Starting a business requires mettle. It requires relationships, planning, financing, advice, desire and patience. Women entrepreneurs often have additional responsibilities beyond business that can stretch their limits. So how can they gain an advantage?
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the co-founders of Project Eve, Meridith Dennes, CEO and Kim Oksenberg, COO. "Project Eve is a worldwide network that connects, supports, and promotes female entrepreneurs and women in business by offering free access to the latest news, advice, networking and promotional tools crucial to advancing our entrepreneurial endeavors."
Kim and Meridith met in business school (NYU Stern) and quickly formed what has become life-long friendship. "When we attended there was only about 20% women and of that 20% only 2% went into finance and investment banking." Currently female attendance in MBA programs is up to 30% according to Karen Schweitzer, About.com's Guide to Business Schools.
Is attendance in business school on the upswing? "I think it's industry specific but we were trending in the right direction until the financial dislocation of the credit markets in 2008 and the financial services was devastated." That devastation, says Meridith, included flex-time and work-share and everything that would accommodate a woman with a family. "When you lay people off it's much easier to accommodate people who don't have unconventional requests for such things as taking a child to the pediatrician or working part of the week from home."
The structure of Project Eve formed contemporaneously with "The evolution of watching a number of educated and achieved women leave the traditional work place due to lack of flexibility. Kim had started running her own business and Meridith was still working 60-80 hours a week in investment banking. The challenge was trying to juggle family and business priorities while "searching for answers, resources and a supportive community to help us transition to do something that we really wanted to do. So when we couldn't find it we built it ourselves."
There were a tremendous number of regional and industry-specific organizations but there was nothing that was cross-regional or cross-industry. For example, we had a plethora of connections in the financial services industry but we didn't know any web developers.
The women recognized the need for entrepreneurs to find and communicate with other professionals during windows of time that were only opened when their multi-layered schedules permitted. An organization based in Chicago might serve the needs of professionals in the Midwest but not on the west coast. "There was nothing that really crossed over and connected women globally." Kim says what typically happens running a business is, "You're putting out fifty different fires and they all need attention at once and oh, here is this one local networking event in one time slot and the question becomes; do I attend the event or deal with these two pressing issues? Is the one burning question I have even going to be answered? Something always comes up and then if you do go, which is great, the one person you were hoping to meet with had something come up on their end." So what's the solution?
Meridith: "Project Eve is a place where you can go at two in the morning when your web developer has abandoned you or gone dark or your blast e-mail is not working and you can log on to a community forum and ask a question and because it is global, maybe by the time you wake up the next morning you'll have answers.
A lot of the child care or elder care responsibilities tend to fall on the woman in our society so in order for us to go out of network we have to, for example, pay for baby sitters and it gets expensive. So to network and have the flexibility of when to network, gives women a lot more opportunity and freedom. You can do a lot of the early legwork on-line and then arrange for phone calls and face-to-face meeting when they become necessary." All this information and all these connections are free for users. "It's very important for us that the resources and the connections and the crux of the site remain free."
The cost for some networking sites make it prohibitive in the sense that a woman pays to join only to find out after paying that the site is not ideal for her needs or doesn't offer the right solutions to her problems. With Project Eve you can begin to network before your idea is even fully formed.
"We have a lot of non-tech and solopreneurs who have felt alienated from the tech community, so we're kind of 'big tent'."
Were there defining moments along the path of developing project Eve? Meridith was still working and humbly credits Kim with being smarter and more diligent and yet, despite her talent and work ethic, Kim was having problems with getting the idea off paper and executing it. "We had a conversation and a realization that if two MBA's with a very strong technical background couldn't start a company then maybe other women would also be in this position."