Circular Board Summit Spotlights Female Movers And Shakers

Circular Board Summit Spotlights

Female Movers And Shakers

Before 1988, a woman in the United States who wanted to start her own company was unable to do so without a male relative to co-sign her business loan. That was the year President Ronald Reagan signed the Women’s Business Ownership Act, which, among other things, sought to end discriminatory lending practices against women.

Though it’s been nearly 30 years since the signing of that law, many women still face an uphill battle when founding and financing their own business ventures. The Circular Summit, which just concluded its second annual gathering in Houston, seeks to help women overcome those challenges by providing collaboration, advice and networking opportunities.

The Summit is a project led by the Circular Board, an virtual business accelerator founded in 2015 by entrepreneur and investor Carolyn Rodz. The organization is dedicated to providing mentorship, community and capital to emerging female founders. For this year’s Summit, which took place on March 30 and 31, the Circular Board partnered with big-name businesses including Dell, Urban Decay, Johnson & Johnson and others to host panels and presentations gaining funding, making media buzz, and how to rebound from professional setbacks.

Jean Case, CEO, Case Foundation and Elizabeth Gore, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Dell

“I go to a lot of empowerment events,” said Elizabeth Gore, entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell. “And while I like the motivational aspect, there’s not a lot of ‘Here’s what to do next.’” Gore spoke at the Summit about having tenacity in the face of hardship. She also talked about the value of community that an event like the Summit provides.

“People don’t realize that with entrepreneurship, it is very solitary,” Gore told SWAAY.
When you’re failing, you’re failing alone, and you’re failing in your head. The peer-to-peer mentorship here, getting out of your rabbit hole, is very important. A lot of folks here have faced similar challenges.”

Cindy Whitehead, CEO, The Pink Ceiling

One of the biggest themes of the invite-only Summit was inclusivity. Present at the event were founders from Mongolia, Sweden and other corners of the globe. One panel talked about diversity debt — the idea that companies that don’t start with diverse staff and boards find it much harder to incorporate diversity later on.

Sarah Salman, CEO of Salman Solutions

Unconscious bias is one of the biggest hurdles in venture capital, said Jean Case, CEO of the Case Foundation and chairman of the National Geographic Society Board of Trustees. Many venture capital firms are still largely run by white men, who tend to invest in founders who look like, and come from the same backgrounds as they do. Most capitalists only invest in their own geographical regions, centered around Silicon Valley. Yet women-led firms and diverse firms routinely outperform their counterparts.

“What we find is that women are seriously under-leveraged,” said Case. “Last year, only 10 percent of venture capital went to women-owned firms. Only 1 percent went to firms with an African American founder.”

Combatting that unconscious bias was one of the goals Jesse Draper had when she started her venture capital fund, Halogen Ventures, last August. Draper was already interviewing entrepreneurs on her internet talk show The Valley Girl Show when she made the commitment that at least half of her guests would be women in tech.

“I realized I could help this problem in two ways — one by interviewing 50 percent women in technology,” she said. “And then I also started funding them.”

“I’d find some interesting deals through the show and I’d write small checks — $10,000, $20,000 checks to these companies because I believed in them,” said Draper, whose father is Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper. To date, Draper has funded 17 female-founded firms.

“I try to support women primarily because I’m a fourth generation investor and I’m the first female, so you can see why I’m very focused on this problem,” said Draper. “I grew up in this community of entrepreneurs and investors, and I was always the only girl (in the room). And you know, not a ton has changed, unfortunately.”

She added, “I’ve had men on occasion say things to me like ‘Don’t you think you’re limiting yourself by only investing in women?’” And I’ll say, ‘No, I saw 250 deals in the last two month. I really can’t keep up.

“I have so many minority business owners. It all goes together. There is so much data on how diverse teams breed success.”

With Halogen, Draper isn’t just focused on funding women-led companies. She also trying to encourage women with disposable income to invest in other women. “I do early stage investing, which is the riskiest,” she said. “And that’s where women are not getting funding. Many people, unfortunately especially women, write smaller checks to women.”

She went on to say, “70 percent of my fund is female investors. Someone told me that women wouldn’t write checks for my fund, and they have primarily supported my fund. There’s only a couple of us doing this so I think it’s important that we encourage more women to finance more companies. I also encourage women to take more risks with their money.”

Risk and reward emerged as another theme for the conference. On several panels, speakers shared their biggest setbacks and most humiliating moments. Sheila Marcelo, founder of, talked about being mistaken for a secretary when she poured herself a cup of coffee in a room full of businessmen. Eileen Gittins, founder of the publishing company Blurb, was nearly laughed out of the room for pitching a business centered on dead-tree books during the heydey of the dot com bubble.

Karen Walrond, Director of Mission Advocacy & Storytelling at Brené Brown Education & Research Group

Carolyn Rodz, founder of the Summit, said the quality of the audience in the room helped contribute to that level of sharing. “There’s a certain element of authenticity here, but it isn’t just for the sake of authenticity,” she said. “The startup world — it’s very glamorized, but most people are struggling. We (women) have to work a little bit harder. We have to figure out how to use our skill sets.”

The idea behind Circular Board and Circular Summit is to help make the connection between female entrepreneurs and the people who want to invest in them, both financially, and on a deeper level. “When I had my company, I had my circle,” said Rodz. “The Circular Board is all about finding those people that support you, finding the people who have your back. As we find those people, our job as founders is to see you succeed.”

And while it might seem strange to hold a conference like Circular Summit in Houston instead of on one of the coasts, Rodz said Houston suits the Circular Board’s mission just fine.

“It’s very easy to tell the stories we always hear,” continued Rodz. “Our goal is in trying to broaden that pool,” she said. “Half of our company is in San Francisco, so Houston didn’t make sense on a lot of levels. But where it did make sense is in bringing resources to the people outside of those communities.” And it’s working, she said. “I am proud to say we have never paid a speaker. Nobody has ever told us no. People want to support these women.”

Brittanie Shey

Brittanie Shey is freelance writer based in Houston, Texas. She has written about creatives, entrepreneurs, social justice issues and pop culture for outlets including Modern Luxury, Houstonia Magazine, Voice Media and more. She's especially interested in highlighting overlooked people and stories from the Third Coast.

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