By Blakely Blackford, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative
As part of Entrepreneurship Week, the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative hosted a luncheon and panel discussion on women and entrepreneurship entitled “Building a Dream on Our Own Terms: Building Entrepreneurial Women.” The aptly named event shifted the dialogue from how to be a successful entrepreneur as a woman to why women are inherently geared for success in entrepreneurship. The panel was made up of five successful self-starters.
Panelist Kathie Amato, now Senior Education Strategist for the Initiative, founded and managed two publishing companies. “Entrepreneurs need to be very good listeners to understand what people need and then be able to meet that need. Women are naturally empathetic—it just comes with being female.” Amato told a story that exemplified the skills that women and successful entrepreneur possess. When she was launching her first company, major booksellers still made or broke publishers. She needed to make contact with “the man in New York.” After tracking down his name and number, she made friends with his assistant by calling the office each day. One day, the representative answered the phone. Amato, having learned what made him tick from his assistant, secured a contract. “It took everything I knew about being patient, persistent, listening—all skills that come with being female. We have a real leg up, ladies.”
Amato and other members of the panel also noted difficulties which demand persistence. Rachel Braun Scherl, a charismatic entrepreneur with an MBA from Stanford, was tasked with selling women’s sexual health products to male venture capitalists in the midst of the Great Recession. In 2013, she sold her venture-backed company to a specialty pharmaceutical firm. She was frank with the mostly female audience: “If you don’t have endurance, you’re picking the wrong field.” As an entrepreneur, she said, you must “be able to bang your head (against a wall) over and over again. When that doesn’t work, try another wall.”
Christy Shaffer, now with Hatteras Venture Partners, has been a leader in traditionally male-dominated sectors across her career. When taking a venture-backed biotech company public in 2000, she met with the head of a German investment firm. “He was 6’7”, and I am 5’1” on a good day.” When she was introduced as the CEO, “he looked down at me and said, ‘We don’t do that here in Germany, meaning we don’t have female CEOs.” Shaffer, noting that the firm chose to invest in her company, joked that she wondered how he was dealing with Chancellor Angela Merkel now.
The perspectives and insights of these seasoned and successful women entrepreneurs formed a springboard for the youngest panelist, 2012 Duke grad and entrepreneur Tatiana Birgisson. Birgisson is the founder of Mati Energy, a company she developed in InCube (now TheCube), a selective dormitory for undergraduate student entrepreneurs. It was through InCube that she met Melissa Bernstein, a fellow Duke alumna and luncheon panelist, and the co-founder of Melissa & Doug. Birgisson and Bernstein together provided sage advice for prospective entrepreneurs. Bernstein, whose educational toy company is older than Birgisson herself, encouraged young entrepreneurs to “work out every single kink so that when you do expand you have a blueprint for wherever you go.” Birgisson’s blueprint looks great. As of this week, her energy drinks will be sold at 30 Whole Foods locations. While Birgisson, too, stressed persistence, there was something new and energizing in her perspective. “I’m not looking for a woman entrepreneur as a role model.” Her advice to women entrepreneurs? Be your own role model. “If you have any doubts in your mind, you need to wipe them out. You need to write down everything that you’ve ever done that you’re impressed—or somebody else is impressed with—and read that before every meeting. Eventually, that will turn into real confidence.”