A Global Market Of Women-Owned Businesses, In Time For The Holidays

By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune.

Corielle Heath was a marketing director at GeneXus USA software development company when she met Afreen Rahman, a 19-year-old computer programming intern from the National Institute of Technology-Trichy in India.

They were attending a networking event, and Heath approached Rahman about an interview for Ms.Tech a website committed to inspiring more women to join the tech industry.

"She changed my life," Heath, 27, told me. "She was so proactive about creating the change she wanted to see in her own country. The last thing she said to me was, 'Not all women are free. And those of us who can help should help as much as possible.' "

Heath, who lives in south suburban Frankfort, recorded the interview and listened to it over and over.

"I thought, 'Am I doing as much as possible?' " she recalled. "I spent the summer thinking about how I could empower women, and this idea struck me."

The idea was an online market for women-owned businesses from all over the globe, so that the simple act of purchasing, clothing, jewelry, makeup, home decor, could fund and empower female entrepreneurs.

LiftUPlift.com is that site. Launched in September, liftUPlift is still in its infancy, but is primed, Heath hopes, to capitalize on the upcoming holiday shopping frenzy. She's making a push for Women-Owned Wednesday (#WOWDAY) to kick off the day before Thanksgiving, urging shoppers to tweet and post about the purchases they make from women makers, on liftUPlift and beyond.

"We want the first rush of consumer spending to go to women-owned businesses around the world," Heath said. "It's all about generating collaboration between women and rallying patrons to support them."

Where we send our dollars, after all, matters tremendously.

Female-founded startups receive less than 3 percent of venture capital, Heath said, and men are five times more likely than women to attain capital funding through their personal and professional networks. She wants to create a 21st century female renaissance.

Three years ago, Heath was fresh off a master's degree in public relations from the University of Southern California. Her fiance, Glenn Laaspere, had just finished a master's in architecture at the University of Miami, when the couple moved in with Heath's parents, ostensibly for a few months, while they looked for houses and launched their careers.

A few months turned into 2 1/2 years, when Heath decided to ditch her marketing job and launch liftUPlift.

"Afreen's main principle was, 'Do what you want,' " Heath said. "Do what you want, it seems like such a basic idea, but for women it can be a foreign mindset."

Laaspere works for Olivieri Brothers, an architecture firm in Frankfort, and shoots all the photos for Heath's site. Heath's mother, a former steel company chief executive, has joined liftUPlift as chief financial officer.

"I know that my mom's work is where my drive to empower women stems from," Heath said. "So many women with educations and career experience and ambition have the opportunity to inspire their daughters in the exact way that my mom has inspired me." That's where liftUPlift comes in, she hopes.

"Women have so much purchasing power," Heath said. "All it takes is for women to rally around women to collectively solve this two-sided problem, women are under-represented as business owners and underfunded as entrepreneurs."

If we channel our money toward their businesses, we chip away at that inequity, even as we create more entrepreneurial role models for young girls.

Close to 50 businesses have products for sale on liftUPlift so far.

There are artisan, fair-trade scarves and hand-beaded bracelets. There are hand-painted dolls made in Cartagena, Colombia, that help fund programs to help sexually exploited children. There are beautiful silk purses and bold pink lipsticks.

Heath hopes to add 450 more vendors in the coming year.

"Now that it's up and running, we need to cultivate and activate relationships," Heath said. "That's how we can channel our collective energy back out into the world and be proactive about solving problems for women."

She still keeps in touch with Rahman, her inspiration and early ally.

"We talk every weekend," Heath said. "I wrote her some recommendation letters for her (graduate school) applications. This fall she is applying to U.S. universities for her graduate work, including Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and University of Illinois."

Empowerment in action. Women-owned businesses and patrons alike can post and follow #WOWDAY on Wednesday to publicize deals, share what they've purchased and otherwise spread the word about supporting female entrepreneurs. Find more information at liftUPlift.com/WOWDAY___

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