This story first appeared in the College of Engineering newsroom.
When Georgia Tech VentureLab program directors Melissa Heffner and Sara Martin Henderson noticed that a disproportionately low number of women were showing up to their entrepreneurial programs, they decided to address the issue with an experiment. The duo knew that students learned best when they felt represented by their instructors, leading them to create an entrepreneurial program geared specifically for women and led by female entrepreneurs and coaches.
The Female Founders program, a five-week cohort experience, debuted at Georgia Tech in the fall of 2020.
“We had a hunch that women in our programming wanted to be surrounded by other like-minded women and coached by female mentors with whom they could relate,” said Heffner. “After the first cohort, we heard that sentiment validated by many of our participants.”
Female Founders is open to startup teams that are founded or co-founded by women, with 25 chosen for each cohort. The program is open to Georgia Tech students, community teams, and researchers from other institutions in the United States.
The programming assesses the relative strengths of each of the participants and seeks to highlight their advantages as individuals and as part of a team. Cohort members work to cultivate those skills in an array of entrepreneurial environments. Teams also receive feedback on their work from mentors and peers within the program, while attending lectures on topics such as customer discovery and innovation.
Participants may attend the Female Founders Speaker Series each month, where Heffner and Henderson bring in successful women entrepreneurs and leaders, as well as program alumni, to speak about their areas of expertise.
Applications for the next cohort are due by April 7, with each team getting a boost from a successful female entrepreneur with Georgia Tech ties.
The Frank & Eileen Donation
This past fall, Heffner and Henderson were contacted by Audrey McLoghlin, a graduate of Georgia Tech's H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and founder of luxury clothing company Frank & Eileen. After receiving B CORP certification in December 2020, McLoghlin’s company pledged to donate $10 million over 10 years to support the female leaders of tomorrow.
After meeting with Heffner and Henderson, McLoghlin gave a $125,000 gift to the Female Founders program, with the funds directly intended to help female entrepreneurs.
"When COVID put us into quarantine I suddenly found myself with a very rare resource: time. With that extra time, we pursued B CORP certification," McLoghlin said. "Much to my surprise, we received the 2nd highest impact score among globally recognized fashion brands in the US, second only to Patagonia. This inspired me to make a Giving Pledge to support the female leaders of tomorrow."
McLoghlin's gift will allow each of the 25 teams in the next cohort to receive $5,000 to explore their customers’ needs, research the market for their product or service, or travel to meet with potential consumers.
“The donation from Frank & Eileen will change the way that we can engage with our upcoming cohort,” said Henderson. “We are still supporting them through education and community building within the program, but now we have a new opportunity to expand that support.”
In addition to the gift, VentureLab will host McLoghlin for its next Female Founders Speaker Series event on March 30.
"I became an entrepreneur when I was 25 and I had no idea what I was doing!" she said. "Without a mentor or a support network, I definitely learned things the hard way.We were over-the-moon to discover the incredible work that Melissa and Sara were doing by creating and launching the Female Founders Program. I am thrilled to have been able to partner with Georgia Tech and with the Female Founders Program to help support women in their entrepreneurial journey.”
Building From The Beginning
Since launching in 2020, Female Founders has become a larger success than either Heffner or Henderson anticipated. After completing the first cohort, 10 of the original teams joined Heffner and Henderson the next semester for a follow-on program to expand upon what they already learned. Throughout 2021, Heffner and Henderson hosted another two cohorts.
“We want to create a dedicated space in each cohort for women to discuss their experiences in the workplace and as female entrepreneurs, and that is what makes the Female Founders program so unique,” said Henderson. “Our goal is to talk about how each individual, regardless of gender, can navigate these male-dominated spaces with their natural strengths and skills, which is not something the participants would necessarily find in a co-ed program.”
Allyson McKinney, a Ph.D. student in the College of Engineering’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and member of the inaugural cohort, appreciates how the program deepened her understanding of customer discovery and the ways in which her specific technology fits into different markets.
“Female Founders introduced me to an entirely new way of thinking about tech,” said McKinney. “The mentors understand how to combine deep tech ideas with market need, and can then communicate that effectively to a customer. It’s an art, a science, and a business strategy.”
Mourin Jarin, a Ph.D. student in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering who joined McKinney in the first cohort, also highlighted customer discovery as one of the most important things she learned during her time with the program.
“The Female Founders program introduced me to mentors who have helped guide and introduce me to other programs and competitions, both inside Georgia Tech and external,” said Jarin. “I was chosen to participate in the NSF I-Corps program last fall on Melissa’s recommendation, and the women entrepreneurs and mentors I’ve met through the program serve as an invaluable network, providing feedback and support for the start-up efforts in my lab.”
Yana Bebieva, a postdoctoral fellow in the College of Science’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and a member of the fall 2021 group, says the program helped her to improve her active listening and technical communication skills.
“Through the program, I gained confidence with presenting my research, especially to customers and laypeople, and learned how to more effectively communicate a big-picture view of a problem,” said Bebieva.
LaVonda Brown, founder and CEO of EyeGage, earned her MBA from the Scheller College of Business in 2020 after receiving her master’s and Ph.D. from ECE. She participated in the first cohort, then stayed for the follow-up program in the spring. She said Female Founders helped her add various skill sets to her entrepreneurial toolbox, such as customer discovery and effective communication.
“The program gave us a safe space to discuss the biases that female founders face in male-dominated tech environments,” said Brown. “We were given time to talk about issues we were facing in our field, as well as learning healthy ways to respond when facing adversity.”
For Heffner and Henderson, the most rewarding part of building up the Female Founders program was the space they created for women to explore different options for their future.
“In our program, we have so many engineers, inventors, scientists, and leaders seeking the right pathway for their leadership skills,” said Henderson. “The program has given them the autonomy to take their intelligence and capabilities and just run with it to create and innovate.”