Embrace Pet Insurance founder and CEO Laura Bennett is one of the region’s better-known entrepreneurs, a leader in building positive company culture (her company has been named a NorthCoast 99 winner three times, an honor which recognizes them as being one of the best places to work in Northeast Ohio) and a thought leader in the insurance industry. For example, Insurance Networking News named her one of its 2012 Women in Insurance Leadership award winners.
Recently, she launched the Burning River Coffee Community (BRCC), a mentoring community for female entrepreneurs leading high growth-potential companies. Bennett came up with the idea after reading Brad Feld’s Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. The book got her thinking: How can Northeast Ohio’s entrepreneurs be leaders within—and give back to—their own entrepreneurial community? Inspired, she felt she could help women, recognizing that in Northeast Ohio, like much of the country, “there are very fewer female high growth entrepreneurs compared to the number of men, but it doesn’t need to be that way.”
BRCC has had three meetings so far, and its next one takes place Tuesday, February 19. On a recent morning, Bennett took some time out to discuss Burning River and other ways to encourage women to take start high growth companies.
The response seems like it’s been really positive so far.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. We’re trying to find the women that need the encouragement and the mentoring and all that. There are a few; they are out there. It’s really, “Let’s bring people together and let them know there are people out there to encourage them.”
I’m trying to find women who are setting up companies that have the potential to scale. That can be in tech, but we also have somebody who is making high-end robes, dressing gowns. We’re talking $995 ones. That has the potential for being a very big business; it’s a luxury brand. She’s not thinking of it as, “I’m making robes in my garage to sell to my friends.” She’s thinking big. It’s the women who have that mentality—it’s finding them.
We started off modestly: Our first meeting, we had 17 or 18 women. Some of them I wouldn’t categorize as being [high growth], but I’m not going to turn people away; I want them to feel inspired. We want everybody to come, just so they feel like the community can help them and they’re not alone. I do think when you’re a woman, it’s different, especially if you’re doing it by yourself. You don’t have a management team. It’s providing that support.
Why do you think there is a dearth of females leading high growth companies?
I really don’t know. I do think that women look to others as an example. I have two daughters, and I make sure their dentist and their doctor are women, because I want them to see that they can be any one of these things, and it would be perfectly normal to think about it that way. Especially when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re always told, “No, no, no.” I don’t know if women are told no more than men—I really don’t know. But [having examples is] just sort of saying, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be that way—you can have a tech company. You can have a high growth company. You can get venture capital. These are all things that can be done.”
How do Burning River meetings work? How are you envisioning them evolving?
The center of it will be a monthly meeting. We had a few at Embrace’s offices, and now they’re at Panera in Independence. Those meetings tend to be a quick, round-the-table, “Anyone got anything to announce?” The last one we had Marcia Hales from [Goldman Sachs] 10,000 Small Businesses come and talk about that program. [But] the main core of it is having one entrepreneur stand up and say, “I have a question for you guys. Can you help me with it?” and just getting ideas and thoughts from all the other women there, who have totally different backgrounds. We have people who are doing an iPhone app for trading tickets—if you’re at some kind of sporting event so you can get better tickets—and then we have the woman [producing] robes. We have people coming at [entrepreneurship] from totally different angles. It’s amazing how many good ideas are coming out of these gatherings. There’s always something actionable. The core is really the community helping each other. It’s just people feeling like they’re in a community—and they find their way of engaging with that community.
Besides groups such as this one, how else can we help encourage women to go into tech entrepreneurship or even STEM-associated fields?
It’s a case of stop telling our daughters that they should be doing art and not mathematics . . . encouraging those things in elementary school. If you’re never encouraged or never see that [math] is fun, you always end up believing you’re not good at it. Math is the core, honestly, to any kind of technology—the language that everything starts with. I tell people I have a math degree—literally, every single person I meet, half of them will say, “Oh my God, math is my worst subject. Terrible.” There’s no reason for that! No man ever tells me that. It’s women who always tell me that. It does not have to be that way—we have to get rid of this in our culture.
Annie Zaleski is part of the marketing/communications team at JumpStart. A graduate of Harvard University, she has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience. She is especially passionate about blogging, social media, content management, branding and rock & roll.