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Innovation Economy

Building support for New England’s female entrepreneurs

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / October 11, 2009

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Is Boston experiencing a surge of female-founded start-ups? You might think so when you hear about how Rebecca Schulman met Jill Cartwright.

Schulman runs Papa Products LLC, a tiny South End company that makes stylish covers for baby carriers like the popular Baby Bjorn brand. When she persuaded Magic Beans, a local retailer, to carry her 1Z line of slipcovers, Magic Beans cofounder Sheri Gurock connected her to Cartwright, who had a similar company, Go Gaga, which makes hip and ergonomically designed diaper bags.

Schulman and Cartwright now have the occasional lunch to talk about expanding their distribution and the challenges of working with suppliers - and they’re also part of The Design Salon, a local networking group of about 100 women who run design-related businesses.

Around the city, there are similar examples of a new infrastructure emerging to support female entrepreneurs.

Cambridge entrepreneur Bettina Hein runs a breakfast group for 20 women, who include the founders of Zipcar, the car-sharing service, and Snip-its, a franchiser of hair salons for kids.

The Boston chapter of Golden Seeds brings together about two dozen women who make angel investments in fledgling companies - and also tries to introduce more wealthy women to the process of funding and advising start-ups.

“I don’t think there’s been a recent spike,’’ says John Prendergast, an adviser to start-ups. “But since the dot-com bubble, there has been a steady increase that I’ve seen.’’

Prendergast recently helped Oneforty, a local Twitter application directory founded by Laura Fitton, find funding.

Bouzha Cookman, who runs the High-Growth CEO Forum, a sort of support group for chief executives of tech-oriented companies, says that only about 10 percent of the members were women when she started it a decade ago; today, the number is about 25 percent, and includes the founders of companies like Boston-Power, a Westborough company that makes laptop batteries.

Anecdotes are plentiful: Helen Greiner, the cofounder of Burlington-based robot maker iRobot Corp. in 1990, is now working on her second start-up, Droid Works, developing unmanned aerial vehicles for the military.

But fresh data to indicate that a major trend is underway are harder to come by, although the Commonwealth Institute, a Boston nonprofit that supports women in business, found that between 1997 and 2006, the number of female-owned companies in Massachusetts grew by 43 percent, and sales grew by 45 percent, to more than $46 billion,

In just the past few years, women have started businesses like New City Inc., which helps Boston-area employers recruit and relocate people from other parts of the country, and Etcetera Media, which makes wine racks, book-holders, bowls, and coasters out of wool felt. There’s DoInk.com, a collaborative online-animation site, and Waltham-based Care.com, an online service to connect families with nannies and baby-sitters. Zeemote of Chelmsford, cofounded by Heather Marcus, makes wireless controllers for video games, and Itty Bitty Bakeshop makes - what else? - tiny cupcakes and cookies.

But many of those businesses employ just the founder, or a handful of people. Tougher to find are big, publicly traded companies (aside from iRobot and a few others). Nell Merlino, the Manhattan-based activist who started Take Our Daughters to Work Day, is trying to address the issue of scale. Her new initiative is “Make Mine a Million $ Business,’’ a community and competition intended to encourage women to build really substantial ventures, and last week she was in Providence at the Business Innovation Factory conference to spread the gospel.

Jill Preotle, one of the prime movers behind the Boston chapter of Golden Seeds, cites research from the University of New Hampshire that suggests that women may look for outside investment more reluctantly than men - and often, outside investment is the factor that helps catapult a business from the basement to the office tower.

Another challenge is that women are underrepresented in many of New England’s organized angel investing groups and venture capital firms. (There aren’t more than a half dozen female partners at our region’s venture capital firms, though at least two, Maria Cirino of .406 Venture in Boston and Nina Saberi of Castile Ventures in Waltham, are fairly high profile.)

“Pitching a bunch of male investors on high-fashion women’s shoes can be an anxiety-inducing experience,’’ says Monika Desai, founder of Sole Envie LLC, which aims to let consumers design their own shoes on its website. “Fashion is not a topic they feel super-comfortable with.’’ Schulman, of Papa Products, relied on a $10,000 loan from ACCION International, a Boston-based microfinance organization, to get her company off the ground.

“I’m disappointed by the number of business plans I get from women,’’ says Maria Cirino, cofounder of .406 Ventures. “I wish we would see more.’’ She estimates that about one out of every 50 ideas presented to her firm comes from a female founder.’’

But Laura Rippy, an investor and adviser to start-up companies, is more optimistic. “I think you’re starting to see an infrastructure develop here that is going to help women build some really interesting, high-impact companies,’’ she says.

At some point, Rippy believes, a virtuous cycle gets created, with successful (and well-off) women advising, mentoring, and funding the next wave of female entrepreneurs. We could be at the start of that cycle.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.