As female entrepreneurship at SU grows, programs needed to aid them fail to keep up

SU female students show interest in starting their own companies, but the school fails to provide female-specific training on-campus or women-owned business competitions.

As a petite woman with not-so-petite breasts, Eileen Bell knew she wouldn’t find a cute bathing suit that also fit her body for spring break. That’s the thought that sat in her mind as she reunited with her friend Paige Chilson during winter break last year from Syracuse University and High Point University. Bell shared her frustration with Chilson.

“No one wants to look like the ugly grandma,” she said. She decided to simply buy her own fabric and create a custom-made bikini to fit her bust. Knowing that Bell wasn’t the only 22-year-old with this problem, Chilson urged Bell to turn the idea into a business. Bell took Chilson’s advice.

When Eileen Bell graduated from the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in May 2014, she hadn’t applied to a single job, unlike her classmates who walked the stage with jobs at Ernst and Young or J.P. Morgan Chase and Company after spending the spring semester interviewing at dozens of companies.

“I didn’t want to be a Whitman stereotype,” she said. She decided to pursue developing her company, Azeer Intimates, a bathing-suit company “for average-sized women with above-average assets.”

As Bell took the steps to make her idea become a business, she became one of the 1,200 women who launch a new business each day. Between 1997 and 2013, the number of businesses in the United States increased by 41 percent, and the number of women-owned companies increased by 59 percent—a rate 1.5 times the national average, according The State of Women-Owned Businesses 2014, a study commissioned by the American Express OPEN.

Syracuse University is not only ranked sixth for the best undergraduate entrepreneurship program by the Princeton Review, but also is a leader for producing female entrepreneurs. About 37 percent of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprise majors and 38 percent of minors are female, according to Alex McKelvie, associate professor of entrepreneurship and department chair of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises.

Bell along with Hannah Fagut, creator of SyrCa a food delivery service for local Syracuse restaurants, and Celeste Currie, founder of Soulscarf, a scarf company that donates 20 percent of profits to nonprofit organizations and earned the title of “Coolest College Startup,” from Inc. magazine represent three of the dozens of the women who started their business on the SU campus.

Although women make up a high percentage of entrepreneurship and emerging enterprise majors and minors, entrepreneurship extends beyond to those students, and many programs include business model planning. Sports management, film studies, information management, and hospitality management incorporate business training in the curriculum.

In the School for Information Management, courses like “Idea2Startup: Technology Entrepreneurship, Startup Sandbox,” and “What’s the Big Idea? Technology Innovation” foster entrepreneurial thinking among its students. After taking those three courses, students can also take courses in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Whitman School of Management, the School for Information Management, or the College of Visual and Performing Arts to refine their skills specifically for their company.

Currie, an information management and technology major who graduated in May 2014, lacked a business background, but took an information technology design and startups course that helped shape her idea into a company. Similarly, Fagut, a senior psychology and neuroscience major enrolled in Introduction to Entrepreneurship, a course where students create business plans for unique company ideas. She pitched her idea of a food-delivery service to her team, which used the idea for their project.

After a couple weeks of work, Fagut had an initial business plan. When the semester and class ended, Fagut wanted to pursue her idea. She joined the Couri Hatchery, a student incubator and mentorship program that aids students in developing their business idea, currently helping about 75 students start their businesses.  

Lindsay Wickham, events and communications manager for the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship, estimates more than 100 women at SU run their own company and believes eve more women have an idea and want to develop their businesses.

Women Entrepreneurship at Syracuse University

Eileen Bell works on her products for Azeer Intimates, a bathing-suit company she started. (Photos by Jocelyn Delaney).

The widespread development of entrepreneurship on campus stems from millennials’ desire to work for themselves, according to studies by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for entrepreneurship. Fifty-four percent of millenials want to start their own business or already have, according to the Kauffman Foundation, attributed largely to having a flexible schedule with the ability to work from home, working on something they find interesting, and freedom to travel and work. In addition to the motives held by millenials, 77 percent of women said start-up company culture appealed to them, and 73 percent had their own idea they wished to capitalize on.

Bell lacked interest in obtaining an office job after graduation. She decided if she didn’t pursue Azeer Intimates, she would apply for an Australian visa and spend time traveling and working small jobs. Even though her friends enjoy the security of a full-time salary, she finds fulfillment in creating her own company from idea to launch, working toward a goal that will help women love their bodies and spending her day outside of an office meeting potential costumers, investors, and partners.

“I’m the poorest I’ve ever been, but I’m also the happiest I’ve ever been,” she said. Influence from friends and family also motivated Bell and other women to start their own business. Fifty-five percent of females said an entrepreneurial friend or family member was a role model and served as a role model in their decision to create a company, according The State of Women-Owned Businesses 2014.

Bell found inspiration from her sorority sister, Currie. Currie launched Soulscarf in 2012 and donated more than $8,000 to charity, 20 percent of her profits, by the time she graduated in 2014. Currie guided Bell through the beginning stages, putting her in contact with advisors, resources, and other students that could help her. This type of support contributes to the success of the population of female entrepreneurs on the SU campus and to the development of entrepreneurial thinking in fields other than entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises itself.  

Since women in many majors across campus show interest in entrepreneurship, it contributes to the rise of female participation in business plan competitions at SU. Women-owned businesses account for about 40 percent of the Panasci Business Plan Competition, a campus-wide student business plan competition hosted by the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship, well above the national average of 20 percent, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Not only did women at SU compete more than the national average, but they also won the majority of the prize money during the competition in April 2014.

Screen-Bridge, a company that analyzes social media data to influence television production, founded by Melanie Whitaker, and ThunderCakes, a campus bakery specializing in custom cakes created by Courtnee Futch, won first and second place. Whitaker took home $20,000, and Futch earned $7,500 of the $37,500 total prize money. The Raymond von Dran Innovation and Disruptive Entrepreneurship Accelerator (RvD IDEA) Awards demonstrated similar participation numbers. 

Thirty of the 98 competing teams consisted of at least 50 percent female owners, about 31 percent of the total teams. Wickham emphasized that even though female participation falls below men’s participation, the women that do gain valuable experience, constructive criticism and feedback, and the confidence to pursue their business.

“They are so passionate, take the feedback, and use it in an effective manner. They set this goal in their minds, and they aren’t going to let anything stop them along the way,” she said.

However she would still like to see more women participating in competitions. Two women took home the majority of the prize money at the Panasci Business Plan Competition, but men earned the four other awards, leaving women short of equal recognition.

Similarly, at the RvD IDEA Awards Competition last year, women only took home six of the 23 awards, falling below an ideal 50 percent mark, especially considering they represent more than 50 percent of the school’s population. More organizations across the nation developed women-owned business competitions to fund female ventures during the startup phase.

“These put women on an equal playing field, because unfortunately they weren’t there,” said Brown. He noted that a barrier women have to overcome in many competitions is pitching to a majority male panel of judges. If the product or service fulfills a need specific to women, like Azeer Intimates, men will struggle to understand the market, need, and value of the company. However, no women-owned business competitions or even a female company category exists at a competition at SU.

As the rates of female entrepreneurship at SU continue to rise, programs needed to aid them fail to keep up with the growth. In downtown Syracuse, the Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (WISE) Women’s Business Center, trained more than 800 entrepreneurs in 2013.

The center focuses on aiding women and specifically helping them to overcome problems they may experience as a female entrepreneur such as balancing family and work, pitching female-driven ideas to male investors, and finding funding (female-led businesses only received seven percent of venture capital funding, according to a 2013 study by Fiona Murray, professor of entrepreneurship at MIT's Sloan School of Management). Additionally the center hosts the WISE Symposium each year, attaching nearly 1,000 attendees and 63 speakers. The event reached 7.1 million people on Twitter and was the top national trend three times. 

However, little connection exists between the center and the women at SU.  In effort to draw a stronger connection between the WISE Center and SU women-entrepreneurs, Wickham plans to create a category at the WISE Symposium 2015 business plan competition specifically for female students.

Additionally, during Global Entrepreneurship Week, Whitman hosted The ENTREWoman event, bringing in Joanne Lenweaver, director of WISE Women’s Business Center, Deborah A. Little, Inventor and CEO of Lil’MorStix, LLC, a SU and WISE Women’s Business Center alumna, and Eileen Collins, who used the center to start her company, Admin-On-Call, to speak to roughly 30 SU women about the challenges and opportunities women face as entrepreneurs and how WISE Women Business Center can help them. Events like ENTREWomen give students the opportunity to not only learn from other women, but also see these women as symbols of what students can achieve despite societal notions that might say otherwise, said Nicole Morreale, a second year master of business administration student and member of the Whitman Women in Business club, who spoke about networking at the ENTREWoman event.

Outside this event, few other speakers, workshops, or networking events connect the two entities. Few students use the resources at the center, most likely because it’s not on campus, says Wickham.  The Couri Hatchery, a student incubator located in Whitman, which Whitman professors mentor students as they develop their company, provides similar services as the WISE Center in terms of developing business plans, one-on-one mentoring, and tailored training models.

However, its services aren’t tailored specifically to help female entrepreneurs, possibly contributing to the lack of female business owners in the Couri Hatchery, which is currently only ten. Without having women-specific training on campus, similar to what the WISE Women’s Business Center provides, women may see little added benefit to using the resources at the Couri Hatchery in addition to their classes. Bell noted that she didn’t know what the Hatchery offered until she reached out to a professor who suggested she apply to the program, but she continues to use the resources at the Hatchery, even since graduating.

Her mentor, Terry Brown, executive director of the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship, acknowledged the gender difference between Bell and himself as a challenge for her. Bell talked about breast size and bikinis, a topic and industry that he doesn’t know much about, to work through her business model. Although having Brown as a mentor naturally helped her pitch her ideas to men more effectively, additional training in where to find funding for female-driven ventures, one of the hardest things she deals with, would have benefitted Bell.

Another SU entrepreneurship project, Emerging Talk, a two-day event featuring power chats, keynote speakers, panels, networking opportunities, and business competitions lacks equal female representation. Women represented only three of the 10 power chat speakers and two of 18 panelists at last year’s event.

Despite not having significant female resources for her very feminine business, Bell, founder of Azeer Intimates, made use of what SU offered. In the days leading up to the Panansci Business Plan Competition last spring, Bell almost dropped out. She had only worked on her business plans for two months, in addition to taking five classes, playing club lacrosse, and working two jobs.

“My nerves took over because I am a customer of my own product and meant so much to me,” she said. “I didn’t want the competition to steer me away from following this dream.”

But she competed. During her pitch, she illustrated the size of her market. She reached out to 160 women in her sorority, only .02 percent of women on campus, to find her potential costumers. Thirty women, holding up a piece of paper with their above-average bra size in front of them, walked into the room during Bell’s pitch. She explained to the judges just how ample her market for consumers is based on the significant interest in this product only from .02 percent of campus women.

Bell didn’t take home any prize money for her unique business pitch, but she did earn valuable feedback about her business plan, which she since has revised, and support to continue working on Azeer Intimates. Before the competition, she failed to include manufacturing in her business plan because she wasn’t at that stage two months into her business.

Just a couple of months later, Bell not only included manufacturing in her business plan, but she also has begun manufacturing. Picking fabrics, fitting women, and ordering inventory fills Bell’s days, moving her closer to her goal of launching for the summer 2015 season.

Three Ways to Take Advantage of Being a Woman Entrepreneur

Do what you know

Women’s and men’s wants differ in many aspects, and exploiting that offers a large window of opportunity for women. Sara Blakely created Spanx when she couldn’t figure out what to wear under a pair of cream trousers. She cut a pair of panty house right above the knee, creating a perfect, but flimsy solution. That’s when she realized women needed shapewear. 

This is a need a man would most likely never discover or successfully bring to market, says Susan Smith, professor of marketing at Syracuse University and new product management specialist. By exploiting unique female needs and wants, it gives women an upper hand to turn those ideas into businesses because they experience the problem first hand. However, Smith says just because your friends, family and you love the idea, does not mean that everyone will. Ample market research and concept testing prove market needs. The target costumers need to use the product and identify they desire the product.  

Use available resources

In 2003, the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University launched WISE: Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, a venture to inspire women interested in owning their own business and give them the help they need to do so. In addition to basic business classes such as accounting, the counselors at the WISE Center provide one-on-one training, specifically tailored to an individual’s business idea to develop a business plan and launch the company, making it a valuable resource for non-business majors who don’t have a business background.

In partnership with WISE, Whitman also holds weekly speakers, networking events, and workshops tailored to women, like The EntreWoman: Catapult Your Way to Success, which Deborah Little, CEO of Lil’Mor Stix, LLC and CEO of Touchdown Presentations, LCC engaged in a Q&A with about 30 women interested in starting their own company. The Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship also helps students develop business plans with one-on-one mentoring from Whitman professors. Although the Falcone Center is not solely for women, it helps students create business plans, address legal issues, and launch the company.

Students in the Falcone Center compete in the Panasci Business Plan Competition each spring to try to win money for their venture. By taking advantage of these opportunities on campus, you can be running your own company before graduating, or at least be well on your way.

Team up with other women

Creating your own business doesn’t mean you have to do it on your own. Whether it is developing a website, hiring an accountant, or creating publicity for the launch, you’ll need help. At the Falcone Center, the mentors encourage business owners to work with other students on campus to save money, help others gain experience, and develop a network outside of their own major.

With 41 percent of Whitman students, 28 percent of L.C. Smith College of Engineering students, 64 percent of Newhouse School of Public Communication students, and 48 percent of iSchool students being female, women partners aren’t hard to come by. By hiring women on campus to join your team, you may find people who are equally as passionate about your company and create an environment that fosters female entrepreneurship across the campus.

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