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Tampa-St. Pete groups refuse to let Covid co-opt their celebration of women entrepreneurs

Margie Manning

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Alex Sink, former Florida CFO, is among the speakers for the upcoming IN-AWE program.

Women entrepreneurs often have to work harder than their male counterparts to find connections for early-stage capital.

Five local organizations are working to change that. They are hosting an inaugural IN-AWE virtual event that will bring together partners and resources who support women as innovators and entrepreneurs in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area and across Florida.

IN-AWE, which stands for Investing In, Nurturing & Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs, offers an opportunity for networking, exchanging ideas and showcasing how ideas become businesses and how startups find funding. The online event on Oct. 22 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. is free, but registration is required. Click here to register.

The program features Alex Sink, Florida’s former chief financial officer, and India Witte, executive director of University of South Florida’s Foundation of Women in Leadership & Philanthropy, along with investor and founder panels and a mini-pitch competition.

The event is a natural way to honor 2020 as The Year of the Woman, despite being co-opted by Covid-19, said Dee Garcia, director of development at Tampa Bay Wave and a member of USF WLP.

Wave and USF WLP, Embarc Collective, Synapse Florida and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth magazine are co-hosts for IN-AWE. The organizations are community partners and collaborators, but have not previously co-hosted an event together, Garcia said.

Before the pandemic hit, Garcia had assembled a panel discussion for the USF WLP’s annual symposium to discuss women in technology and the resources available to support them. A live, follow-up cocktail event was planned by USF WLP, along with Wave and Embarc, who are working together on an accelerator program for women called Tech Women Rising.

Covid-19 changed the plans for the cocktail event. The co-hosting group was expanded to add Synapse and Tampa Bay Business & Wealth and pivoted to a virtual event, Garcia said in an email Q&A with St. Pete Catalyst.

Garcia: We invited other community partners to invite their networks and hope this conversation inspires aspiring female entrepreneurs and offers awareness to women of influence, as a sort of call-to-action to get involved. They may be very involved in making Tampa Bay and Florida the envy of communities everywhere, but perhaps are not yet as aware of the importance that innovation and entrepreneurship adds to the economic growth engine and our national reputation as welcoming to talented innovators. We will be sending out a resource guide post-event to help make connections for carrying the conversation and activities forward. We are contemplating additional connectivity events in the near future. We know there is a high level of interest both from potential female founders and female investors, based on the hundreds of registrations and questions we received. This cocktail conversation cannot address all the questions we received, but at least we’ll touch the tip of the iceberg.

Catalyst: Is this for women just thinking about starting a business, or for those who already have launched?

Garcia: We welcome women at all stages of their entrepreneurship journey to attend. We have invited every age, from students through experienced serial entrepreneurs. India Witte, executive director of WLP, will talk about how entrepreneurship and the value of support starts early, influencing and encouraging young women to tackle challenges. Alex Sink, former CFO of Florida and Tampa Bay Wave Board member, will share her personal story about how she became curious and involved, committed to helping fledgling entrepreneurs. We’ll have a panel of investors answering questions about how critical angel capital is and unique challenges in a market like Florida. Plus we’ll have a founder panel discussing the fundraising challenges they face, some unique to women entrepreneurs. And we’ll have two young founders demonstrating their pitch, where a founder has only three minutes to tell their story, including why their solution is valuable in the marketplace and why they are uniquely qualified to successfully address that issue, in order to attract investor interest to earn the right to discuss a capital investment. Beyond funding, one of the key values is the mentoring and coaching and connections that investors bring to their involvement. And since early stage companies need capital to continue to grow as they achieve each growth milestone, they never stop learning from one another.

Catalyst: What are some of the special considerations women entrepreneurs should take into account when starting and funding a business?

Garcia: Women founders face the same challenges as their male counterparts for building early stage businesses, including: identifying a monetizable offering, unique enough to attract buyers and investors, as well as finding employee talent to grow their businesses. But women can find their voices diminished or challenged as having the authority and credentials to deliver a solution with an attractive return on investment. They are sometimes asked questions that a male counterpart would never be asked and are still perceived as not as seriously committed business owners. Women are still balancing perceived societal roles against their personal drive and ambition. And they can sometimes be hyper-critical of themselves, especially if success is not instantaneous. In Florida, the limited number of lead investors who can bring an investor group together is a clear disadvantage. Florida is still often perceived to be a place for vacations and retiring, rather than as a robust innovation hub, like a Boston or an Austin or Raleigh. So a Florida female entrepreneur has to work harder to find connections to early-stage capital.

Accelerators such as Tampa Bay Wave, Embarc Collective, Starter Studios in Orlando and others can help launch successful businesses through their mentoring, coaching and networking, Garcia said. Funding groups also are invaluable resources.

The IN-AWE program is sponsored by Frontier Communications, Raymond James, Florida’s Women in Energy Leadership Forum and WUSF.

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