WE Festival: Way Cooler Than Davos

This was how Majora Carter started her talk at the Sustainability Panel this past weekend at the Women’s Entrepreneurship Festival at NYU ITP. Way cooler, because rather than meet with the Davos crowd and pontificate about worldchanging ideas, we were talking about how visionary women were bringing their worldchanging ideas to fruition.The conference was organized by Nancy Hechinger, an ITP professor, Joanne Wilson, the famous GothamGal of NYC, and Diana Rhoten of Startl, an education technology incubator, with the explicit intention of convincing “pre-entrepreneurial” women to make the leap and make their start-up idea happen.

Brooklyn Grange Farm

Brooklyn Grange Farm

As was typical of former female students I’ve had at ITP, and many of the women at the conference, many are uncertain if a company is something they want to start. It’s not because their visions are small and sheepish, it is because they are enormous beyond measure. Mission-driven, with a desire to bring about the change they wish to see in the world, these women are not content to force their vision into the current for-profit and not-for-profit structures we have in place today.

Let’s face it VC funding is great, tech entrepreneurs create jobs, and high growth high scale industries are exciting to invest in, and help grow (I’m in one right now, and am having a blast). However, the mechanism of VC-funded startups are not designed for solving intractable social or environmental issues that many of these women entrepreneurs want to solve.

Let’s take the case of the 5 women on the panel I had the good fortune to moderate.

Let’s start with Majora. TED video darling and MacArthur genius. Hero of the South Bronx. A “recovering Executive Director” with a business plan to launch a national, urban agriculture brand. Majora has shaped and adapted her vision to not just confront environmental justice issues of poor air quality in the South Bronx, she is solving for the most intractable challenges in a city like NYC – employing the “most expensive citizens” in jobs that provide dignity and purpose. I’m looking forward to seeing how this idea of training “urban agriculture technicians”

Gwen Schantz is an urban farmer and co-founder of Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop soil-based farm in Long Island City (”Yes it’s in Queens and it’s called Brooklyn Grange. Get over it.”) Gwen shared the entire financing and operational story for how they got the farm up and running – startup costs of approximately $200k, almost half of which went to pay for the soil, funded through friends, family, Kickstarter, and loans, creating a break-even farm within a year. The farm is operated as a for-profit enterprise because the founders wanted to demonstrate that urban farming was a financially sustainable enterprise. To serve the needs of the local schools and tour groups that want to visit the farm, the founders decided to create a separate non-profit 501C3 organization to fund educational efforts and other community outreach efforts in a manner that did not take a toll on the successful, working farm.

Sarah Beatty, the founder of Green Depot, started her company after experiencing a mold scare following the renovation of her NYC apartment a week before her first child was due. After spending substantial time trying to find replacement products and materials that were less toxic, she started Green Depot with her husband, who had been running a more traditional building supply business. Sarah still spends a great deal of time on product filtering and selection, sorting through greenwashing claims and false certifications, and creating a way for contractors and end customers to make better decisions. While Green Depot is not interesting in creating their own certification, you can see the thought and consideration put into the products on display at the company’s flagship store on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. Built inside of a converted YMCA, it was the first LEED certified Platinum-rated remodel of a landmarks building. Green Depot is doing relatively well despite the huge decline in contraction and building projects in the last two years, and Sarah is interesting in expanding her business on the web to reach the community of green customers that have greater influence over smarter renovation decisions.

Britta Riley is an ITP grad who is applying her school-acquired knowledge of communities and online participation to start an indoor farming movement. Her venture,Windowfarms, was conceived as an art project while she was an artist-in-residence at Eyebeam. “Turn our cities’ windows into vertical vegetable farms” was the rallying cry that led to raising $28k on Kickstarter and launching a community website and initial Windowfarm kit. The product of Windowfarms is less important to Britta than something she calls R&D-IY – a community of people adapting Windowfarms for their own local environments, and sharing their maker tips. Britta is tapping into “personal scale innovation” and the motivation of people to start doing something to improve their quality of life by creating a fresh food supply. She has spent a great deal of time exploring whether or not to grow as a 501c3 or as a for profit structure, and has learned that a hybrid model is necessary to generate the right level of funding for the outcomes she seeks. Underlying the entire project is a passionate commitment to open source, shared intellectual property, and a transparent policy for how ideas are commercialized within this ecosystem. When asked whether she considered financially incentivizing members of the community, Britta cited the lessons taught at ITP by community expert Clay Shirky – there is a cultural magic that goes along with a volunteer spirit and a genuine desire to participate that is broken when financial incentive structures are built in. Keeping that magic may become Britta’s secret sauce to long term success of Windowfarms.

Finally, Valerie Casey walked us through her several year journey to lead a social and sustainable design movement. Full disclosure – I consider Valerie a close friend, and am on the board of the Designers Accord, a not-for-profit organization that Valerie started to enlist the interest and curiosity of designers around the world. I’m a fan. But so are other designers and sustainability-minded people Valerie has reached along the way. Valerie spoke about deliberately choosing not-for-profit status as a way to signal her intent. To encourage collaboration and sharing among traditionally competitive designers and firms, Valerie felt it was important to show that this organization had no profit motive, and also had an end date in mind – giving the organization 5 years to accomplish its goals and become part of the way designers and design educators behave, talk, and influence decision-making. Designers Accord started as a blog post and mission statement, and today counts over 300,000 adopters worldwide. Designers, educational institutions, design firms, and corporations who all agree to the guidelines which encourage a public and active dialogue about social and sustainability impacts, and an ongoing commitment to share learning and knowledge.

I’ve been wondering about the “difference” in female vs. male entrepreneurship and I do not think there is one, there is just a strong pattern – most of the women driven to start their own mission-driven organizations approach their work differently than an entrepreneur who is more focused on personal wealth creation. In the words of Diana Rhoten as she wrapped up the day, “these women are not angling to make the system work for them,” but breaking and building a system “so that it works for everyone.” Does this distinction answer the question of why only 3% of VC tech startup funding goes to women-founded companies? Perhaps.

There IS ample room for VC, foundation, angel, and socially conscious investor funding of humanistic, sustainability focused ideas. The institutions we’ve created to house these ideas should not get in the way, and these entrepreneurs are deftly experimenting with hybrid models to attract the right kind of capital for their growth plans.

When VC funding is right, expect VCs to be looking for more women-founded companies if only to expand the breadth and diversity of the companies they fund. When “AVC” Fred Wilson, husband of conference organizer Joanne Wilson was asked about his intention to invest in female-founded companies, he answered: “i would simply say that we’d like to see more women pitching us and more women in the teams that pitch us.” So future entrepreneur women. Go forth. Pitch. Ask for what you need to have us all benefit from your giant ideas.