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Lean In: Celebrating Women's Entrepreneurship

The number of women in top positions in the business world has been consistently disproportionate to the number of men in these positions.

Today, women make up 4.6 percent of CEOs, 8.1 percent of Top Earners in the business world and 16 percent of Board Seats, according to the nonprofit organization, Catalyst.  On Feb. 20, Iris Magazine, a program at the U.Va. Women's Center, recognized women seeking to break these barriers in business by celebrating the 2014 female applicants and the 2013 female participants of the i.Lab with a luncheon in their honor. The event was possible thanks to the U.Va. Parents Fund and a grant from the Parents Committee.

The i.Lab is a "University-wide initiative that creates a nexus for entrepreneurship and innovation education. Its mission is to foster deep cross-collaboration with no boundaries, across disciplines, schools or ways of thinking."

The i.Lab Incubator program began last April after the i.Lab underwent significant renovation, fueled by the inspiration of alumni, to make Charlottesville a better ecosystem for entrepreneurship. Philippe Sommer, Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Director, shared with the  celebrants the purpose and intention of the i.Lab.

“What we didn’t have is a community of entrepreneurs to support one another. […] So we opened this, we hired Kathy [Carr, iLab director], and we used to have a dozen or so start-ups from Darden, and we’ve expanded it to 25 and half of them are from the community," Sommer said. "So some of you have ties to Darden and some of you don’t. And again the whole idea here is to make this a more welcoming and nurturing environment. And there is a lot of data out there that entrepreneurs succeed by being around other entrepreneurs and learning from those people. And that’s really what this is all about.”

The i.Lab Incubator has three objectives:

  • To Educate participants about the process of new-venture development in order to improve their potential for future entrepreneurial success
  • To Foster the formation and development of start-up businesses to break even cash flow or significant third-party investment support; and
  • To Create an entrepreneurial community to give participants the experience of learning through mutual support, a process critical for successful entrepreneurship.

The importance of community and support was a consistent topic at the event. June West, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at the Darden Graduate School of Business at U.Va., congratulated the iLab participants for not only seeking out the program, but for applying, and seeing the application through. She talked about the notion of, “what if’s.”

“Often we do our ‘what if’s’ in isolation, don’t we?”

She commended the i.Lab for being a place where young entrepreneurs who have their “what if” in mind can come and be told, “Why not?” In this way, the i.Lab provides a very unique experience for their participants, establishing the sense of community commented on by Sommer, as well as the iLab's objectives.

MJ Toms, Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Associate Director, asked the audience a simple question: What can i.Lab offer women entrepreneurs?

Audience response echoed a lot of the same desires for a community and support system for young women entrepreneurs. Participants and applicants to the i.Lab, past and present, discussed the need to be in contact with those who experience the same conflicts and problems in regards to running a start-up.  The challenge the i.Lab faces in helping young women entrepreneurs, is assuring that these women are not separated.

Toms said that, “Women don’t want to be ghettoized.”

Ultimately, members at the event commended the Women's Center “Lean In” event itself, asking for more opportunities to meet and talk with other women pursuing entrepreneurship.

Founder of phoode, a cloud-based online platform that helps small businesses manage their operations more efficiently, and second-year at Darden who was a previous participant in the Incubator, Alex Becker, concluded the event with her three take-aways from her experience at i.Lab.

She said to “be uncomfortable and jump in head first, be ecstatic about what you do everyday, and be surrounded by people you can count on.” Becker encouraged adopting a mentality to say yes to things, to not give yourself the opportunity to let the risks deter you from trying something.

Becker shared an anecdote about her time during the summer driving around town, meeting with prospective customers, being exhausted from the day and having a feeling she’d never had before. She realized that she was completely enthralled in her work and loved her job, and that is what keeps her working, to “be ecstatic about what you do every day.”

In addition, she commented on the camaraderie she experienced during her summer at the i.Lab, saying that those in the program not only held her accountable for her work, but encouraged her, helped her, offered support and would be there when the going gets tough, chanting, “You’ve got to get up.” She emphasized to “be surrounded by people you can count on.”

The work that both the i.Lab and the Incubator are doing is remarkable and encouraging for young women entrepreneurs at U.Va. and in the Charlottesville community.

For more stories on women in business and leadership positions, please check out Iris Magazine.

Story by Alison Kuhn

Photo by Jennifer Oakes

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