” for female entrepreneurship, both homegrown through education pipelines and lured here via reputation and opportunity.
“I love that goal and I love that boldness,” says Roys of OpenHomes. “I think what we have are the beginnings of a really wonderful ecosystem and the kind of multilayered groups and spaces and policies and everything that you need to make it successful. We’ve got all these wonderful seedlings and saplings and eventually they’re going to be a really great forest.”
At this moment, it does seem like the seedlings and saplings are in good hands. Under the bold new leadership of Zach Brandon, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is leveraging its reputation and resources to the hilt in the name of entrepreneurship and its economic opportunities. As the business community’s cheerleader-in-chief, Brandon is pounding the pavement in his orange-and-brown leather saddle shoes and draining the battery on his smartphone, talking and tweeting the bullish message that Madison isn’t behind the Austins or Silicon Valleys of the world. We have not arrived too late, or with too little, at the high-stakes game of entrepreneurial roulette. No ma’am. If anything, Madison is running the tables in a new game, where the winner does not take all. Instead, the winner takes inventory, proving that the city already has the chops to be the best. And the best is yet to come. The best is what’s about to happen next.
Brandon’s message is a popular one among entrepreneurs, civic and business leaders, and academic and industry heavyweights who pay attention to things like emerging jobs and industries, job growth and economic development. Both remarkable and refreshing, the Chamber’s more traditional base of small- and medium-sized business owners has also embraced this new narrative. It makes sense if you think about it: Brandon’s not interpreting the past as a failure to succeed. To him, past is prologue.
“I always love the story of the nondescript building on University Avenue where two entrepreneurs started their companies and one turned out to be American Girl and one turned out to be Epic,” says Brandon of two of the largest and most successful homegrown businesses in the city’s history. Started by Pleasant Rowland (and technically in Middleton), American Girl sold to Mattel in 1998 for $700 million. Billionaire Judy Faulkner still helms health care tech giant Epic.
Brandon frequently injects this historical anecdote into conversations about Madison as an already proven enclave for entrepreneurs and ideas. But despite the achievements of Rowland and Faulkner, you simply don’t see as many female founders and CEOs in the high-tech and biotech sectors as you do in the more traditional service and retail industries. Rowland made her fortune on dolls and books. Faulkner is more of an anomaly, not to mention an enigma.
A former entrepreneur himself, Brandon is as agnostic as he is enthusiastic about the face of entrepreneurship, what he generally refers to as “economic inclusion” whether it’s owning your own business or serving on a corporate board. And he’s as busy with the megaphone as he is coaching, connecting and mentoring anybody and everybody who’s interested in business, including his fourteen-year-old daughter, Hailee, who dreams of opening her own cake and flower shop someday. “She already has her URL reserved—beaucakes.com,” he says, while flipping through photos on his phone to show me her latest creation, which is really quite creative.
“Are we seeing enough women entrepreneurs? The answer is no,” says Brandon. “I think part of that is we already tell our children it’s not OK to take risks and to fail, and we’re even harder on our female children. It plays to a larger cultural issue for us in the upper Midwest and I think it’s to our detriment if we don’t get out in front of it.”
While Hailee is busy baking and dreaming, entrepreneur Coz Skaife is living the dream. On a cold morning in February, she swung the doors open at Rosie’s Coffee Bar & Bakery, her first venture after twenty years as a baker, first doing wedding cakes and then cutting her teeth at all the local sweet spots—inventing cheesecake flavors at Ovens of Brittany, baking bread and perfecting Italian meringue buttercream at Sunporch and creating pie recipes for Hubbard Avenue Diner. In 2009, while doing research and development at Elegant Foods wholesale and bakery, she started taking night classes at the UW Small Business Development Center, where a presentation by the Wisconsin Women’s Business Insurance Corporation proved fateful. She soon signed up for WWBIC’s Start Smart class and took it twice—because she didn’t think her sixty-page business plan was good enough the first time around.
“I was a chicken,” she says. “I didn’t think I was ready.”
Jennifer Krueger, an attorney at Murphy Desmond, has heard countless stories just like Skaife’s in her practice. She remembers one client who wanted to start her own dental staffing business. Her goal was to make enough money to afford a cleaning lady. Today the company grosses millions.
“There are specific nuances when you’re dealing with a woman entrepreneur,” says Krueger. “They’ve done way more homework and are more knowledgeable at what they’re going to undertake. They’re better at building more networks. But unfortunately they seem to underestimate how prepared they are. If there’s one difference between the two genders, that’s where I see it.”
Eventually Skaife retired, thinking she’d probably never have the guts to go out on her own. She stayed connected, though, with WWBIC, baking cakes for Start Smart graduations and fielding calls from WWBIC advisors, asking if she was ready yet.
“I might still be retired because you need other people to really help build your confidence,” says Skaife, whose confidence got a monster boost when WWBIC approved a Small Business Administration loan for $45,000 and put her in touch with a commercial Realtor because she didn’t have a clue how to lease a building. When her friends Teresa Pullara and Rachid Ouabel, who own Bunky’s Café, saw a for rent sign in a storefront at 4604 Monona Drive, she texted the agent. Twenty minutes later, she got a phone call back, and the rest is history.
“One thing I have found is know your weaknesses, and when you know what they are you need to find people who can help,” Skaife says.
“I can set them up as a new business but ultimately it’s really the support they have going forward in the first few years that’s critical to determine whether they’re going to make it or not,” she says.
Teresa Holmes quickly discovered there is no shortage of support—or serendipity—for entrepreneurs in this city. Like Skaife, the connections she made through WWBIC were invaluable. She, too, took the Start Smart class, where she was able to build the infrastructure of TH Project Consulting. Soon she came to the realization that it wasn’t a loan that she needed from WWBIC—she already had her first government contract lined up—what she needed was office space and equipment.
Holmes found a commercial leasing agent during a mentoring session with retired Inacom CEO Laurie Benson, who volunteers through WWBIC as well as Merlin Mentors, one of the first successful Madison-based programs of its kind run by veteran entrepreneurs Terry Sivisend and Toni Sikes.
Like a snowball growing bigger and rounder with every roll and pat, one connection kept leading to another. After Holmes found office space, “that landlord connected me with a hardware servicer to help me get the hardware components,” she says. “Another tenant in the building helped us with the infrastructure build.”
“That landlord” happens to be attorney Linda Balisle, a friend of Laurie Benson’s who had also expertly organized an LLC of women investors in Tera’s Whey. Holmes remembers talking with Balisle and Benson after a Women’s Business Forum luncheon. “We just kind of stood there and said to each other, ‘Look at what one encounter did.’”
Francisca Brown, multicultural marketing manager at American Family, says these encounters and the opportunities they lead to happen more naturally for men. She works with the Doyenne Group as an ambassador of sorts for AmFam’s endeavors to find, support and even fund promising small businesses and startups.
“I call it the meeting after the meeting,” she says. After work, women go home to their families. Men go play golf, which is why she bought a set of Calloways. “Men tend to get together after the meeting to have conversations about how to connect.”
While Brown believes Madison needs organization’s like Doyenne—“I think you have to separate to integrate”—she’s very pleased to see male mentors at their retreats as well as Doyenne partnerships with other entrepreneur groups “to let women know there are men out there backing and supporting them, too.”
To that end, says the Doyenne’s Gannon, “the Doyenne Group is collaborating with the Forward Technology Festival organizing group to make women’s entrepreneurship a key theme throughout the 2014 festival. Together, we are hoping to highlight the successes of women entrepreneurs, discuss the challenges women still encounter, and explore how to make Madison one of the best cities in the country for women’s entrepreneurship.”
The festival, August 21-28, is also where Doyenne will make several big announcements about its future.
CAN WE DO IT?
Not only is Madison in a position to be a hotbed for women entrepreneurs, Saideh Jamshidi says it’s got a secret, organic ingredient that big cities she’s lived in like Seattle and Chicago don’t.
“Here there are fewer options but they are more in-depth,” says the American-Iranian journalist and owner of Goltune News, who linked up with the UW Small Business Development Center at a Doyenne retreat and as a result is pivoting from media publisher to speaker and consultant. “Because it’s not a very vast place, you have more focus. I think Madison in that sense really helped me.”
Jamshidi says the city’s size coupled with its academic vibe help keep the connections here more fluid.
“People give you leads, they connect you with others—it’s just amazing,” she says. “I’ve met fifteen people in the last three weeks. Things came together here in this city.”
Things finally came together for recovered politician Kelda Roys on December 20, 2013, in Meriter Hospital of all places. As money was being wired into OpenHomes’ account, closing her first “seed” round of investments, Roys delivered her daughter Arcadia Kathleen as a sign of extra good luck and good measure. As of this writing the business is hiring—two web developers, “interest/experience in real estate industry a plus.”
“This is where I got the idea that anybody, even me, could start a business and that was really a revelation,” she told the Madison Startup Weekend crowd.
Natasha Vora, who launched Iristocracy last fall, now employs five people in the Madison Enterprise Center just off East Wash. She’s breathing easier now that she is anticipating a $250,000 matching loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. But it didn’t come easily. Frustrated by her lack of access to local investors that don’t consider her business a tech company because her software isn’t proprietary, she finally got the moxie to call WEDC’s Lisa Johnson, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation who had invited her to the Governor’s Business Roundtable last year, and ask: “Why isn’t the state supporting more Wisconsin businesses, particularly women-led?”
It’s a question worth asking, as is this one: Does Madison really have all it takes to be the best place in the country for women entrepreneurs?
“Yes, if it’s about quality not quantity,” answers the Tech Council’s Tom Still. “Would we ever have more entrepreneurs than Silicon Valley, Boston or Washington, D.C.? No. But … with the makeup of our community and the head start on tech and entrepreneurship and what I hope is our culture, there’s no reason we couldn’t be a haven for women entrepreneurs regardless of sector.”
Smart Solutions co-founder and CEO Jackie Mortell, who runs a $15 million-a-year, 140-employee IT staffing company and mentors with the Doyenne Group, thinks for a long time before answering. “I think that just like starting a business: first you have to understand that it’s OK to start even if you don’t have everything figured out. It’s OK to make mistakes. You can still succeed. We just have to get started, move forward and not quit. Because it’s all about persistence. C’mon, everything in business success is about persistence.”
As for the Doyenne Group’s Heather Wentler, on whose shoulders much of the execution will fall? An upstream swim doesn’t daunt her.
“We’ll be there,” she says. “That’s my mission.”
Babe the Builders
PHOTO BY DAN BISHOP
“What I love is building something from the ground up,” says Madison native Laura Douglass, who just got back from Germany, where she met with an Eastern European company to launch a development program for a new cancer drug. Her first startup, Next Generation Clinical Research, provides clinical development and trial management services to pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device organizations.
Building project number two is Settlers bank, which she co-founded in 2007 when the financial sector sunk. Today the Windsor-based business is going stronger than ever. “Everything’s electronic, no paper,” says Douglass. “The whole concept of the business is that we bring the bank to the customer.” So, pharmacology and … financial services? “Banking is very regulated, like the drug industry,” she says with a shrug.
As if two highly successful ventures weren’t achievement enough: “We think we’ve come up with a better way to organize clinical sites on how they conduct research, making them innovative and high tech using digital and mobile health technologies,” she says.
The “we” is Douglass plus two notable physician entrepreneurs and a well-known expert in digital innovation.
Fellow biotechie Laura Strong just got back from Europe, too, globetrotting to find a corporate partner for her cancer research and drug development company’s next clinical trial. The president and chief operating officer of Quintessence Biosciences came to Madison for a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. But it was the late ’90s and everybody was talking about biotech, so Strong approached Quintessence co-founders Ron Raines and Laura Kiessling, whose lab she was working in at the time, about becoming the UW–Madison spinoff’s first employee.
Strong, too, was drawn to entrepreneurship by that urge to build. “I really enjoy learning about how things work—products, technology, companies, people, ecosystems,” she says. “Trying to figure out how you build things that have value I think is an interesting challenge.”
Actively involved in the local entrepreneurial community, Strong volunteers for Merlin Mentors, where she meets with entrepreneurs. “To me it’s about finding somebody who’s passionate, about finding somebody I can help or finding ways to help people connect with one another,” she says. “It’s a hobby. I like to solve problems.”
That sort of sentiment sounds a lot like Alicia Navarrete, who lives to solve another problem: helping people navigate the complex tax system. As owner of Wisconsin Financial Services, Navarrete built her business by taking on immigrant worker clients who needed both her accounting and bilingual skills and also faced difficulties navigating the thorny, confusing world of the IRS. She’s now busy growing the insurance side of her business. Navarrete has also kept her entrepreneurial juices flowing by operating a Mexican grocery store, Mercadito Madison—though she is in the process of selling it to focus on the expansion of WFS. Navarrete’s mother was an entrepreneur who ran her own restaurant, and so she learned early on the value and sacrifice of building your own business.
“I’m just diligently doing what I love doing,” says Navarrete.
PHOTO BY DAN BISHOP
After exiting her $80 million company at the time of sale to Core BTS, former Inacom Information Systems founder and CEO Laurie Benson now helps others be successful, serving on boards and mentoring. While her passion for and dedication to women entrepreneurs is clear, her wisdom is both gender-free and timeless. Here are a few pearls she shared with us during a recent chat.
On entrepreneurship: We live in a complex world and the world needs all these bright ideas that live in the heads and hearts of people all over this country. They’re going to be the source of job creation—the data shows this. The climate is ripe. There may be a few real or perceived obstacles but this is all about opportunity.
On supporting our entrepreneurial community: In talking to business people, this is the one thing that’s not controversial.
On why there aren’t more women entrepreneurs: I am less concerned with why we aren’t further along than what I can do to move us ahead. A good place to start is with the data. We’re not starting from scratch; we get to leverage that. That means accelerated, forward movement.
On her own journey: I never thought about being a woman entrepreneur. My path was one focused on opportunity, and I recognized and acted on opportunities. It all started with somebody seeking me out for something I could’ve said I wasn’t qualified for or something I wouldn’t have considered. How true is it that we impose limits on what we think we should be doing.
On the Doyenne Group’s mission to become the best place in the country for women entrepreneurs: I love the size of their thinking. They are thinking way past our city, which is what I get excited about—what is the best possible outcome.
On what entrepreneurs need most: Financing, mentoring and a network—a community of resources and peers to support them on their journey.
On corporate boards: Companies that have women on their boards as part of encouraging diversity of ideas and people outperform companies that don’t. I don’t think it’s as much, ‘Will this happen?’ It’s ‘How can we accelerate it?’
On the art of the ask: Focus on where you want to go and then ask people to help you. What changes along the way is the level of maturity and sophistication of the asks you make, but the important thing is asking for help at any point.
On risk taking: I have this permeating belief that everything’s possible and now some experiences that validate them. Most things I’ve done are way out of my comfort zone.
On giving back: Everything I do now is to live out my gratitude. So many people helped me. It’s usually by helping people to achieve a meaningful connection where I’m most certain that the needs and expertise will line up in a way that’s meaningful for everyone involved.
On the local startup scene: It’s exciting to be part of the movement. It’s a movement to advance ideas and people to a better place.
The Spice Queen
PHOTO BY DAN BISHOP
When Sara Parthasarathy’s grown son added too much chili powder to an Indian dish, the mistake led to a creative solution for him and, she’s hoping, for Indian food lovers everywhere. Buy a packet of Ethnic Spicery at Hy-Vee, Metcalfe’s, Whole Foods, Willy Street Co-op or online (free shipping!) and you’ll get individually packed, pre-measured authentic spices along with a recipe—curries, gravy masalas, lentil stews and daals—handed down from Parthasarathy’s family to yours.
Launched in April 2013, FillMyRecipe has already benefitted from the myriad resources for area startups. Through Merlin Mentors she came away with the marketing message that she’s not just selling spices, she’s selling the cooking experience. At UpStart, a workshop series for minority and women’s entrepreneurship through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Parthasarathy met UW Small Business Development Center business consultant Michelle Somes-Booher, who coached her on the Business Model Canvas, an effective template for strategic management.
So far, so good. She sold 1,300 packets the first year in business. “This year we are hoping we can get up to $15,000 in revenue, which is close to 3,000 packets,” says Parthasarathy.
What’s next? Somes-Booher thinks her plan is viable and scaleable, and Parthasarathy has some serious ambition. “I want to reach gourmet food lovers in small towns and large cities across America,” she says.
Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.