Event sponsors hope Springboard 2000 will help the rapidly expanding pool of women entrepreneurs gain access to venture capital.
"Women entrepreneurs are sprouting up everywhere. They're ready, willing, and able," said Denise Brosseau, president of Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, which is co-sponsoring the event. "What we're doing is getting them out there, getting them connected, and getting them opportunities."
According to statistics released by the National Foundation of Women Business Owners, women-owned firms are the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy, with seven-year revenue growth of 132 percent.
Although 30 percent of new women-owned businesses are in the technology sector, women received only 1.6 percent of the $34 billion in venture capital investments from 1991 to 1996. Venture One, a leading equity research firm, estimates less than 10 percent of all venture capital funding today goes to women-owned companies.
Some women find it more difficult to gain access to VC networks, which tend to be predominantly male.
"It's an old boys network. And that's why things like Springboard and FWE are so important: Because that's the barrier they're trying to break," said Kovair Software CEO Krishna Subramanian.
"I've had people tell me they won't even talk to you if they don't know you or if you haven't been referred by someone they know," said eMentoring.com CEO Kathryn Hanson, who is seeking funding here today.
Hanson said presenting her business plan before investors at Springboard is similar to receiving a reference. "It's like a seal of approval. Of the 300 applicants, we are the 25 lucky ones."
Women may also be hampered by perceptions that they are under-qualified. Investors surveyed in a study released by the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship cited lack of management experience as a big reason why women don't get funding.
"It's true women have less line experience," or work [experience] that directly relates to a company's bottom line, Brosseau said. "But women tend not to be tracked into those positions, because they entail a lot of travel and lots of hours."
Brosseau says it's important for VCs to change their criteria of what constitutes management experience.
"They need to be looking at how effective you are at the
job, how you manage people, not how much face-time you put in." she said.
The CIE study suggests that women may be penalized for their struggle to fulfill both workplace and personal commitments. VCs think many women choose to leave the workplace to raise children, thereby limiting their ability to compete with men, said the survey.
"If you look at the statistics, it's clearly not true. Most women with children are working," said Hanson. "I think it's just a reason people give because it seems like it may be true."
What's more, many women entrepreneurs are choosing not to have children. "I think nearly 25 percent of women over 40 are without children," Brosseau said.
Although a single event like Springboard 2000 may not be able to change such perceptions, it may help women overcome their greatest disadvantage in the equity marketplace: poor networking skills.
The CIE study showed both women entrepreneurs and VCs agreed that women need to learn to network more effectively in order to raise money.
"It's not that we can't network. Women are clearly more social," Hanson said. "We just don't know how. There really isn't that support network. We need more mentoring."
Brosseau says mentoring has become less threatening for women executives because they're no longer a token presence in the boardroom. "Before, you were effectively encouraging and mentoring your replacement."
Networking is the single most important asset in running a business, she said.
Brosseau's long-term goal is to use initiatives like Springboard 2000 to create enduring connections for women executives.
"Three to five years from now, when these investors are looking to put in a CEO for some firm they've funded, I want them to think 'What about that great woman we saw at Springboard?'" she said. "That's how it works in this business."
The real good news for women is that more women are becoming investors as well. Just in the San Francisco Bay Area, the number has grown from nine to 75 over the past six years.
"Now women are sitting at the table, having investment discussions, and looking to put in a CEO or vice president. And they're going to turn to their support networks," Brosseau said.
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