With a little over a month to go before the 33rd annual International Conference on Business Incubation (ICBI33), we our concluding our three-part series with this month’s theme, ‘Elevate.’ ICBI33 has intentionally built in sessions and speakers along this theme, particularly elevating women and minority entrepreneurs, including keynotes Mary Grove and Melissa Kjolsing, Driving High-Impact Programming for Women Entrepreneurs, Working with Social Enterprises, Leveling the Playing Field for Underserved Entrepreneurs, and more.
InBIA member Purdue Foundry has consistently elevated others with their WomenIN initiative, a programmatic facet of the Foundry that creates a community of support for women interested in STEM and technology innovation. We spoke with Juliana Casavan, Entrepreneurial Programs Manager and founder of the WomenIN initiative, to learn more about how the initiative uplifts women entrepreneurs.
Traditionally, the Foundry has been connected to Purdue University and the Lafayette community with resources open to students, faculty, staff, and alumni, amongst others. However, the WomenIN initiative, founded by Casavan in January 2016, intentionally created accessibility to these resources for women innovators across the state of Indiana, regardless of location and connection to the university. Casavan talked about the experience of tailoring the Foundry’s programs and elements of WomenIN to benefit women in all different stages of entrepreneurial activity.
“Our focus really expanded because what we found was that there were a lot of women who were maybe considering it or were dabbling or thinking about doing something entrepreneurial, but they really didn’t have the education or the knowledge base to be able to do that,” said Casavan. “There’s just lots of barriers to women starting. It more so became this mission of finding women who were maybe interested and wanted to learn more…as well as having women who are doing entrepreneurship and having their own businesses being a part of that community. So you know, from both ends of the spectrum: people who are wildly successful in their endeavors and then those who are maybe just like, ‘This might be something I want to do at some point.’”
Several success stories have already emerged from this budding initiative, including that of a WomenIN Tech Pitch Competition finalist, Codelicious. A coding curriculum-based startup, Codelicious seeks to empower elementary and middle schools to include computer science skills early in students’ academic careers. This women-led startup has additionally received TechPoint’s 2018 Tech Service of the Year award at the Mira Awards gala and won second place at SDI Innovations’ Edupitch Competition.
This accomplishment of WomenIN stems from intentional measures to bridge the gap of access between women and entrepreneurship as well as sparking interest in active participation. Casavan noted three replicable features of the WomenIN community intended to achieve these goals:
- Education: “There’s actually a whole lot of really great resources for entrepreneurs in the state of Indiana, but it sometimes it was really just a matter of awareness and that people didn’t know they were available, or they just weren’t sure how to access them,” said Casavan. “So, we started opening up resources, building awareness of resources, and also making connections to others who are doing similar things or are coming upon similar challenges.” WomenIN entrepreneurs currently have access to Foundry Ideation and educational workshops, entrepreneurs-in-residence, an Elevate Ventures funding liaison, and other Purdue assets.
- Community: There is a direct need for the elimination of biases towards women entrepreneurs within academia, investment, and STEM; women’s success in entrepreneurship and innovation suffers from lack of accessibility to these communities. WomenIN, however, seeks to create a community specifically for women through the WomenIN Tech Pitch Competition, the End-of-Year Celebration, an online Facebook a group, and various other networking and social events. “I like to take the approach that if we can build our own communities, like WomenIN and other programs that support women, they’re going to want to come to us and be a part of our communities because they have so much power and capability within them,” said Casavan. “So, how can we get our own groundswell of great resources and great women doing amazing things that have capital resources, experience, knowledge, and access to things that they naturally want to be involved in what we’re doing?”
- Social Good: “In the research that we’ve done, we found that women really thrive on the social environment and the social good. A lot of time, women are starting businesses because they want to help someone or they want to create something that provides a service or creates a better opportunity for somebody,” said Casavan. “So [we] made sure that that was there as well so that it felt like a community that they could go to, not just for resources when it comes to watching their business or starting their business.”
Finally, Casavan discussed the future of women entrepreneurs in a typically male-dominated industry. “I think the thing I always have to keep in my mind and try to stay focused on is that this is a long process of changing the way that women participate in entrepreneurship, business, technology, all of these things. There are no quick fixes. There’s no one perfect program. It’s not going to be any one person’s job to make it happen,” said Casavan. “But I think that it’s a matter of awareness of biases that are there—how do we help each other overcome them, start to view those biases that we have ourselves, and try to mitigate that as much as possible.”