Entrepreneur’s Aim: Help Women Make Business Connections

By Lori Hawkins Austin American-Statesman.

After a successful career building software companies, Austin entrepreneur Jan Ryan wanted to help others do the same.

Last year, as she began mentoring startups, Ryan saw a need for an organization specifically geared toward helping women entrepreneurs build business networks.

She recruited a group of experienced women entrepreneurs and executives to found [email protected], which brings together technology veterans -- both men and women -- to help women make connections and tap into Austin's startup community.

We recently caught up with Ryan to discuss her efforts, and below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: You've been part of Austin's software industry since the 1990s and you're now a serial entrepreneur. What brought you here and what roles have you held since arriving?

A: I came to Austin from Dallas in 1997 to be the first vice president of sales at Vignette. After our IPO I was on the executive team of two other startups. I loved the entrepreneurial energy here in Austin, and have always been drawn to early stage ventures.

I spent some time in San Francisco as a CEO of a predictive analytics company we sold to Oracle, but I couldn't wait to return to Austin and launch a company in the newly burgeoning social enterprise space. That was 2009, and the company was called Social Dynamx.

We raised $3 million and built the first social customer care platform for enterprises, and an amazing team. The company was acquired by Lithium Technologies in San Francisco in the fall of 2012 and still has a growing presence in Austin today.

After noticing that Austin lacked a central networking group for women tech entrepreneurs, last year you founded an organization called [email protected]

When my company Social Dynamx was acquired, I began to do a lot of mentoring with Austin's young entrepreneurs in tech. Both men and women.

I began to see that Austin's female founders had very few connections related to funding in their networks. Yet funding is primarily a relationship game. With most investors being male, and with little knowledge of the funding process, many women founders may find themselves at a disadvantage if they don't work to change that.

Increased visibility, I knew, was critical on multiple fronts. I had met a half dozen or so female founders with such terrific ideas but almost no one in town knew who they were. And it dawned on me, I'd been taking this information for granted my whole career.

It was almost by accident that I had found myself working in venture-backed deals from Austin, Silicon Valley and Boston more than 20 years ago. That was my orbit. I was able to pull from these connections and knowledge of the process when we wanted to launch and fund Social Dynamx.

Only in the last couple of years have I realized not everyone has access to this kind of information and relationships, and I wanted to see what I could do to give back and leave a legacy for Austin's female entrepreneurs.

Q: What are the goals of [email protected]?

A: We're a mission-driven community, 100 percent focused on advancing female-led business. At the core of [email protected] is a Steering Committee of 20 experienced women founders and tech leaders who decided we didn't want to just talk about diversity and ratios, we wanted to be part of the solution.

We asked ourselves, and our community of entrepreneurs, what do Austin female entrepreneurs truly need to be successful?

With a goal to triple the number of women-led deals funded in the next two years, we hope to drive change on multiple fronts. Our signature public events are held once a quarter with entrepreneurs from every stage of their journey, cross-pollinating, hearing stories of success and failure and sharing lessons learned.

Speakers and panelists are being targeted from within and outside of Austin, including investors, mentors, and city leaders. Our inaugural event -- which sold out in five days -- confirmed that we had hit a nerve. It was clear that Austin women want to learn from other women, how they're navigating their businesses, building their teams, and overcoming challenges. This summer we are adding curated peer groups to continue the learning and increase opportunities to find mentors.

Q: How does Austin compare to other tech regions such as Silicon Valley in terms of women entrepreneurship?

A: We don't have the scale that Silicon Valley has, obviously, and because of that there are fewer role models and female angel investors than you'd find in Silicon Valley. But we have something better overall to offer women, I believe, if we just focus our energies around the support ecosystem.

In Austin we have the opportunity to become the premier hub for women-led business that doesn't yet exist in another market. It's not just a woman's issue; it's an economic issue.

Austin should be the place where female founders want to come and launch their companies. We already offer so much -- entrepreneurial energy, an amazing lifestyle, a culture that will embrace diversity -- but we need more visible female role models, we need to offer mentoring earlier in the life cycle to increase the likelihood of success.

We need more access to sources of capital, and attention from the venture community. With more successful exits comes more women CEOs/founders who want to give back and enter the investment pool. Of one thing I'm certain -- it is within our reach to totally differentiate Austin on the national stage through female entrepreneurship.

Q: What can be done to encourage more women to become entrepreneurs?

A: Actually in the last year we're seeing a strong uptick in the number of young women starting companies, and many others expressing interest in doing so. This is a national trend we're also benefiting from here in Austin.

A recent AMEX study shows that women are choosing the path of entrepreneurship at double the rate from only three years ago. Imagine the social impact if a greater percentage of these companies are successful. ------ On the Web For more information on [email protected], go to www.facebook.com/womenataustin

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