Propelle Seeks To Bolster Women Entrepreneurs In Pittsburgh

By Kim Lyons Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Kate Stoltzfus, a massage therapist and entrepreneur from Garfield, recalls attending numerous business networking events, especially among health care professionals, where she ended up feeling snubbed.

"I was finding that I was really looked down upon so many times for being a young entrepreneur," said Ms. Stoltzfus, 31. "It was as if I wasn't good enough. It left a bad taste in my mouth."

So like many entrepreneurs who discover a problem without a solution, Ms. Stoltzfus came up with her own.

She and fellow entrepreneurs Emily Levenson and Carrie Nardini started Propelle, a networking organization dedicated to helping women entrepreneurs connect and to helping them organize their businesses to be successful.

Ms. Stoltzfus met Ms. Levenson, 36, a health coach from Mt. Lebanon, during an interview for her Pittsburgher-centric blog Yinzpiration. The two hit it off immediately and realized they had a lot in common besides their health-related professions.

"We wanted to see more opportunities for women entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh. It can be a lonely thing, to start a business on your own," Ms. Stoltzfus said.

Their initial idea was to do a workshop, but their launch party in October 2011 drew so much interest that they realized how big the need was.

"We weren't sure how it would be received, but we had over 100 women at our launch party," Ms. Levenson said. Three years later, the company is profitable and conducts regular happy hour events, along with coaching workshops tailored to meet their mission of helping women "achieve their goals and dreams," and realize their vision statement: "train and inspire women to reach their fullest potential."

Propelle's coaching and workshops range in cost, from $10 a month to be part of their Rock It! online community to $4,500 for their yearlong Upward coaching package. Sessions are conducted by Ms. Levenson and Ms. Stoltzfus, and are designed to get the participants to focus on goals and give structure to ideas that need to be developed to help the individual businesses succeed.

At present, Propelle has 10 women in its Mastermind class, which meets monthly, and around 40 in its online Rock It! community. Their networking happy hours average between 50 and 75 women.

Women-owned businesses are the fastest-growing segment of the economy, but access to capital and entrepreneurial support is still lacking across many sectors, according to a 2014 report from the National Association for Women Business Owners.

While there are loan programs and other resources targeted to women businesses, many entrepreneurs aren't sure where to start or how to find a supportive community, which is where Propelle comes in.

Helen Volkov-Behn, of Highland Park, is the founder of medical therapy garment company Spand-Ice. She first met with Ms. Levenson and Ms. Stoltzfus late in 2013. She was struggling, not with her product idea, but with how to advance it.

"I was really having trouble figuring out what the next steps were," she said. "I had never started a business before, and they really helped me define what the big picture was."

Ms. Volkov-Behn, who just closed a successful Kickstarter campaign that exceeded her goal of $30,000, said Propelle helped her link up with other resources and other women. "They're so well-connected and they want to help you make those connections you need."

When she attended Propelle's first Mastermind class in 2012, Erin Szymanski had an idea for an indie boutique for wedding dresses, but an incomplete business plan and no funding.

"I felt bad that I was always talking to my friends and family about planning this business," she said. While she had a great support system, she was feeling isolated and unsure how to make progress. "What I saw was an opportunity to get a chance to talk through my business idea with women who had different perspectives."

The program gave her a lot of tough love, Ms. Szymanski said, but also helped her create some momentum.

"At each meeting, you talk about what you're going to work on in the next month. And that accountability helps make you do things, even if you're waiting until the day before the next meeting to do them," she said. "It's done with love, which I think for me was the big difference between Propelle and hiring another kind of business coach."

Her Lawrenceville store Glitter & Grit opened in the summer of 2013. Ms. Szymanski said she was able to hit the ground running, and sold a dress in her first week of business.

"It's not about hand-holding, but the encouragement and the direction they offered was so important," she said.

Ms. Stoltzfus thinks Propelle has built a reputation for being authentic, but not intimidating. "We're not networking robots, and we actually don't encourage people to hand out business cards," she said.

"At our events, we'll challenge and encourage people to talk to someone they haven't met before. What we really wanted was to create a space that was conducive to that kind of networking."

The next steps include building up new programming and doing one-on-one coaching for entrepreneurs.

The companies included in Propelle's collection are varied -- some more traditional brick-and-mortar companies like Ms. Szymanski's, as well as niche ventures like Jenny Karlsson Photography, a pet photographer.

"Emily and Kate have fostered a community of women who are passionate about their own and others' success," Ms. Karlsson said. "They are constantly encouraging and helping you to grow, leave the comfort zone, and truly shine."

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