International Women’s Day conference brings community and knowledge to Chicago’s female founders

By Ruiqi Chen
Medill Reports

Startup incubator 1871’s International Women’s Day conference started with a call-to-action from CEO Betsy Zeigler.

“Fund, found and scale tech companies,” Zeigler said to the crowd of roughly 200 women, many of whom were female startup.

According to research company Startup Genome, over a quarter of Chicago’s startups are female founded, more than twice Silicon Valley’s rate of 11%. However, women entrepreneurs here face many of the same funding and company growth challenges that exist all over the world.

Under the International Women’s Day theme, “Each for Equal,” the conference promoted equality in tech and entrepreneurship through a series of workshops providing advice and information about women’s business and professional issues.

Workshops addressed topics such as female product design and women in private investing, and the day ended with a keynote session with Desiree Rodgers, Obama’s former social secretary and CEO of Black Opal cosmetics company.

In the panel about women in venture capital, or private investing, Rumi Morales, a partner at investment company Outlier Ventures said women entrepreneurs were getting more funding than before but they were still at a disadvantage compared to their male counterparts. She cited statistics from data analysis company Pitchbook that said women received $3.4 billion, or 2.7% of all venture capital, in 2019.

Morales put the number into perspective with another statistic. In 2019, investment company SoftBank alone funneled $5 billion into male-founded coworking company WeWork.

“I was beyond pissed off when I saw these statistics,” Morales said.

She said more women investors could be a potential way to bridge this investment gap. Again citing PitchBook, Morales said women make only 12% of venture capital decisions in the U.S., but women investors were also twice as likely as men to invest in other women.

Attendee Carol Fleishman, CEO and founder of education startup Turnkey STEAM Labs, said she enjoyed learning about the reality of women’s business funding, even if the numbers weren’t encouraging.

“The statistics are kind of dismal,” Fleishman said after the workshop. “It definitely seems like an uphill battle.”

For others, the biggest takeaway wasn’t the data presented but the sense of community that grew as each discussion unfolded. Erica Pascual, author and business consultant, said she found the workshops to be valuable because they started a conversation with other ambitious and driven women.

“Being around women who have that desire to be more, to do more and to impact more, that’s huge,” Pascual said.

Photo at top: Women walk into a keynote speech that concluded startup incubator 1871’s International Women’s Day conference. (Ruiqi Chen/MEDILL)