Just Own It
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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.