Female entrepreneurs see more than profit

Ford Fund expands initiatives that help women with social impact ventures solve real-world problems through coaching, mentoring, capital support and programming

Around the world, women social entrepreneurs are leading the charge to help eradicate poverty, provide safe water, and provide access to opportunities. Women today are making a major impact by meeting needs and solving problems in these and other areas.

The Women's Business Enterprise National Council reports that half of women-owned businesses concentrate on health care, social assistance, and professional/scientific/technical services. Compared with men, women are 9% more likely to launch businesses in education and 10% more likely to launch health care companies.

HERImpact DC finalists enjoy mingling at a lunch.

Women's startups fall in line with consumers demanding that companies support local communities and protect the environment. Banks also are developing new social impact-investing products that aid companies in meeting consumer desires.

Remarkably, women receive less than 2% of venture capital funding. This is due, in part, because investors don't believe women can make money, said Melissa Bradley, managing director and founder of 1863 Ventures, a nonprofit that works with entrepreneurs. Moreover, banks and other investors often don't believe social-impact businesses can turn a profit, she said.

Envisioning new dimensions

To address these mindsets, Ford Motor Company Fund is taking a unique approach that helps women social entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality. Ford Fund established a national network of pitch competitions that combine financial assistance with mentorship, workshops, and other vital support.

"When you're talking about social entrepreneurship, you're not just talking about investing in women and businesses, which is very important, you're also investing in communities, which is a win-win," said Pamela Alexander, Ford Fund director of Community Development.

In 2017 and 2018, Ford Fund united with Michigan Women Forward to launch Empower Change MI, formerly EmpowerHer. Empower Change MI awarded more than $50,000 in cash, investments, and in-kind professional services to three women-owned social enterprise companies. In 2018, Ford Fund, with 1863 Ventures, kicked off HERImpact DC, giving more than $50,000 in cash and support in Washington, D.C.

Helping underrepresented social entrepreneurs is a shared vision, said Bradley of 1863 Ventures.

"Our belief and Ford's belief that money is just the beginning and adding the additional support was appealing," Bradley said. "We have actually been the people they are trying to help."

The second HERImpact Entrepreneurship Summit is June 27, 2019. The pitch competition is scheduled for September. By the end of 2019, Ford Fund will have held three pitch competitions and awarded more than $150,000 in cash and supplemental support to women-owned social enterprises in Michigan and Washington, D.C.

However, Empower Change MI and HERImpact DC are just the start of a larger Ford Fund strategy to strengthen communities and make people's lives better. The idea is to hold women-focused, social-entrepreneurship pitch events two consecutive years in each city, while also developing and annually implementing new initiatives in a different city, said Yisel Cabrera, community relations manager at Ford Fund.

In November, Ford Fund will introduce HERImpact Miami with an entrepreneur summit, followed by the pitch competition in February 2020.

"We help those women social entrepreneurs start, grow, and scale their businesses and get to the point where they can employ other women or even sell their business," Cabrera said.

Getting more than money

In March 2019, Ford Fund held its second Empower Change MI pitch competition, where 15 finalists competed for more than $50,000 in financial assistance in Ideation, Launch, Growth, and Audience Choice categories.

Ideation winner Brittany Rhodes majored in math at Spelman College before earning a Master of Business Administration at Carnegie Mellon University. As a mathematics tutor, she realized too many students not only lacked confidence when dealing with math, but they also needed help with basic math skills.

Rhodes sought to help close widespread racial and gender gaps related to learning math. She developed a subscription-box company dedicated to increasing math confidence and decreasing math anxiety in black girls.

"When I found out I was a semifinalist… and found that it wasn't just family and friends that thought Black Girl MATHgic was a good idea, it gave me validation," Rhodes said. "Once I got that validation, I went full speed ahead."

Rhodes, 34, who plans to use the winning funds to purchase inventory and start beta testing, said "Empower Change MI doesn't just say, ‘Here's the money, goodbye.'"

"We had access to workshops, marketing and branding, and impact investing," Rhodes said. "They offer a lot of opportunities to help us learn and grow so our business enterprises are sustainable."

Jeanette Brown (left) and her sister prepare to accept Dutton Farm’s award as Audience Choice winner in the “Idea that Will Change the World” category at Empower Change MI.

Arion Long said HERImpact DC and the mandatory meetings with mentors improved her already-established business, Femly.

"It helped with business strategy, marketing strategy, and what to do with the money that would make the biggest impact for my business," Long said.

Femly manufactures organic feminine-care products for its monthly subscription box that also comes with chocolate, face scrubs, and other products to make a woman's "monthly gift" feel like an actual gift, she said.

After Long's doctor told her additives in feminine products caused the tumor on her cervix, Long learned millions of women and girls in the U.S. and abroad lack access to safe feminine-hygiene products. Often women must use choose between food and safe feminine products. As a result, they stay home the week of their menstrual cycles, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty as they miss work and school.

It was important to Long that Femly not only turn a profit but also help others. Every time someone buys a box, a woman in need receives a box of her own. So far, Femly, which is partnering with three hotels, one athletic facility, and one co-working space, has shipped subscription boxes to about 10,000 women.

"This funding will help us market and change the lives of 1,000 women because we will be able to take advantage of manufacturing discounts and put menstrual cups on the market for $10 cheaper," the 29-year-old said.

HERImpact DC winners also received non-cash resources, such as six free months shared office space and legal and accounting services.

Winnings multiply business growth, social impact

Ashlee Trempus, CEO and co-founder of SignOn Connect, an online American Sign Language immersion program, put the $10,000 winnings from the 2018 Empower Change MI Growth award to good use. She has been attending conferences and connecting with leaders in deaf and educational communities.

Danya Sherman learns KnoNap, which produces a cocktail napkin that can test for rape-drugs, is the 1st place winner of the 2019 HERImpact DC pitch competition.

At one conference, Trempus and her team met with the executive director of the American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC). The meeting resulted in SignOn and ASDC launching a program in January 2019, that allows the first 500 families that join ASDC to receive five free SignOn sessions.

"It's super exciting," Trempus said. "Families are joining like crazy, and we've gotten some really great feedback."

While attending an Early Hearing Detection Intervention conference, Trempus got feedback that gave her goosebumps.

"A mom ran up, gave me a huge hug, and told me SignOn was life-changing," Trempus said. The grateful parents — who have one deaf and one hearing child — said the program makes studying ASL accessible because it allows users to learn on their own time.

Validation and support from Empower Change MI facilitated SignOn's ability to join two vital education programs: The Individual Family Service Plan (serving children birth to age 3) and Individualized Education Program (serving age 3 to grade 12). Now, any of the 13,506 school districts in the U.S. can add SignOn to its curriculum.

Such support, said Pamela Alexander of the Ford Fund, may help these social entrepreneurs change the current narrative.

"If you're born in the bottom 20% economically in this country, regardless of race or where you are, you have a 4% chance of reaching the top 20%," Alexander said. "If you're born in the bottom half as a child, you are probably going to stay there unless something intervenes. Through social entrepreneurship, we are giving women the opportunity to become successful businesswomen, to help communities, and maybe help with social mobility."

MemoryWell founder Jay Newton-Small (left), Ford Fund judge Pamela Alexander, KnoNap creator Danya Sherman, and Goodworld CEO Dale Pfeifer at a lunch ahead of the HERImpact DC pitch competition.