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Tampa Bay women entrepreneurs share experience on overcoming industry boundaries

Veronica Brezina



Panelists of the eighth annual Women in Entrepreneurship, a University of South Florida Connect Signature Event, held virtually on Tuesday. Screengrab.

Women thought leaders at the forefront of Tampa Bay’s growing tech scene gathered under one virtual roof to share their journey in the startup world. 

The eighth annual Women in Entrepreneurship, a University of South Florida Connect Signature Event, was held Tuesday, in celebration of International Women’s Day. The event was created to inspire and empower women to reach their entrepreneurial goals.

This year’s theme was “Break The Bias” and featured two panels: Hidden Figures Behind Innovation and Women and Money: Who’s Got It? Where to Find It? How to Get It?

Here are the highlights from the panel discussions. The responses have been edited for clarity:

The Hidden Figures panelists: The panelists included Lauren Prager, chief strategy officer of Synapse, Florida’s innovation hub; Tonya Elmore, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, which fosters new startups; Rachel Feinman, vice president of innovation at Tampa General Hospital InnoVentures, the hospital’s new venture fund; Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of the startup hub Embarc Collective; and Shannon Pastizzo, program director at the business incubator program USF Connect.

On entering the space 

Prager: The thing I learned very early on was you need to find those people – I don’t want to say the movers and shakers – but those who are in the community getting business done, and you want to emulate what they are doing. Most of the time, these people were very humble. That was one thing I learned a lot from. I don’t lead with myself. Usually, within the first five to 10 minutes of a conversation, I’ll say, “How can I help you?” It’s not about how can I help you business-wise, but where are you in your journey. In Synapse, that was just highlighted and I got to learn from some amazing mentors. Surround yourself with experts whether they are hired by you that can help you translate things. If I don’t know what’s going on in technology, I make sure my tech guru, Lee, my lab manager, is there for me. Success is never done by one person, it’s a collection. The more I listened, the more I learned. 

Shenoy: The beauty about all of this work is 20 years ago, there wasn’t any training like this. Much of the work we’ve done is truly on-the-job. From a resume standpoint, my career was mostly spent in corporate roles until 2014, when I made the jump into the startup world of Chicago. As I think about the role I play today, we talked about learning from people and what we want to emulate. What was more pronounced for me were things I didn’t want to emulate. With managers across teams, you find what is authentic to you, your own leadership style and how you felt when someone treated you a certain way. I make a point of not treating my team the how I was treated in consulting and advertising because I want to make sure there is love in our work, and I want to retain great talent. Every experience you have is going to be different, you can’t plan it out. 

Feinman: I started my career as an attorney. I focused in and around this world but in the lens of legal counsel. I started in New York and as a young lawyer, I was pretty low on the totem pole for what was being done there. In Tampa, from a volunteer standpoint, I started engaging with Tampa Bay Wave and working with the startups and investors. What resonated so much to me is when you are talking about a young company and founder, every win is so pivotal for that company. For me, I get very excited about those tangible wins – that new hire, the next new customer. Working with the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator sparked a passion for me [she served as FIBA’s Executive Director for three years]. I was a little bit unhappy as an attorney and knew I wanted to make a change to make an impact in our region, the only reason I was able to do that was by creating relationships in our community.  

Elmore: I’ve been in this line of work for almost 20 years. Back in 2003, when you said the word “entrepreneur,” it was not positive. A lot of education entrepreneurship was needed for this region. When I moved here in the early 90s, CEOs would help you accomplish your goal if they felt it made the region more prosperous. I can’t say that I ever got turned down by anyone. When I get approached by someone from the outside, I try my best to have a coffee meeting with them because it meant the world to me when I started here. 

Pastizzo: I find the mentor-mentee relations work vice-versa – I learn from them, they learn from me. Sometimes, I mentor is there as a mirror. We learn from each person and w took the good and the bad. 


Women and Money panel: The Women and Money panelists included Salisa Berrien, the moderator and CEO of COI Energy Sources, a digital energy management platform that eliminates energy waste in buildings; Wendy Kennedy, president and founder of WKI, which supports the launch of startups; Sandra Arber, vice president of growth at Medxoom, a health care benefits platform designed to reduce costs and organize benefits; and Jackie Von Salm, co-founder of Psilera, a biotech startup helping bridge the gap between natural medicines and the “Big Pharma” industry, with a focus on neurological conditions, mental health and addiction.

On pitching to investors 

Kennedy: When I was pitching to investors and venture capitalists (VCs), I remember being so proud of our pitch deck and I remember presenting that and was feeling confident. The first comment they had was, “What else are you going to do?” We thought $75 million in the early ’90s was a great sale for VCs but it wasn’t. They said this is the start of the journey, it’s not the story. It really opened my eyes. We walked away thinking we have got to rethink this … go to pitch competitions, raise $50,000. Don’t cut your teeth with VCs, maybe you’re not investor-ready and need to find your footing. You’re going to be told “no” more than “yes.” 

Arber: It’s easy to be carried away by male investors if it’s something solving an issue women face. You have to be on top of your game, be credible and know your audience so no one catches you off guard. Generally, investors are looking to say no, and women can be fairly easy targets for them to deny. If you can cover your bases, you have a better chance of getting an investment. 

Berrien: Investors used to want to hear about your numbers, but now they want to hear stories. Like Wendy [Kennedy] said, you will be told “no” more than “yes.” Don’t get offended by everyone who operates from their own biasess. 


On the raising journey 

Arber: I worked with startups, but I did not raise for my companies. Two or three I worked with raised $10 to $12 million. A health care tech company I worked with closed an $8 million Series A round last year. 

Kennedy: I’ve worked with six different startups that raised a total of $20 to $25 million. Some got $5 million in funds and died on the vine while some got $3 million in funds and ended up having great exits. You’re going to give away your equity each time, how much are you hanging onto at the end? I was blown away by how little equity was left. 

Von Salm: We have a lot of academic partners and raised $2.5 million from VCs towards our research and $150,000 of non-diluted funds. For my company, we joined USF Connect as part of its incubator program. You don’t have the high overhead costs and the university has a lot of resources. Drug discovery is a big endeavor for us, it’s been great working with USF. 

Berrien: We have raised over $3 million and are raising our Series A that we’re looking to close shortly. When we started two-and-a-half years ago, we didn’t have any funding. I invested $300,00 of my own money. Since the pandemic and publicity on social injustice in the recent news,  I found personally, as a Black founder, there’s been a turn on how VCs now look at my company. Pre-pandemic, we were knocking on doors and being told no. Now we receive so many emails from investors that my team is doing research to see how legit these investors are.  


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