Leaders Examine Obstacles, Give Advice To Help Entrepreneurial Women

By Alex Dixon
The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.


At a panel of women business leaders at Washington Duke Inn on Friday, Kimberley Jenkins said about 5 percent of venture capital funding goes to women.

And, according to a 2013 report from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the National Association of Women Business Owners, around 30 percent of national businesses are owned by women.

“Entrepreneurship is about identifying a problem or a need and building a solution that people will pay money for. And a lot of the needs that women identify come out of our own lives,” said Jenkins, founder and program director for the program Duke in Silicon Valley. “(And those problems) don’t always resonate with a very homogenous group of venture capitalists (who are) typically, almost exclusively, white males.”

Jenkins moderated the panel, called “Building a Dream on Our Own Terms: Building Entrepreneurial Women,” which was part of Duke’s Entrepreneurship Week from Sept. 15-19.

The panel also included Melissa Bernstein, founder and CEO of Melissa & Doug; Rachel Braun Scherl, co-founder of SPARK Solutions for Growth; Christy Shaffer, venture partner for Hatteras Venture Partners; Kathie Amato, senior education strategist for Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship program; and Tatiana Birgisson, founder and CEO of Mati Energy, which is made and bottled in Durham.

The panelists discussed what made them entrepreneurs and the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced. They also gave advice to students in the audience who were starting their own businesses.

“If you don’t have endurance, then you’re in the wrong field,” Scherl said. “It is really hard to build a company.”

Scherl discussed the setbacks she faced while developing Semprae Laboratories, a company created to focus on developing and marketing women’s sexual health products.

She said it was hard to get venture funders to connect with her company’s product and mission, even though she and her business partner came from “established companies and had a good track record.”

The SBA report also states that “one consistent finding in research is that women-led businesses receive less outside funding than businesses led by men.”

“In the old days, the model was you work harder than everybody else and you will succeed. Turns out, in the business environment, that’s not always true,” Scherl said. “There are forces at work that you don’t see; there are unspoken cultural nuances.”

And, Scherl said, women don’t always have the confidence necessary for entrepreneurship.

“The expectations that women have, in general, is much more methodical and bottom-line driven,” she said. “We tend to, or used to tend to, play by the rules. When I stopped playing by the rules is really when I came into my own as an entrepreneur.”

Scherl and the other panelists identified traits that they believed women possess more prevalently, which puts them ahead in the world of entrepreneurship.

Amato, who founded two publishing companies, told the story of how she began the first around 20 years ago.

She said a major New York bookstore sales representative never took cold calls, so she began calling his assistant each day, to the point they eventually become friends.

However, the representative answered the phone one day, and she used everything she had learned through his assistant pitch him her products. They made a deal.

“It took everything I knew about sharing, being patient, being persistent, listening,” Amato said. “And those are all skills that come with being female.”

Birgisson told the story of how she developed Mati Energy drink, which began in her dorm room at Duke by brewing small batches in a pot.

She said she interned at Procter & Gamble, where she gained a passion for developing consumer products.

But after her mother lost her job at Microsoft in 2008, Birgisson said she didn’t want to rely on somebody else for a job or career, she wanted to build it herself.

“I came back from my internship and said, ‘I don’t want to work for a big Fortune 50 company that takes 10 years to bring innovation to the consumer. I want to work for a smaller company where I have a bigger say.'”

Birgisson now brews 310 gallon batches of the energy drink, which is carried by businesses across North Carolina.

And even though the panelists discussed challenges and setbacks they faced in business, Jenkins said the landscape of venture funding is changing for the better.

“I am very encouraged in the new funding mechanisms in entrepreneurship. Venture capital is being democratized now,” she said, citing things like angel investors and technology behind the change. “There is an economic power to solving problems of half the world.”

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