Heather Wentler has heard stories many people wouldn’t want to believe.
“Women come and tell us about their experiences, and I think, ‘Seriously, is this still happening?,’” Wentler, co-founder of The Doyenne Group, a nonprofit focused on supporting female entrepreneurs and business owners, said at Wednesday morning’s 1 Million Cups entrepreneurship event in Madison.
Those stories include women being ignored, excluded or alienated at networking events, and investors openly refusing to invest in women-run businesses simply because they are women-run, Wentler said.
Though Madison is home to two very high-profile female business founders — Judy Faulkner of Epic and Pleasant Rowland of American Girl — the local business community is struggling to meet the national average for women-helmed startups and businesses, Wentler pointed out.
“There are a lot of great things happening at the national level for women,” Wentler said. “When you focus in on Wisconsin, we’re not doing so great.”
According to the 2014 State of Women-Owned Business Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, Wisconsin ranked 40th in the country for growth of women-owned firms between 1997 and 2014, and 43rd for growth in firm revenues.
Nationally, a report last year from the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship found that women only receive four percent of the total dollar value of all small business loans.
“We talk about, ‘Are there still glass ceilings that women are trying to overcome?’ in 2015, and I definitely think ‘Yes,’” Wentler said.
Wentler founded The Doyenne Group with Edgewood College professor Amy Gannon in 2012. Since then, the group has organized a variety of events for women, including a mentor matching meetup and pitching competition at this year’s Forward Festival in Madison.
“We have a lot of women come to us saying we have a lot of great mentors, but none of them are women,” she said.
Another obstacle, Wentler admitted, was the decreasing number of women entering the world of tech, which represents a large sector of the startup scene, particularly in Madison.
Of the roughly 40 new members of The Doyenne Group, the number of women going into the tech sector is “very low” within that group, Wentler said.
The nonprofit also aims to equip women with more startup funding. Doyenne announced last August that they intend to launch a $500,000 angel fund for women.
Wentler said the organization is still in the process of fundraising for that fund and hopes to being doling out money in 2016.
In the meantime, The Doyenne Group has set some concrete goals for improving the Madison startup scene for women.
Last month, NerdWallet, a personal finance site, released a ranking of the best cities in the United States for women-run businesses. The site looked at about 175 metro areas and used U.S. Census data, as well as numbers from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the U.S. Small Business Administration to reach its conclusions.
“Go West, young woman,” the article read. (Specifically, to Boulder, Colorado.)
Madison came in at number 29, with 2.20 women-owned businesses per 100 people.
Wentler said The Doyenne Group wants to help Madison to hit the top 25 for women-owned businesses. But the organization isn’t just focusing on the hard numbers.
The key, Wentler said, is to figure out what places like Boulder are doing to foster positive environments for women-run businesses.
“It’s not just the metrics, it’s not just the ways to raise capital, there’s something special that’s going on within that ecosystem as well,” she said.