Chicago’s female founders find support and resources through local organizations

By Ruiqi Chen
Medill Reports

Chicago has the highest proportion of female startup founders in the world, helped by the city’s abundance of support organizations that provide women with resources and a sense of community.

Research company Startup Genome’s 2019 Global Startup Ecosystem Report found that over a quarter of Chicago’s startups were majority female-founded while the worldwide average trailed at 14%. The company’s analysis credited a “groundswell of women supporting women” and an abundance of women’s business support organizations as a potential explanation.

One such organization is the Women’s Business Development Center of Chicago, which provides training and guidance to women entrepreneurs. The organization’s managing director of entrepreneurial services Maura Mitchell said there are about 130 business service organizations like it in the city, and many of them offer programs specifically for women as well as financing help.

Dana Todd, CEO and cofounder of made-to-measure online clothing retailer Balodana, was a participant in one of the workshops at WBDC and joined a startup development program for women at startup incubator 1871. Todd said these programs helped her stay focused and gain access to resources that led her company to success.

“I knew jumping into a startup full-time I needed somebody to keep me on track and I needed some framework around that,” Todd said, adding that the two organizations helped develop her business plan for Balodana and introduced her to many other women entrepreneurs in the city.

Todd met Mitchell through one of the training programs she ran at WBDC in the spring of 2018 called “Plan for Profit,” which helps women develop their business plans and perform market research.

During the 12-week program, Todd said she was “really blown away” by the level of innovation and motivation that the other women in the program exhibited.

“My cohort was a really different group of women of all ages and races and their ideas were amazing,” Todd said, adding that she was surprised by the range and originality of many of their idea, such as a construction startup.

Being around these women, Todd said, helped ease the difficulties and loneliness of being a “solopreneur.”

Todd is not alone. According to American Express’s 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, most women-owned businesses don’t have any employees. In comparison, the average number of employees for all businesses in the U.S. is close to four.

“Because of the isolation issue, I started looking for organizations just so I could get out and be around women that were doing similar things,” said Pamela Krikorian, a freelance designer. That led her to local business support organization West Suburban Women Entrepreneurs, which supports women entrepreneurs in Chicago’s suburban neighborhoods. She currently serves as its membership chair.

Borislava Baeva, founder of fitness studio subscription company My Strong Circle, said she rented space at 1871’s large coworking office in Merchandise Mart, north of downtown Chicago, to ease her feelings of isolation.

“This is so much better than just being stuck at my dining room table and staring at screens and feeling like you’re alone in this world,” Baeva said. “Just having people to talk to who are going through the same thing is really beneficial.”

Balodana’s Todd also said group events with the wider startup community were the best part of her program at 1871.

“You now have an extended family of people, you’ve got an extended access to network, you’ve got resources,” Todd said. “All you have to do is ask, ‘Hey, who knows how to do this?’ and you’ve got somebody right there who’s going to be able to help you. And that’s incredible.”

Photo at top: A woman walks into startup incubator 1871, which hosts business development and training programs for women entrepreneurs. Research company Startup Genome credits Chicago’s high proportion of female startup founders to the many business support organizations in the city, such as 1871. (Ruiqi Chen/MEDILL)