Where are the women in St. Louis’ startup scene?
It’s a question many began asking following a 2011 American Express OPEN report that ranked St. Louis last among 25 top metropolitan areas for women entrepreneurs. That same year the Kauffman Foundation released a study on overcoming the gender gap within entrepreneurship.
Since then several organizations in St. Louis have mobilized to find women interested in entrepreneurship and help them get their businesses off the ground and thriving.
On a recent night at a Women 2.0 networking event, about 50 people, mostly women, gathered in a conference room in the newly remodeled @4240 building, which is part of the Cortex innovation district. The women were there to exchange small talk and business cards and learn about a new organization, Prosper Women Entrepreneurs.
Founder Jennifer Ehlen got the room's attention and started her presentation by asking anyone currently in business and generating revenue to raise their hand. The room grew quiet and then the women began to laugh as few hands went up.
"No judgment!" Ehlen quickly exclaimed.
Many women are just getting started, and Ehlen assured them that’s just fine. Prosper is meant to help women at all stages with training, mentoring and accessing capital. It also has an international startup competition that does both.
Away from the event, Ehlen said helping women is about helping St. Louis.
"We want to put St. Louis on the map, on a national, maybe even international basis, as a great place to come for a woman entrepreneur to start and grow your business," she said.
Some women are already making it work in St. Louis, but it isn’t always easy.
Allison Carmen is the founder and CEO of MaterialMix.com, an exchange for recyclable commodities. As a young woman, some people don’t readily see her in a leadership role.
"I’ve pitched angel groups in town and the follow-up call is, 'We loved your business, we love the idea, we like you as a person. We just don’t see how you are a good fit for this,'" Carmen said.
She has shrugged off the skepticism and moved forward. Carmen is both a former Arch Grant recipient and winner of Startup Chile. And she wants to help other women.
So she co-founded Women Entrepreneurs of St. Louis -- or WEST -- where small groups of women meet to talk business a couple times a month.
"Being an entrepreneur of either gender is a lonely road, so having a peer group where you can say anything is great," Carmen said. "It’s a safe place, it feels good and it makes you stronger."
Entrepreneurs of all stripes call the work demanding, high-risk, even scary.
But according to Mary Louise Helbig, who spent years in the corporate world, there’s no reason women can’t do it.
"This news of the under-representation of women in St. Louis, I think has made all of us who are entrepreneurs in St. Louis say, 'Wait a minute. We’re here. We’re doing great things. And we want to do more great things,'" Helbig said.
Helbig is the CEO of HealthyMe, a medical tech startup based here in St. Louis.
She is also an Entrepreneur in Residence at ITEN, an entrepreneurial network, and is working on an initiative to connect regional women and minorities to entrepreneurial resources. She said there is a lot going on in St. Louis for women in the startup world.
"In a sense, it’s almost overwhelming," she said. "You could be going to something twice a week, every week."
After the Prosper presentation, women mingled and discussed their business plans. Aliah Holman said she has a business idea that will revolutionize the way people shop. She said an event like this, designed for women, gave her a sense that her idea is possible.
"Walking up to this door and seeing the breadth of women and diversity was encouraging to me," Holman said. "It made me feel like I'm part of something bigger than just my own dreams."
The hope in St. Louis’ startup community is that Holman and others turn their dreams into a reality.
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