Women might be starting business in record numbers, but they are still struggling to raise money at the same rate as men. According to a 2018 study from PitchBook, companies with female founders only received 2.3 percent of venture capital last year. There's a lot of work to be done to even the playing field for women entrepreneurs, but there are a growing number of organizations trying to fix this problem. Rebecca Minkoff, co-founder and creative director of her eponymous clothing line, started the Female Founders Collective last fall. The organization is made up of 3,000-women-led businesses, and the goal is to both help consumers find and frequent these businesses while also providing female founders a supportive community.
With that mission in mind, Minkoff teamed up with Jennifer Bett Communications founder Jennifer Bett Meyer and her business partner, Melissa Duren Conner, publicists who primarily work with women-led brands, to launch a conference, Wide Awake: A Day For Female Founders, a free day-long event that aimed to provide thoughtful advice, valuable networking, and professional development for young female entrepreneurs.
The conference was held at the recently opened Luminary space in NoMad. It’s a bright and airy (albeit a little chilly) space decorated with pink couches and sea-foam green banquettes. On a bitterly cold Wednesday morning in early March, it was packed with smartly dressed women, mostly wearing the female entrepreneur uniform of leather jackets, dark jeans, heeled booties, and the requisite soft waves. It was a good looking crowd, many of whom owned businesses in the fashion, wellness, and beauty space, but these women are no lightweights. They took a day out of their busy schedules to talk business, strategize about everything from growing brand recognition to raising funds, and network with like-minded founders.
The packed agenda featured a mix of inspiration, aspiration, and practical advice. Sometimes, things were a little silly — when Arielle Charnas of Something Navy joked about hiring employees based on their astrological signs. But go beyond that off-hand remark, and it’s clear that she made smart business decision bringing on Tara Foley to help her handle day-to-day operations. While Arielle talked about how all her design decisions are based on her instincts, Tara quickly followed up by saying there was a lot of behind-the-scenes analytics backing up those decisions. The two also talked a lot about community, which was a theme that ran throughout the day.
The second panel featured a powerhouse lineup of women who are radically disrupting traditional industries. Michelle Cordeiro Grant left Victoria Secret to start the lingerie brand Lively. Mariah Chase is using her years of experience in fashion to run Elloquii, a fashion-forward clothing line for women who wear sizes 14+. And Nicole Gibbons is turning the paint industry on its head with her brand, Clare. Ann Shoket, author of The Big Life, moderated the panel and encouraged the women to offer actionable advice to the audience. Sure, there were some platitudes (“Perfection is the death of creation.”), but all three women were refreshingly candid when talking about the highs and lows of starting your own business. “If you can’t bet on yourself, who can you bet on?” Chase asked the audience. And in a world where women still face gender discrimination and pay inequity in the traditioanl workplace, that's a good question to ask yourself if you’re afraid to take the plunge.
After two hours of panels, the crowd split into smaller sessions where the real work was meant to happen. There were nine sessions to choose from on a range of topics: You could discuss benefits and HR questions with the Financial Gym founder Shannon McLay or learn about social media from Unbound co-founder Polly Rodriguez. I joined the session about growing your business with the help of lending and banking. We live in a time where there are two narratives that dominate the start-up story: either you bootstrap or you raise venture capital. A third option is to get a small business loan. The panel’s host, Mary Ann Reilly, the SVP of North America Marketing at Visa (the conference's sponsor) mentioned the stat that 61% of female entrepreneurs self-fund their business. Yet, there are a lot of good reasons why you might want to go the so-called “debt” route — you have more control over your growth strategy and aren’t beholden to investors. Of course, understanding loans can be complicated and finding lenders who look like you and believe in your business can also be tough (which might explain why only 1 and 4 female entrepreneurs take out a small business loan). But is it any harder than facing room after room of uninterested white men who are often the decision-makers of venture capital firms?
After a break for lunch and networking, the afternoon session kicked off with a panel featuring the Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox and Jennifer Fleiss, a co-founder of Rent The Runway, along with Sutian Dong of the Female Founders Fund, an early stage venture capital fund that invests primarily in women-founded businesses (including Shine and WayUp). Beauchamp and Fleiss are both graduates of Harvard Business School and helped launch two of the biggest fashion and beauty brands around. Still, they struggled in their early days, and both had some fairly harrowing fundraising stories to share. They also noted how much the female founders' space has changed — for the better — since they launched in the early-2000s.
The main space was only half full when Luminary founder Cate Luzio took the stage with Ellevest founder Sallie Krawcheck for the second-to-last panel of the day. Perhaps, it was too much to expect female founders could spend a full day at a conference while also balancing the demands of starting a business. But Krawcheck brought her typical humor and candidness to her conversation with Luzio making it one of the day’s highlights. She talked about getting fired, the struggle of not having an advocate in the room, and the problem of women not helping women. Sallie asked to go off-the-record when getting very open about some of the fundraising challenges she’s faced. It’s this kind of honest conversation that’s crucial for women to be having. While Krawcheck is always willing to dispel the myth that success is easy or something that happens overnight, she’s not sharing her negative experience to discourage others but encourage them to also be open, helpful, and supportive. Glossy inspirational quotes only set us up for disappointment.
The day ended with a cocktail hour, and after nearly eight hours of panels and breakout sessions, everyone was about ready for a drink and a little bit more networking. If there was one consistent thread through the day, it was the emphasis on building community. Meyer, Minkoff, and their teams set up a conference that attempted to cover a lot of ground in a single day — a huge value that was free for female founders. It was an impressive feat for first-time conference planners, and it will be exciting to see what they roll out in the future.