On Friday morning, about 100 students gathered for the first annual Women Who Launch Symposium to hear from keynote speaker Haley Hoffman Smith, author of “Her Big Idea: The Next Gen-Her-ation of Female Entrepreneurs,” as well as two panels of women in venture capital and female entrepreneurs.
The event took place in the Blau colloquium at the Ross School of Business and was organized by the Ross club Women Who Launch. Rachel Skolnick, co-president of Women Who Launch and a first-year Business graduate student, said the club aims to spark discussion about the gender gap in the entrepreneurial space while encouraging women to enter the field.
“We’re looking to foster gender-equal entrepreneurial systems,” Skolnick said. “So getting more women involved in the space as entrepreneurs as venture capitalists, as people who just support other women founders. So we want to be a resource in the community for people interested in learning more, whether or not they want to pursue this path.”
Hoffman Smith told audience members being an entrepreneur requires intuition and blind sacrifice, creative persistence and expecting the unexpected.
“The only certainty in life is uncertainty,” Hoffman Smith said. “So a lot of us are constantly clinging to certainty because we’re finding comfort in it but even the things that we think are the most certain where we’re building our life upon them are uncertain. And I think that helps us make more choices that are more geared towards our innate creativity and the things that we want to create in the world.”
Hoffman Smith encouraged students to immediately start working to become the person they want to be in five, 10 or 15 years, but reminded them that sometimes starting can be difficult.
“Sometimes just starting can mean confronting those parts of yourself and those antiquated belief systems,” she said. “And trying to move past them so you can achieve what you do want in your life.”
As part of her presentation, Hoffman Smith ran an interactive workshop for students. Students were challenged with creating action plans for obscure business ideas Hoffman Smith came up with, including a blog about taco seasonings and a short film on how to make igloos. Then, students brainstormed ideas they themselves would like to pursue.
To end her speech, Hoffman Smith referenced New York Times bestselling author Brendon Burchard’s concept of a person being caged, comfortable or charged. When one is caged, they are not fulfilled in life, and when one is comfortable they have a stable life, but are missing a dose of excitement.
“The charged life is you’re comfortable in the sense that you feel fulfilled and satisfied with what you’re doing but you’re challenging yourself,” she said. “When you’re going out on a limb and you’re pushing yourself and you’re motivating yourself. Everybody falls into one of these three. So you have to ask yourself, would you rather be caged, comfortable or charged?”
Following the keynote speech were panels featuring women in venture capital and women founders. The panelists discussed their own venture capital backgrounds and gave advice to the attendees about how to more successfully obtain funding from venture capitalists.
Principal of Rogue Venture Partners Caroline Lewis said the two characteristics entrepreneurs need are the ability to take risks and the determination to be successful.
“Just show that grit and that hustle because that’s the type of people that VCs want to invest in,” Lewis said. “It’s the type of entrepreneurs that are successful, it’s the type of people that when you see that, you want to hire them to be a part of your team.”
The Women Founders Panel followed the women in venture capital panel. Founder of May Mobility Alisyn Malek advised attendees that if they have a company or an idea, they have to be able to sell it to whoever is going to help them, including investors and customers.
“You have to be able to sell your vision and you have to have the confidence in yourself to take 100 nos and maybe even 150,” Malek said. “And you’ll get the two that are yes. And like, it is agonizing. And it is slow and it is painful and you’re going to be frustrated, but it’s so worth it. It’s so worth it … When you get your first customer and you help your first person, it is so powerful that it is absolutely worth the slough.”
Engineering sophomore Samina Abdullah said after the event that both panels helped her understand more about venture capital funding and what steps she would need to take to start a company.
“It’s given me a more practical view as to how to approach being an entrepreneur,” Abdullah said. “How to get someone to fund you or how to bring your idea from something that’s internal in your mind to something that’s real life and tangible. And how to grow your idea to a full-fledged company.”
At the end of the event, Abdullah was especially inspired by Hoffman Smith’s encouragement for students to get right into ideas and projects they already have.
“One of the key takeaways is to just start something and stop waiting and kind of take the leap,” Abdullah said. “If you are really passionate about something, if your heart is telling you to do something. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about and it’s nice to hear other people articulate the same feelings.”
Kelly Goldstein, co-president of Women Who Launch and a first-year Business graduate student, hoped the event would encourage more women to bring their visions to fruition through entrepreneurship. She said although the number of women in the venture capital space is increasing, much more must be done before the field can be considered equal.
“It’s changing but it’s still pretty small,” Goldstein said. “We need to start somewhere and I think having universities more focused on encouraging women to enter that space and be comfortable in that space is a good thing.”