“Who here wants to save the world?” Carolyn Yarina, CEO and Co-Founder of Sisu Global Health, asked a ballroom full of female social entrepreneurs at the Empower Change Summit last summer. Nearly every hand rose high in the air. Nine months later, on February 27, a group of 10 finalists drawn from that ballroom pitched their business concepts to an audience of judges and supporters, bringing the 2019 Empower Change MI program to a close.
The annual Empower Change MI program, a joint effort between Michigan Women Forward and The Ford Fund, launched in 2017 to provide a series of conferences, workshops and seminars to existing or aspiring Michigan-based female social entrepreneurs. The program kicks off with the Empower Change Summit, a collection of speakers, panels, and workshops that provides female entrepreneurs with an introduction to basic business concepts and examples of how to take a socially conscious idea and turn it into a sustainable venture. The program culminates in a Pitch Competition through which several finalists are selected for cash grants and support services provided by other Michigan-based organizations.
Pitch participants compete in three categories, based on the stages of business development: Ideation, Launch, and Growth. This year’s finalists were Brittany Rhodes of Black Girl MATHgic (Ideation), Gina Adams of Buttons 2 Button (Launch), and Arielle Johnson of Fierce Detroit (Growth). Other prizes included a $1,000 award given to the “Best Idea That Will Change The World,” which was a People’s Choice Award, as well as an award of advisory services provided by Mission Throttle. This year, Jeanette Brown of Dutton Farm, Inc. was the winner of both.
In a male-dominated business environment, resources are often scarce for female entrepreneurs. As a result, there is a shortage of female, entrepreneur role models. While this gender disparity is shrinking, progress is slow, as many women do not receive the same opportunities for mentorship as their male counterparts. Additionally, female entrepreneurs often lack access to capital, as they regularly approach male investors, who often fail to relate to the entrepreneur and/or her business concept.
Female entrepreneurs benefit greatly from initiatives, like EmpowerChange, that strive to level the playing field for women in business. Through the Summit and the Pitch Competition, women receive mentorship and learning opportunities, as well as the opportunity to obtain financial capital. While these resources are integral to starting a new venture, the network of driven and supportive women that EmpowerChange creates is especially inspiring.
In a panel discussion during the EmpowerChange Summit, participnats from the 2018 Pitch Competition talked candidly about starting a social venture, and Deana Wojcik suggested “there should be less competition and more collaboration between women entrepreneurs.” Conversations that occurred during the Summit emphasized the benefits of joining a network of like-minded individuals, which include alleviating feelings of isolation and building confidence.
This supportive attitude carries throughout the EmpowerChange initiative, which aims to strengthen both business acumen and soft skills. Mentors are available to provide support and business advice to those who enter the pitch competition. The competition process is designed to offer participants several experiential learning opportunities, such as the opportunity to pitch to a live audience to receive feedback prior to the competition day.
Judging by the strong, qualified group of women at the Pitch Competition, the process is successful. The finalists ranged in experience level, from college students to mid-career entrepreneurs, each working on impactful business ideas to transform a variety of industries, including providing meaningful work opportunities for adults with disabilities to technology-based tools to help young adults become more financially secure. While unique in background and business ideas, each entrepreneur was equally energetic and passionate about her social venture.
The positivity, creativity, and grace of the women who participated in the 2019 EmpowerChange MI program was astounding and inspiring. It only takes one investment of time and resources to elevate impactful ideas, and EmpowerChange does just that. Mission Throttle is pleased to continue accelerating women’s entrepreneurship by participating in the EmpowerChange advisory council, and working with 2019 award recipient, Dutton Farms, Inc. Mission Throttle previously worked with 2018 award recipient, Motor City S.T.E.A.M., to develop a model to enhance youth S.T.E.A.M. development.
For more information, please visit miwf.org/events1/EmpowerChange.