Doyenne Group Raising $400K Angel Fund For WI Women Entrepreneurs

8/28/14Follow @JeffEngelXcon

The Doyenne Group, a Madison, WI-based volunteer organization serving women entrepreneurs, is raising a $400,000 angel investment fund to help grow the number of women-led companies in Wisconsin.

Doyenne leaders discussed the fund this week at Madison’s Forward Festival, an eight-day showcase of local technology and startups.

During the tech festival, Doyenne organized several discussions and events on the topic of women in entrepreneurship, including a pitch contest featuring five Wisconsin startups run by women. Kathryn Jackson, founder and CEO of Milwaukee-based Protect Your Pumps, was awarded a $5,000 grant for winning the competition. The other participants were Milwaukee-based Find My Spot; FillMyRecipe and Local Thyme, both based in Madison; and ScanTribution, which is relocating from Racine to Madison.

Doyenne was founded in 2012 by Heather Wentler and Amy Gannon, who were sick of going to startup networking events and only seeing a handful of women in the room. Running the group as volunteers, they have signed up 30 members and created programs like the Doyenne Retreat, a weekend-long event for mentoring women entrepreneurs.

Now, Gannon and Wentler want to take Doyenne to the next level. The $400,000 angel fund, which they hope to raise by January, would be used to make 40 investments of $5,000 seed grants over the next two years in Wisconsin-based women-owned businesses, primarily in the Madison area. It would also make a series of follow-on equity investments of between $20,000 and $50,000 each.

The seed grants are intended to pull women entrepreneurs “out of the woodwork” and offer them business coaching and mentoring services early on, Gannon said. Angel and venture capital funds, as well as accelerators, are seeking women entrepreneurs to invest in, she added.

“Where are they going to find them?” Gannon said. “We’ll be sending deals their way.”

In addition, the group wants to raise $300,000 to pay for its operations, which would allow Wentler to work full-time running Doyenne. (Wentler’s background is in elementary education, and she also runs an education-related startup, Fractal. Gannon is interim dean of the Edgewood College School of Business in Madison.) Doyenne is in talks with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. for a $500,000 matching grant, Wentler said.

“We want to make Madison one of the best cities in the nation for women entrepreneurs,” Gannon said.

Doyenne’s efforts come at a time when women entrepreneurship is growing nationwide, but Wisconsin lags the rest of the country, said Erica Gruen, the former Food Network CEO and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who spoke Tuesday during Forward Fest. A study this year found that women are starting 1,288 net new businesses per day, double the rate from three years ago, and there are more than 9.1 million women-owned ventures in the U.S., up from 8.6 million a year ago. The study ranked Wisconsin 46th for combined “economic clout” of its women-owned businesses, a statistic that measured states by growth in the number, revenue, and employment of women-owned companies from 1997-2014.

The overarching problem isn’t so much about getting women to start companies, it’s about pushing those businesses to “grow bigger and grow faster,” Gruen said. The barriers to growth include setting the right targets, women’s perceptions about their ability to be successful, and access to money, she said.

Doyenne aims to tackle those issues and boost women entrepreneurship first in Madison, and then statewide, Gannon said.

“The more women entrepreneurs we have, the better our local economy is [and] the better our state economy is,” Gannon said.

Doyenne’s pitch contest this week demonstrated Wisconsin’s diversity of ideas and aspiring women entrepreneurs. Three of the presenting entrepreneurs were ethnic minorities, with businesses ranging from healthy food recipes to apartment-search software to a device that makes it easier for nonprofits to track their donations.

The winning startup, Protect Your Pumps, developed a transparent adhesive that attaches to the bottom of shoes and serves as a buffer between the shoe and the ground—thereby keeping them from getting scuffed up and helping to avoid costly shoe repairs, Jackson said. The former Neiman Marcus sales associate founded Protect Your Pumps in 2012 and worked with contract manufacturers to develop the product.

Her company is generating more than $100,000 in annual sales, and the staff includes a part-time employee and three interns, she said. She plans to put the $5,000 prize toward sales, marketing, and research and development.

“I’m really excited,” Jackson said after winning the contest. “I’m just trying to take this thing to the next level.”

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon