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IN-AWE celebrates women investors, founders in Florida, Tampa-St. Pete

Margie Manning



Robyn Rusignuolo, chief operating officer of Sole Venture, was among the speakers at IN-AWE.

Women leaders shared their hard-earned knowledge about starting and investing in businesses at IN-AWE, a virtual event that brought together innovators and entrepreneurs from throughout the state.

Inspirational speeches, sobering statistics, and real-life stories about finding funding were highlighted during the gathering, with a laser focus on women investors and women-owned companies.

Linda Olson, president and CEO, Tampa Bay Wave

The struggle to raise capital is real, Linda Olson, founder and CEO of Tampa Bay Wave, told the 370 people who watched on Zoom. Companies led by women raise less than 2 percent of the nation’s venture capital annually and those led by women of color raise a fraction of 1 percent. The problem is exacerbated in Florida, where all startups raise less than 2 percent of the total venture capital.

“So you can see that if you are woman-led company and you are based here in Florida, you are at an extreme disadvantage,” Olson said.

Alex Sink

Because it’s harder for women to raise capital, too few women start their own businesses, said Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer and a Tampa Bay Wave board member. At the same time, there are not that many women who invest in startups.

“Investing in startups can be risky and they’re not all going to turn out to be home runs,” said Sink, who herself is a startup investor. “For me, investing has been a lot of fun. Have I lost some money?  Yes. But I’ve also earned some money. Right now, I’m ahead of the game.

“My last word is, ladies, get in the game.”

Selling yourself

Women control an increasing share of wealth, said Linda Simmons, president and CEO of R.R. Simmons Construction in Tampa. Simmons historically has invested in commercial real estate but through attending programs at Tampa Bay Wave with friends, she has developed an interest in women-led and technology startups.

“We feel that for us to help the next generation of women leaders, we need to step up and help,” Simmons said during IN-AWE’s investor panel.

One factor that draws both new and experienced investors is a startup’s team, said Rebecca Danta, managing director of Miami Angels, an angel network that invests in early-stage software companies and medical companies. She offered advice for entrepreneurs making a pitch to investors for funding.

Rebecca Danta

“You need to talk about yourself. We as women aren’t great at talking about ourselves, but it is time to shine. You are selling yourself even more than the business because investors invest in the person,” Danta said. “Then you want to show them you have a big vision because investors need to get a big return. We need to see that this is a big problem and you’re solving it for many people. The other piece of advice is to show the investor that your customers love you. Any type of organic growth you can show, that you have referrals, that people are searching for your business, those are great ways to attract investors, especially if you don’t have revenue yet.”

Kirstie McCool

Team is the No. 1 consideration for investors, and there are other factors as well, said Kirstie McCool, executive director of GuideWell Innovation, where she spends a lot of time meeting with health and wellness tech startups.

“It is about the team for sure. And in the world of tech startups in particular, where you are raising equity capital, you need to have a highly scalable, high-growth market that can accelerate in between three to eight years, depending on the type of company and the stage of the company,” McCool said. “Ironically the product is, in many cases in the world of tech, a distant third, because with a good team and a good market most good startups end up pivoting and iterating around their product a few times as they scale and grow.”


Sole Venture, a St. Petersburg technology startup focused on helping self-employed white collar professionals, is an example of a company that had to pivot because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The company was planning its go-to-market strategy in conjunction with South by Southwest, a major technology festival that cancelled days before it was to begin last spring. The planned big marketing splash suddenly vanished, said Robyn Rusignuolo, co-founder and chief operating officer.

“We had to look for alternative ways and different channels to try to raise awareness at a time when people were preoccupied. I cannot lie. It was very difficult. We had to do a lot of HubSpot training courses to try to do some digital marketing, and read a lot of books in preparation for this launch,” Rusignuolo said. “It was a little bit of a setback but we’re here today. We’ve launched and have hundreds of customers on our app.”

While Sole Venture is getting a foothold in the market, MAS Global, a Tampa-based IT consulting firm, is more established. The company is nine years old, with 200 employees and offices in five countries.

But it hasn’t always been that way, said Monica Hernandez, founder and CEO of MAS Global.

Monica Hernandez

“When you start there is no brand. The brand is you. You have to be an inspirational leader. You have to tell a story that makes people say, yes I want to work with her because she has an amazing story, an amazing idea. I think that’s part of it, when you don’t have a brand or a lot of capital, you must inspire people to be part of your journey,” Hernandez said.

IN-AWE also featured pitches by Ellery Linder, co-CEO of Wherewithal (formerly Fruutfull), a Tampa-based company with a patent-pending design for better-fitting bras, and by GiGi McDowell, founder and CEO of Fêtefully, a wedding and event planning service.

Five local organizations hosted IN-AWE: Tampa Bay Wave, Embarc Collective, Synapse Florida, USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy, and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth magazine.

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