Efforts Seek To Link Women-Led Startups, Investors

By Amy Nolan
The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.

Christi Branscom knew something “was off” when she attended the Southland technology startup conference.

When she headed to the restroom during a break, she found an empty room, while the line for the men’s restroom stretched down the hall.

“There were no women,” recalls Branscom, a construction company executive serving as deputy to Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero.

As the country looks to innovative, tech-based startups to expand the United States’ economy — and federal funds flow into Tennessee to aid entrepreneurs — those working in the field have noticed a dearth of females in the science and technology-related startups.

Consider that the recent, “What’s the Big Idea?” business pitch competition in Knoxville had only one women among the 15 finalists. And no women are participating in the digital media cohort underway now at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.

At a Knoxville gathering of executive women recently, Branscom introduced organizations that are seeking to enlist more Tennessee women as both entrepreneurs and investors.

Evolve Women is a Nashville group that’s providing mentoring and training to develop entrepreneurs and “intrapreneurs,” women who act as entrepreneurs while working in a large organization.

The group hosts Lean In Circles — peer support groups made popular by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” — as well as seminars and workshops.

JumpFund is a Chattanooga-based $2.5 million angel fund seeded by 45 women. The fund also provides coaching and mentoring.

“No one thought we could do this,” says Leonora Williamson, a JumpFund partner who said organizers were told “wealthy women use their pocketbooks for philanthropy.”

The group has made one investment in a Louisville, Ky., company that’s created a mobile application that is as a loyalty rewards program for sports fans.

Williamson said the group is seeking to invest in Southeastern companies that forecast reaching $20 million in revenues within five years, when JumpFund could exit. It also continues to seek investors.

Jill Van Beke, director of corporate engagement for Launch Tennessee, the public-private partnership charged by Gov. Bill Haslam with fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, says with more resources flowing into venture capital and support systems, she hopes women will begin to view entrepreneurship as a viable opportunity.

Initiatives like “Girls Who Code,” help get more young women in the pipeline, while women-centric programs can combat the type of bias noted in a recent Harvard Business School study that documented that investors prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs over females, even when the content is the same.

“You are starting to see more efforts and the network is getting better,” Van Beke says. “One of the good things about Launch Tennessee is that we can connect efforts that are occurring across the state.”

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