Three women who have been successful entrepreneurs or
investors agreed Tuesday that Wisconsin still has a long way to go before
enough women are engaged in startup companies, especially high-growth, scalable
Laura King of NeuWave Medical and Elucent Medical, Nicole
Walker of Baird Capital and Heather Wentler of the Doyenne Group spoke at the
monthly meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison. The network is
a program of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Wentler, who said that she didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur
until it happened to her, discussed the work of Doyenne Group, which is raising
an investment fund of at least $200,000 to make a series of $5,000 investments
in women-led startups.
Wentler was also a founder of Fractal, a project-based
method of learning math and science for five-to-13 year olds, among other entrepreneurial
Wentler talked of attending entrepreneurial events over time
and noticing how few women were among the attendees.
“Right now we are … we’re 46th in the nation for
women entrepreneurs, so pretty much last,” she said. The national average of
women in entrepreneurial positions is about 33 percent.
That observation was echoed by Nicole Walker, a member of the
venture capital team at Baird Capital in Chicago. She sees a lack of women leading
startups, especially those focused on technology and medical sciences.
Walker estimated that of about 500 science-related companies
seen each year by Baird’s venture team, only around 10 or 15 are started by
women. Wentler pointed out that much of the funding for startups is going to
health science companies, which happens to be the type that so few females are
The “stereotype threat” of males being better than females
in math and science is a phenomena explained in “The New Soft War on Women,” by
Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. Starting at young ages in grade school,
females understand that they will not be good at math or science. This
stereotype then shapes and threatens girl’s confidence and abilities in these
subjects, and can last into adulthood.
Laura King, the winner of the 2014 Wisconsin Governor’s
Business Plan Contest and a past executive at GE Healthcare, also discussed why
there are low numbers of female entrepreneurs. She highlighted the importance
of having a mentor when preparing a company and business plan. Because there
are fewer women entrepreneurs, there are fewer women mentors in the field.
Mentorship can provide important advice and reflection on
similar past experiences in order for a new entrepreneur to be prepared, King
said. In the competitive environment of venture funding, King added, if an
entrepreneur’s pitch has any “loose ends” or seems unprepared to the investors,
they will not succeed.
As the conversation turned toward the future of women in
entrepreneurship, King said she is seeing a rising trend in entrepreneurs
giving back as mentors and guides, which she sees especially important for
females who grew up lacking strong role models or empowering families.
Walker also noted that she sees a changing dynamic of young
people who see entrepreneurship as a career choice, just as they would view
becoming a doctor, lawyer or teacher as possible career paths. She thinks that
this is because younger generations want to get away from large, already
established corporations and do something they can control.
King agreed, adding that younger people are looking for more
of a career with meaning or a way to make a difference.
With fewer barriers for women to science and technology
fields, more mentorship and empowerment, and more young people interested in
entrepreneurship, the panelists agreed percentages in companies started by
females will rise over time.
The next WIN meeting in Madison will take place Oct. 28 and
feature John Neis of Venture Investors LLC. The next WIN-Milwaukee meeting is
Oct. 9 and will feature a panel discussion on resources for emerging companies
in Milwaukee. Visit www.wisconsintechnologycouncil.com
to learn more and to register.
Merkatoris is a
student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.