March 5, 2018
“I think what women have learned – certainly in this year – is that they have a voice like they’ve never had before,” the CEO of the Women’s Conference of Florida, Inc. told an elite gathering of Florida business leaders brought together by HSN and the University of Tampa in late January.
Arlene DiBenigno, who runs the Women’s Conference, is the Managing Partner of Conversa Co, a minority-certified, public affairs, public relations, and public research firm. The thoughts she shared at the symposium echoed sentiments from many of her fellow business leaders: There is an unprecedented opportunity to boost female and minority entrepreneurship if women (and men) are willing to support one another and offer mentorship and guidance.
DiBenigno appealed to her fellow leaders to reach out to one another rather than “just staying in your own bubble and sort of protecting your space.”
At the same time, there was also recognition amongst the business leaders at the HSN and University of Tampa-hosted gathering, that as a country we still have a ways to go.
“Only 8% of patents in the U.S. list a female as the lead inventor, said Lissa Regets of Quirky, which sponsored the symposium. “This has to change.”
The discussion was part of HSN and the University of Tampa’s second American Dreams Symposium. Held in Florida, it followed a similar symposim that HSN and the University of Tampa hosted in Washington, D.C. this past November to coincide with National Entrepreneurs Month.
The American Dreams Symposium is part of HSN’s American Dreams Initiative, a program designed to tap into the joy and excitement of discovering new entrepreneurs, while collaborating with strategic partners to find, educate and train inventors as they bring their products to market.
Empowering more women and minority entrepreneurs was one of the major topics of conversation among the business leaders in attendance from the private sector, non-profits, universities, government and business advocacy groups throughout Florida.
The number of women-owned businesses grew by 74% between 1997 and 2015 in the United States. Meanwhile, the number of businesses owned by African-American women more than tripled, leading Fortune magazine to declare in 2015 that “black females [are] the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S.”
At the same time, women are on average half as likely than men to start a new business. Meanwhile, according to research by the Kauffman Foundation, “women’s businesses tend to be smaller on average, are financed at a lower rate, generate less profit, [and] grow more slowly …”
As symposium participants discussed the most effective ways to address these disparities, two common themes that emerged were mentorship and partnership. “We need to collaborate with each other and reach out to ask for help,” said DiBenigno. “We also need to give back and mentor the next generation.”
There was also a sense that more work needs to be done to unlock venture funding for minority and women-run businesses. “What I’d like to see is more women come along in the next decade or so who are the funders and venture capitalists in this,” said Tonya Elmore, CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center and President/CEO of STAR-TEC Enterprises, Inc.
Ann Madsen, Executive Director of the Centre for Women agreed. “there needs to be more women who are mentors in the venture capital side,” she said.
“I think the goal is eventually to help as many women as we possibly can,” said DiBenigno. “And I think the other portion of it is giving back to that next generation.”
Following the symposium, nearly 100 entrepreneurs attended a two-day American Dreams Academy, an interactive, educational and experiential scholarship-supported summit for emerging entrepreneurs looking to launch or expand their businesses.
HSN and the University of Tampa’s John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center, Sykes College of Business are hosting similar academies on a quarterly basis across the United States. They consist of two full days of instructional, informational and educational programming, designed to help entrepreneurs understand important lessons in the areas of manufacturing, legal, quality assurance, branding, marketing, pitching/presenting concepts, and social media. To be eligible, applicants must have a product or business concept either in development or already established.
Like the American Dreams Symposium, the academies are sponsored by Quirky, a free community-led invention platform that brings real people’s ideas to life.