“Women are the entrepreneurial leaders in Madison.”
That’s what Amy Gannon said, after the Doyenne Group’s 5X5X5 pitch contest on Wednesday — part of the eight-day Forward Festival celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation.
But at least two female CEOs in Madison say in the larger scheme of things, women entrepreneurs still have a lot of ground to make up — particularly, women of color.
“While I agree it’s been a banner year for women, in general and in Madison, female entrepreneurs still face steep challenges in the startup space — especially in tech,” said Abigail Barnes, CEO of Allergy Amulet, a portable food allergen detection device.
Very few women are partners in venture capital firms in Madison and the pool of angel (individual investor) capital supporting female entrepreneurs in the Midwest is also “painfully small,” Barnes said.
For black women, several new funds have been established on a national basis to help black entrepreneurs, but most target tech startups, said entrepreneur Sabrina (“Heymiss Progress”) Madison. The types of businesses black women start often focus on hair care and personal products, and generally don’t qualify for funding, she said.
Doyenne co-founders Gannon and Heather Wentler said, though, women in the Madison area have made great strides in terms of their visibility, acceptance and involvement as entrepreneurs.
Gannon and Wentler created Doyenne in 2012 to support and mentor women who wanted to start and grow businesses here.
At the Forward Technology Festival they attended six years ago — a forerunner to Forward Fest — Doyenne hosted a panel of women entrepreneurs.
“There was angst (by Forward Fest organizers) over what would be acceptable for the speakers to talk about,” Gannon said.
“We were told, ‘Can you send us the questions? Are you sure you want to do this?’” Wentler said.
And the women panelists had “a lot of anxiety: Are men going to want to hear what it’s like to be a woman entrepreneur?” Gannon said.
Now, most of the Forward Fest organizers are women, Wentler said.
Changing what entrepreneurs look like
Women also lead many of the co-working spaces in Madison, including 100state, Synergy Coworking and Matrix Coworking, and head organizations such as the Latino Chamber of Commerce and UW-Madison’s Small Business Development Center, Gannon said.
“We’ve experienced a huge transformation,” Gannon said. “We’ve plugged into a huge entrepreneurial network.”
Wentler said the concept of entrepreneurship is being viewed in a broader sense now, as well.
In earlier years, in Madison’s entrepreneurial community, if the startup was not in the tech or biotech field, the founder was not considered a real entrepreneur, she said. This year, Forward Fest featured women participants whose startups focus on freelancing, workplace communications, a yoga studio designed for accessibility, and roller derby skaters who have launched businesses.
“The message has changed about what women entrepreneurs look like,” Wentler said.
Sabrina Madison said, though, while the Black Business Expo she created in 2016 has given women business owners more exposure, “that has not necessarily translated into more money in the pot.”
A 2017 Nielsen report said black women nationwide have majority ownership in more than 1.5 million businesses with more than $42 billion in sales. But Madison said it’s a struggle. “The perception is: We’re great as your workforce but people don’t take us seriously (as business people),” she said.
5 minutes for $5,000
The Doyenne 5X5X5 gives five women entrepreneurs five minutes each to make a presentation about their startup. The winner receives a $5,000 grant from Doyenne.
Linda Hedenblad, co-founder and CEO of YesLMS, won this year’s contest. Her company provides a software platform that organizations can use to present classes or training programs online. It was designed to be easier for disabled people to navigate, Hedenblad said.
“We built it, from the ground up, to be accessible to all learners,” she said.
With other software, for example, a computer that turns text into speech for a blind person may read the text out of order, she said.
Hedenblad, 56, worked with people with disabilities for 20 years. She started YesLMS two years ago and said the Helen Keller National Center was its first customer.
Other presenting startups at the 5X5X5 were:
- Divine Scents Aromatherapy: A home-based business selling products with essential oils to promote health and relaxation.
- source-right: Technology consultant for new and small businesses.
- Disruptive Productions: Short documentaries on women’s leadership in the workplace.
- Simplicity & Luxury for You: Online videos and tools to help people with interior design and organization of their homes.
Doyenne has more than 200 members. The nonprofit plans to start programming in Milwaukee and in the Fox Valley this fall, and Gannon and Wentler have their sights set even more broadly.
“Longer-term, maybe in 2020, women can apply to be a Doyenne city — across the U.S.,” Gannon said.
Forward Fest wrapped up Thursday. More than 3,000 people attended sessions over the eight-day event, and that was with only half of the event organizers reporting their attendance, spokesman Brian Lee said.