Syracuse lacks resources, investments for young women entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs of this demographic in Syracuse feel overlooked by resources available to others.

In 2012, a Syracuse University freshman started a business seven months after arriving on campus from Atlanta. Courtnee Futch used six Babycakes© personal cupcake makers to bake small desserts for the 726 students in her dorm building. Futch, 21, started a baking business called ThunderCakes out of her dorm room and said she now receives an average of 150 orders per week from the Syracuse area.

Photo: Alexi McCammond
Whitman's Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises's graduate program is only 29% female as of 2014.

“I think there’s an expectation with young entrepreneurs that we can do it all because of our age,” Futch said. “But we cannot. Not effectively at least.”

Age and gender are important factors to consider when looking at emerging businesses; the Kauffman Index, a report that tracks entrepreneurial activity, reveals older men dominate small-business ownership nationally. Three Syracuse local resources remain dedicated to helping women and young people carry out their business ideas. However, none of these organizations specifically recruit and train young women.

The women’s business center WISE, which stands for Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, mentors women interested in starting or growing a business. WISE has a partnership with SU’s Whitman School of Management, which has an entrepreneurship program. Director Joanne Lenweaver says this partnership is an important part of WISE’s efforts to help young women.

“We try to encourage some women in Whitman who are interested in entrepreneurship to participate in our events,” Lenweaver said.

Despite a partnership with Whitman, many of the WISE members are established professionals looking to change careers. In fact, that is the main demographic WISE considers when recruiting new members. Lenweaver says this is because the organization operates under a grant from Whitman and they have to renew annually for funding.

“Since I’ve come we have made the decision to go for the woman who is currently generating income because we are obligated to show growth as far as our members’ revenue,” says Lenweaver.

Focusing on women with established careers leaves young women entrepreneurs with one less resource. It can be difficult to understand all that goes into starting and maintaining a business while enrolled in classes. Futch says she learns as she goes since she doesn’t have a designated mentor. With school, outside jobs, and a startup, Futch says time management is one of the biggest challenges for student entrepreneurs.

“At one point I contemplated not bringing ThunderCakes back at all, not because I didn’t want to do it, but because academics are what I really need to focus on.”

Whitman’s entrepreneurship program is one way that students can learn what is required to start a business. However, the graduate entrepreneurship program has struggled to include women over the past two years. In 2014, there were no women enrolled in the program, according to the school’s website. Now, in 2015, the class profile is 71% male and 29% female.

“Going back to the stats last year, only 27% of the applicants that year were females,” said Alexander McKelvie, department chair of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises at the Whitman School.

Although McKelvie recognizes that application cycle was below the yearly norm, he says the current numbers are favorable for women compared to national standards. However, the gender divide in entrepreneurship remains male-dominated; in 2014, 63.2 percent of entrepreneurs were men, while only 36.8 percent of women started their own business, according to the Kauffman Foundation research.

Futch is currently a student in the graduate program at Whitman, but she says she doesn’t think getting an MBA is necessary to become an entrepreneur. The South Side Innovation Center offers non-academic business programs for people of all ages.  The student entrepreneurial experience program specifically targets high school students and immerses them in a weeklong training camp. Samantha Brennan, manager of the SSIC facility and intake program, says men and women are typically represented equally within this high school program. Based on this information, it seems that the SSIC might be one of few local opportunities that successfully recruits young women, at least relative to young men.  

Although Futch says Syracuse is very supportive of entrepreneurship, young women remain underrepresented in venture business, both nationally and locally. There are twice as many successful entrepreneurs over the age of 50 compared to under 25, according to research by Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa. Professional experience gives many businesspeople an advantage, and Lenweaver says young entrepreneurs lack a solid network that older women have built throughout their careers.

“It’s not an obstacle and not a detriment, it’s just time in the saddle,” Lenweaver said. “Middle-aged women have the business knowledge because they’ve been doing it for years.”

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