By Laura Oleniacz The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.
A manager of a Durham-based tech business, Vickie Gibbs has worked in male-dominated offices and has studied in male-dominated programs.
She said she was one of a handful of women in her 1991 graduating class from Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.
Later she got her master's in business administration and worked at a series of companies where women were often the minority.
Now she is part of a team behind an initiative called "Soar" that's kicking off in Durham to help grow the number of female-led start-up businesses.
"There are quite a few female entrepreneurs, but there's a lot more females that could be entrepreneurs if there was some more effective networking, mentoring, education or what have you," said Gibbs, She is general manager of Albright Digital, launched in 2007 by Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Corp., the owner of WRAL-TV, the Durham Bulls baseball team and the American Tobacco campus.
The firm has developed online tools to help auto dealers convert website visitors to sales leads, among other products.
Gibbs and others involved in the launch of Soar are concerned about the number of female-led companies, and also about a gap in the amount of venture capital going to them.
According to a 2009 Kauffman Foundation report that drew on data from a survey of nearly 5,000 firms started in 2004, women raised about $90,000 on average for their firms, compared with nearly $150,000 for men.
The report, "Sources of Financing for New Technology Firms: A Comparison by Gender," went on to say that while women used "negligible" amounts of equity financing provided by others, the report said 26.1 percent of men-owned firm got their startup finding by outside equity.
The team behind Durham's new program believes there are three main reasons for the venture financing gap: that women start businesses in retail and service industries that aren't as exciting for equity investors, that women often don't have access to a social network connected to financial capital and that there are fewer female venture capitalists.
To address the issue, Soar will offer quarterly events and mentorship, said Adam Klein, chief strategist for the Durham-based start-up hub American Underground, who was part the team that wrote the grant to fund Soar.
Ultimately, Soar's founders hope to see more than 20 female-led entrepreneurial companies at events this year, active mentorship of a smaller group of female-led companies, and venture funding for one of the companies by June 2015.
The program has funding for one year, and if it is successful, Klein said he and his team y think they can find additional financial support at the end of the first year.
If they make strides, he said, they could also see supporting minority-led startups as well.
Soar is backed by a one-year $15,000 grant from Google for Entrepreneurs.
Klein said he got the idea after visiting the Google headquarters in California in October, which came about as a result of American Tobacco role as one part of the company's tech hub network.
Klein said a challenge was issued to the members of the tech hub and to other partners to try to close the gap in the number of female-led companies in the startup community.
Durham is one of 40 partners working on that challenge, he said, which are now called the 40Forward.
"I think we're not immune to what you see happening globally in tech (entrepreneurial communities)," Klein said. "We think we've got a unique opportunity in Durham to change that conversation in some sense," he added.
The first event is in May.
For more information, go to the website http://www.eventbrite.com/e/soar-quarterly-roundtable-raising-capital-tickets-10974463917.