DR. MARY JO GORMAN OF PROSPER ST. LOUIS

On the importance of kissing frogs.

One of the most encouraging responses to gender inequities and bias (intentional or not) in Silicon Valley and venture capital has been the rise of an alternative network of angel groups, incubators, accelerators and networking and mentoring organizations that focus on women entrepreneurs. Beginning today and continuing through Friday, ID8 Nation will publish interviews with four women helping to build this alternative ecosystem. Here’s the lineup:
Tues., Feb. 24 — Sue Heilbronner of MergeLane in Boulder
Wed., Feb. 25 — Dr. Mary Jo Gorman of Prosper St. Louis
Thurs., Feb. 26 — Vicki Saunders of SheEO in Toronto
Fri., Feb. 27 — Amy Millman of Springboard Enterprises in Washington D.C.

Dr. Mary Jo Gorman is not comfortable with last place. When she saw a 2012 Kauffman Foundation report that had her hometown of St. Louis, Mo., dead last in a ranking of cities most friendly to women entrepreneurs, the serial entrepreneur and physician knew she had to do something.

She, co-founder Jennifer Ehlen and other women in the area built Prosper St. Louis, consisting of Prosper Institute, a nonprofit that offers education and mentoring, and Prosper Capital, a small venture fund/accelerator for women-led companies. Its first cohort of six companies began this winter.

Prosper looks for early-stage, but scalable companies in the consumer products, healthcare and technology fields. It offers $50,000 in cash and $50,000 in services in exchange for a negotiated equity share, usually in the single digits. Founders don’t have to be based in St. Louis, but must be there two days a week for the 13-week program.

The need for Prosper:
“Women aren’t even sure of where to start, where to go if they have an idea for a company, where to go for help. There was no single place to do that. Women weren’t applying for funding and they weren’t getting funding, partly because they weren’t applying – which is a nationwide problem. It just seemed like a vacuum.”

Teaching women how to network:
“The way that women network, it seems like we should be really good at that because we talk a lot, but it turns out they don’t really approach their networking in a purposeful way that gets their company to move forward.

“For whatever reason, women don’t network in quite the same way. That will be one of the things we will cover – how do you have these networking conversations. It’s not just about telling people about your company or having coffee with someone. It’s very specific about how to have these conversations in a way that advances your business.”

On unintentional bias:
“There’s a school of thought that one of the reasons women don’t get funded as much as men is because of unintentional bias. Spanx is a perfect example. It’s not that men don’t like good ideas; it’s that they don’t get why anyone would cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose and make that work, but pretty much every woman who hears that, gets it.

“People don’t like to invest in what they don’t understand well or don’t understand the market for, which is why a lot of investment funds try to stay in the same industry. Unintentional bias explains some why women pitching don’t get funded. We believe there are some opportunities there. If the investors are women, they get what’s happening and increase the likelihood women will get funded.”

Teaching women to think big:
“The studies show women think about this in a very different way. They often don’t think about growing their companies in a really big way. Even though they have the right idea, they don’t think this could be a global idea. They think this is a good idea, I could get some sales in my hometown or my home state. We think we can bring a whole group of people up to the next level.”

Why women shouldn’t get hung on corporate charity:
“There are these confusing messages. It’s the whole Tom’s Shoes thing. It’s not OK just to have a great company where we’re doing cool things and have a great engaged workforce. We also have to give half of our profits away to Africa or whatever. I think there’s confusion for a lot of people, especially younger women, about that whole angle. You don’t have to apologize because you want to build a really big company; it’s a very noble and worthy task. But I think they get the message that it’s not girly enough so you also have to give half of your money to Africa.”

Integrating the women entrepreneurship network:
“I think of it like education. At one time, you had to have all-female colleges because women couldn’t go to a male college or you had to have all African-American colleges because they couldn’t go to a white college, but now it’s not as necessary. Our hope is that this will follow the same pattern.

“It’s great to have a network of women, but you need to have a network of everybody if you’re going to build the kind of company you want to build. You can’t just ignore half the population and expect you’re going to get ahead. Building a company is really hard work so you need as much help as you can get from everybody.”

What she’s learned after starting three companies:
“I think a lot of people who get turned down for money, take it personally. That’s not the case. You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs. There’s no way to teach someone how to be a successful entrepreneur. You have to teach someone how to live through it, make your own mistakes and mitigate as many mistakes as you can.”

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