We've heard it many times. Investing in women is good business.
I've worked and developed economic development programs for women for more than ten years and I've witnessed how capital, resources and mentoring are significant drivers of growth. These ingredients can boost growth to any business, but if taken seriously by the government and private sector, investing in women's economic development has the power to transform family units, communities, towns and countries.
Last year, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund talked about this in a speech in Los Angeles.
“We know—based on a wealth of research and experience—that empowering women can be an economic game changer for any country. For instance, if women were to participate in the labor force to the same extent as men, national income could increase by 5 percent in the U.S., 9 percent in Japan, and 27 percent in India. Equal pay and better economic opportunities for women boost economic growth—creating a bigger pie for everyone to share, women and men alike. Better opportunities for women also promote diversity and reduce economic inequality around the world. It is an economic no-brainer."
We've read the studies and seen the data. Companies with women as part of the leadership team, perform better. As a business case, it should be a no brainer.
As business leaders, aren't we leaving money on the table by not including 50 percent of the population in key decisions that impact our bottom lines?
As citizens, aren't we shutting down opportunities by not involving 50 percent of the population in matters that impact our daily life, health and education? Let's work together—men and women—to advance the 50 percent and bring them to the table. Betting on women's economic development is a key solution to our economic transformation. Which brings me to my beloved Puerto Rico, where I was born and live today.
I bet you've heard about Puerto Rico and seen how nature's wrath has taken away so much.
These voices vary. Some hopeful, some in dismay, and some distraught. But the reality is even before the hit of two hurricanes, we were entering the 11th year of a deep recession.
In Puerto Rico, 60 percent of women in the labor force heads of households and live below poverty levels. At the same time, women are also opening up businesses at a fast rate and there are double the number of college-educated women as there are men.
As it is, Latina-owned businesses created 550,400 jobs and contributed over $97 B in revenues to the U.S. economy in 2015 – and they are projected to be nearly a third of the total U.S. population by 2060. Minorities and women represent the fastest growing segment of consumers and entrepreneurs in the United States. Latina-owned firms comprise 46 percent of all Latino-owned firms, according to The 2016 State Of Women-Owned Business Report.
That is why we founded Animus Summit: A Women's Innovation Platform. Animus opens doors, connects and provides the opportunity to listen to great stories — of both failure and success — to guide people of all ages and career stages to their next stage of growth.
Animus is the largest female innovation summit of the Americas designed to inspire women to take action to reach their highest level of personal and professional development. It's an innovation platform designed to maximize women's economic and personal development around business, mindfulness, empowerment, and entrepreneurship. It offers introductions to capital opportunities, a marketplace for local brands to showcase their products and workshops for personal development in San Juan. We also offer a pitch competition where women-owned companies can get access and FaceTime to investors.
Hailing over 1,000 women in attendance, up from 600 women in 2015, we've seen tremendous growth in such little time. Animus will provide insights, ideas, perspective and strategies to develop or hone an entrepreneurial mindset.
Women are paving their own way to success. But we need 100 percent of the population, to realize, act upon and understand that our success translates into growth for all.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.