Before 1988, a woman in the United States who wanted to start her own company was unable to do so without a male relative to co-sign her business loan. That was the year President Ronald Reagan signed the Women’s Business Ownership Act, which, among other things, sought to end discriminatory lending practices against women.
Though it’s been nearly 30 years since the signing of that law, many women still face an uphill battle when founding and financing their own business ventures. The Circular Summit, which just concluded its second annual gathering in Houston, seeks to help women overcome those challenges by providing collaboration, advice and networking opportunities.
The Summit is a project led by the Circular Board, an virtual business accelerator founded in 2015 by entrepreneur and investor Carolyn Rodz. The organization is dedicated to providing mentorship, community and capital to emerging female founders. For this year's Summit, which took place on March 30 and 31, the Circular Board partnered with big-name businesses including Dell, Urban Decay, Johnson & Johnson and others to host panels and presentations gaining funding, making media buzz, and how to rebound from professional setbacks.
Jean Case, CEO, Case Foundation and Elizabeth Gore, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Dell
“I go to a lot of empowerment events,” said Elizabeth Gore, entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell. “And while I like the motivational aspect, there’s not a lot of ‘Here’s what to do next.’” Gore spoke at the Summit about having tenacity in the face of hardship. She also talked about the value of community that an event like the Summit provides.
“People don’t realize that with entrepreneurship, it is very solitary," Gore told SWAAY.
When you’re failing, you’re failing alone, and you’re failing in your head. The peer-to-peer mentorship here, getting out of your rabbit hole, is very important. A lot of folks here have faced similar challenges.”
Cindy Whitehead, CEO, The Pink Ceiling
One of the biggest themes of the invite-only Summit was inclusivity. Present at the event were founders from Mongolia, Sweden and other corners of the globe. One panel talked about diversity debt — the idea that companies that don’t start with diverse staff and boards find it much harder to incorporate diversity later on.
Sarah Salman, CEO of Salman Solutions
Unconscious bias is one of the biggest hurdles in venture capital, said Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation and chairman of the National Geographic Society Board of Trustees. Many venture capital firms are still largely run by white men, who tend to invest in founders who look like, and come from the same backgrounds as they do. Most capitalists only invest in their own geographical regions, centered around Silicon Valley. Yet women-led firms and diverse firms routinely outperform their counterparts.
“What we find is that women are seriously under-leveraged,” said Case. “Last year, only 10 percent of venture capital went to women-owned firms. Only 1 percent went to firms with an African American founder.”
Combatting that unconscious bias was one of the goals Jesse Draper had when she started her venture capital fund, Halogen Ventures, last August. Draper was already interviewing entrepreneurs on her internet talk show The Valley Girl Show when she made the commitment that at least half of her guests would be women in tech.
“I realized I could help this problem in two ways — one by interviewing 50 percent women in technology,” she said. “And then I also started funding them.”
“I’d find some interesting deals through the show and I’d write small checks — $10,000, $20,000 checks to these companies because I believed in them,” said Draper, whose father is Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper. To date, Draper has funded 17 female-founded firms.
“I try to support women primarily because I’m a fourth generation investor and I’m the first female, so you can see why I’m very focused on this problem," said Draper. "I grew up in this community of entrepreneurs and investors, and I was always the only girl (in the room). And you know, not a ton has changed, unfortunately.”
She added, “I’ve had men on occasion say things to me like ‘Don’t you think you’re limiting yourself by only investing in women?’” And I’ll say, ‘No, I saw 250 deals in the last two month. I really can’t keep up.
"I have so many minority business owners. It all goes together. There is so much data on how diverse teams breed success.”
With Halogen, Draper isn’t just focused on funding women-led companies. She also trying to encourage women with disposable income to invest in other women. “I do early stage investing, which is the riskiest,” she said. “And that’s where women are not getting funding. Many people, unfortunately especially women, write smaller checks to women.”
She went on to say, “70 percent of my fund is female investors. Someone told me that women wouldn’t write checks for my fund, and they have primarily supported my fund. There’s only a couple of us doing this so I think it’s important that we encourage more women to finance more companies. I also encourage women to take more risks with their money.”
Risk and reward emerged as another theme for the conference. On several panels, speakers shared their biggest setbacks and most humiliating moments. Sheila Marcelo, founder of Care.com, talked about being mistaken for a secretary when she poured herself a cup of coffee in a room full of businessmen. Eileen Gittins, founder of the publishing company Blurb, was nearly laughed out of the room for pitching a business centered on dead-tree books during the heydey of the dot com bubble.
Karen Walrond, Director of Mission Advocacy & Storytelling at Brené Brown Education & Research Group
Carolyn Rodz, founder of the Summit, said the quality of the audience in the room helped contribute to that level of sharing. “There’s a certain element of authenticity here, but it isn’t just for the sake of authenticity,” she said. “The startup world — it’s very glamorized, but most people are struggling. We (women) have to work a little bit harder. We have to figure out how to use our skill sets.”
The idea behind Circular Board and Circular Summit is to help make the connection between female entrepreneurs and the people who want to invest in them, both financially, and on a deeper level. “When I had my company, I had my circle," said Rodz. "The Circular Board is all about finding those people that support you, finding the people who have your back. As we find those people, our job as founders is to see you succeed.”
And while it might seem strange to hold a conference like Circular Summit in Houston instead of on one of the coasts, Rodz said Houston suits the Circular Board’s mission just fine.
“It’s very easy to tell the stories we always hear," continued Rodz. "Our goal is in trying to broaden that pool,” she said. “Half of our company is in San Francisco, so Houston didn’t make sense on a lot of levels. But where it did make sense is in bringing resources to the people outside of those communities.” And it’s working, she said. “I am proud to say we have never paid a speaker. Nobody has ever told us no. People want to support these women.”
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.