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Federal council taps St. Pete expertise to boost women in STEM fields

Margie Manning

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National Women's Business Council roundtable at USF St. Petersburg

Education and mentoring are top priorities for women who want to start and grow technology companies, a panel of local leaders told a federal advisory council meeting in St. Petersburg.

About a dozen Tampa-St. Pete business persons, nearly all of them women, took part in the National Women’s Business Council roundtable Tuesday at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The NWBC also heard from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who offered several ideas to boost entrepreneurship during the roundtable discussion, and Rep. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg), who met with the group later Tuesday in his office.

The stop in St. Petersburg is part of a series of events across the United States for the NWBC, a nonpartisan group established to serve as an independent source of advice and policy recommendations for the president, Congress and the Small Business Administration. The group has three focuses this year — increasing access to capital, helping women in rural communities, and getting more women involved in companies focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

“Half of all college graduates, 53 percent are women, but only 7 percent are getting degrees in STEM related areas,” said Liz Sara, chair of the NWBC.

The St. Pete meetings focused specifically on helping more women start STEM companies, and several roundtable participants offered ideas to accomplish that goal.

A graphic produced by RIDG captured the discussion at the NWBC roundtable.

Education: Start STEM education early, suggested Nancy Crews, owner and CEO, Custom Manufacturing and Engineering. Basic business education also would remove a lot of barriers, said Donna Honeycutt, president and CEO, Wittenberg Weiner Consulting LLC. Stop treating business education like a separate area, and interweave business basics through a wide variety of educational topics, said Carly Todd, co-owner and chief operating officer of CaseGlide.

Telling stories about success is also key, said Michelle Royal, founder and chief innovation officer at RIDG.

Mentors: “Surround yourself with people that are going to help you move forward. Also, don’t be afraid to speak up, and don’t say you’re sorry,” said Ingrid Harb, founder and CEO, Women Ambassadors Forum.

Find a community of supportive women, said Sharon Savoca-Mahin, president and CEO, Savoca Enterprises and Mahin Impressions. Ask for help, said Kailah Matyas, talent strategist, Embarc Collective. Be a mentor and be open to mentoring others, said Sandra Vernon-Jackson, director of the STEM Robotics Innovation Lab at USF St. Petersburg. “Surround yourself with a circle of influence, people who can help guide you and take you to your goals, and also recognize that you can support someone else,” said Rachel Slowey, business development, The Fountain Group.

“Whatever you decide to do, be very careful about labeling us. There’s a very strong generational divide,” said Rachel Carpenter, CEO of Intrinio, a St. Petersburg financial technology company. “I gave a keynote at Florida Polytechnic University and said, ‘let’s stop calling ourselves women in business.’ The moms and teachers were angry, and the students said thank you, I’m sick of being labeled this way.”

Lawmakers weigh in

Florida needs to transform its economy and addressing access to capital is key to accomplishing that, said Mitch Lairmore, a business consultant with the Florida Small Business Development Center at USF, one of just two men who participated in the roundtable.

Liz Sara (second from left), chair of the NWBC, with Marygrace Sexton, founder and CEO of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juices, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Monica Stynchula, CEO of REUNIONCare, at the roundtable.

The other was Rubio, who said there’s an investment crisis in the United States.

“We have created a sentiment of shareholder primacy where we believe that the obligation of large corporations is solely to return value immediately to shareholders and it’s come at the expense of long-term investment in growth and innovation,” Rubio said. “We aren’t going to ban giving money back to shareholders. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we can’t have preferences in the tax code that actually drive investment away from innovation and productivity and growth and creating new products and services.”

Rubio is a co-sponsor of  the Women & Minority Equity Investment Act of 2019, designed to ensure that women-owned and minority-owned small businesses are still eligible for federal contracting opportunities, even if they receive more than 50 percent of capital from private equity or venture capital firms.

He’s also co-sponsoring the New Parents Act, which creates a voluntary option for paid parental leave by allowing parents to use a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child.

It would encourage people to be more entrepreneurial, and “to say I have the flexibility and freedom now to become an entrepreneur and not worry that a life event such as this could prevent me from continuing in that endeavor,” Rubio said.

NWBC members meeting with Rep. Charlie Crist

Crist said his top legislative priority is a tax credit for solar energy. “I have found that if you give tax incentives it can have a profound impact on encouraging people in entrepreneurship,” he told the NWBC members meeting in his office Tuesday afternoon.

He asked about access to capital for women business owners. Funding is more challenging for women, and some data suggest that women business owners are asked to pay higher interest rates when they get a bank loan than their male counterparts, Liz Sara, the NWBC chair, told Crist.

“Men can go in on an idea and get funding. Women have to go in and have a prototype in their hands. In other words, you set the bar higher for us just to come through the door, as if our idea isn’t as good to fund initially as the mens’ ideas are. That sort of discrimination may not seem overt, but it’s happening over and over again,” said Monica Stynchula, a member of the NWBC and CEO and founder of REUNIONCare Inc., a healthcare provider portal based in St. Petersburg.

“That could be an area where we could be quite helpful,” said Crist, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on financial services and general government.

The nonpartisan NWBC council expects to submit a report to Congress by the end of the year with policy recommendations.

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