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Between two events I attended recently — one in New York and one in Cape Town — I’ve spent a lot of time engaged with an international group of female business owners, investors and otherwise badass, inspiring women.
First was #MentHERnyc, hosted by angel investor and CNBC Power Pitch panelist, Alicia Syrett, alongside the women’s networking app and community catalyst, Monarq. The one-day event brought investors and female founders together for one-on-one conversations, as well as panels with investors, press and other startup founders. Following the adage, “if you want money, ask for advice,” it was essentially a low-pressure pitch event disguised as a mentorship opportunity.
Just 48 hours later, I was on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa, for the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurship Network (DWEN) summit. The two-day summit is an annual convergence point for founders and executives of approximately 200 women-led companies, media, investors and public policy influencers.
For once, I was not a minority at these events. I felt comfortable approaching every single person in the room. And it was refreshing to see the event organizers unabashedly express their emotion as their latest contribution to the entrepreneurial sisterhood came to a close.
There also seemed to be a consistent theme around socially-conscious businesses. So many conversations circled back to the “triple bottom line,” which is defined by a company’s dedication to people, planet and profit. This was central to discussion at DWEN, in particular. Dell has spent the last decade in a metamorphasis of sorts, reestablishing itself as a people-first, purpose-driven company focused on sustainabilty and activism. The women invited to the conference seemed to mirror these values.
Companies that adopt this purpose-driven model are called social enterprises, and they’re often branded as “high risk” by the traditional venture capital community. This was brought up more than once at both events, based on the difficulty social enterprises can have turning a profit.
But the obstacles don’t seem to be preventing women from building socially-conscious companies nor from finding the resources to do so. I was impressed by the number of entrepreneurs I encountered at these events who had managed to combine profit — or at least a clear path to profit — with purpose, in spite of the very real challenges.
Perhaps women will pave the way for a new paradigm of entrepreneurship where the most successful companies are the ones that meet their impact goals, as well as their revenue goals.
Between panel discussions and off-stage interviews at #MentHERnyc and DWEN, here are some of the insights I gathered from women who are not only adding value to the world economy, but to humanity at large.
Kirsten Dickerson, Founder & CEO, Raven + Lily.
Raven + Lily is an ethical fashion and lifestyle brand that partners with artisans around the world to employ more than 1,500 low-income and formerly-enslaved women. After bootstrapping for a few years, Dickerson raised a Series A of $500,000. She’s currently raising a Series A Extension of $1.5 million.
Her advice: As a social business, you have to be careful about bringing someone in who’s going to support your mission and believe in your vision for it. I’ve had to turn down investors if I wasn’t convinced they were committed to the triple bottom line concept as well as me being a female CEO/founder. I don’t regret those decisions.
Sarah Prevette, Founder & CEO, Future Design School.
Future Design School is a series of tools focused on empowering youth innovation through design methods and entrepreneurial experience. Prevette previously founded investment firm BrandProject, Sprouter (acquired by Postmedia) and BetaKit (also acquired by Postmedia).
Her advice: Do your research on the investor. Most are concerned with your business model, but impact investors want to see your mission first and then how your business model supports it. There are many investors, and also big companies, that will support you. You can find that symbiotic relationship. Make sure you’re meeting your impact metrics.
Leila Janah, Founder & CEO of Sama and Laxmi.
Laxmi is a for-profit luxury beauty brand. It was founded and incubated at non-profit Sama Group, which connects low-income women and youth to internet-based work around the world. Janah has raised a $2 million seed round for Laxmi.
Her advice: I went to people that I knew cared about the social mission. The best way to build a social enterprise is to first build a product that people really need. I took something in the luxury space into a social mission.
Tinia Pana, Founder & CEO, Re-Nuble.
Re-Nuble is a technology company that leverages a patent-pending process to transform food waste into non-toxic, liquid hydroponic nutrients. Re-Nuble has raised a seed round of $200,000.
Her advice: You always lead with your revenue model first. More specifically, announce how you are — or how you plan to — make money, and you’ll receive more attention than you would by telling your mission. Even impact investors want to make sure that your model to create impact is sustainable. This approach also enables you to capture the interest of less mission aligned investors as they may view it as a competitive advantage in other ways.
Nicola Stopps, Founder & CEO, Simply Sustainable.
Simply Sustainable is a UK-based company that helps global organizations build sustainability into their operations.
Her advice: In my experience the most successful companies are those that lead with their mission or dream, shortly followed up with the actual product or service the company provides. A company is less likely to attract investment if its founder lacks passion for what they are doing. We often find social enterprises/ sustainability minded companies focus on the positive impact they will have in one area, such as climate change, and forget to look at the other areas such as being responsible in their supply-chain, employees and ethics. Trading on the positive impact — say on climate change — means your reputation, and possibly your business, is at risk if you are not truly responsible in all other parts of your business.
Carol Barash, Founder & CEO, Story2.
Story2 uses proprietary software, writing and training methods to teach high school students the power of storytelling as they complete college admission and scholarship essays. Brash has raised $1.1 million in convertible debt from TechStars, Kaplan Ventures, angels and early stage VCs.
Her advice: Always lead with vision! What is the huge problem you are solving, and when you are successful, what does success look like? Make that future [vision]extremely detailed and palpable. Who is there? What are they doing? What is possible in that future that is not possible today? If they buy the vision, then be very precise — remember these are numbers people — about how you will get there. How far have you gotten already? And how will their investment aid in your vision? It can be money, advice or other types of engagement — whatever it takes to get you to the next place the business needs to be in order to succeed.
I’ve made so many mistakes fundraising. It’s hard work, and most people just don’t have the stomach to keep going through so many rounds of no, no, no. But it’s a courtship. Investors provide the water, soil and fertilizer to grow the seeds of your business. A great investor is a partner in your business. They’ve done this before and can help you make the vision a reality step-by-step.