On the penthouse floor of the historic FlatironCity building in Downtown Atlanta, a bright pink wall reads: “Successful Women Equal Successful Families, Communities and Cities.” The words were spoken by Mayor Kasim Reed as he tried to bring his vision of an incubator for women entrepreneurs to a reality. Well, he succeeded.
At the helm of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI) is Theia Washington Smith, who was in mergers and acquisitions at a Fortune 50 before getting the call from the city. Shortly after she joined, in partnership with Venture Atlanta and FlatironCity, WEI started accepting applications for their incubator.
Out of 108 applications, 35 were invited to pitch in front of a judging board. The requirements were business maturity of 2 years, total profit from business of $30,000 and/or a max of five employees.
Fifteen companies were chosen to spend 15 months at FlatironCity — working with mentors, using Microsoft’s technology resources (such as patent submissions), free event and overhead space, networking opportunities, and ongoing support to expand their businesses.
Here, Washington Smith talks about why the city needed this initiative, how the first cohort is doing, and her helpful pitch advice to entrepreneurs looking for funding.How did WEI come to be?
This is really a vision of Mayor Reed’s that he’s had even before he became mayor. He was actually campaigning for mayor and he met several women as he was going door to door who were running businesses out of their homes.
He really had the vision then to do something in the city of Atlanta, directly out of the city, to show support for women entrepreneurs and some of those unique hurdles that we typically face, with security being one that can often be diluted when you start to talk about all the other issues.
That vision really stayed with him all the way through until 2014, which is when I came on board. Ultimately, it became, how do we turn this into a best in class opportunity to support women entrepreneurs?
The three key issues for us were the financial capital, accessing the funding opportunities that you need to grow and scale your business, the social capital, social and human, so how do you create an organic community of support for women at an early stage who are interested in growing their businesses and then connect them to really solid and strong mentors who can help them progress as they’re growing?
What’s the demographic of this first cohort?
We are evenly split in terms of racial diversity, socioeconomic diversity, the different areas of the city where the women entrepreneurs came from, the age range is really cool. Our youngest entrepreneur is mid-20s, our oldest is early 60s. It’s just so interesting to see. Also because the technology space can often be not inclusive of women, particularly women of color. We wanted our incubator to be reflective of what the city looked like in its truest form for entrepreneurs, whether that be Main Street entrepreneurs, women who were in service-oriented businesses, food-oriented businesses, or tech businesses. How does this program differ from other incubators?
You know what’s interesting? The cumulative effect it’s had — it’s still the only initiative of its kind in the country, in the sense that the city has completely backed this. It literally came funded out of the city of Atlanta, which for me is fun because I get to go to council and talk about, “This is how we’re spending taxpayers’ money for these entrepreneurs.” You really are held accountable, which I think is incredibly important.
What are some tips other women entrepreneurs could apply to their pitches?
I think probably the one thing that stood out the most, and it was something we talk about all the time here, is really mastering your financials and understanding where you are today, where you plan to be, and then being able to speak to that so you’re always thinking bigger.
[During the incubator pitches,] a lot of the women, unfortunately, would stall when it came time to talk about their projections. I hear everything you’re saying about your customer base and your dreams and your brand, and that’s great, but on paper financially, if we were to take a look at your PNL, if we were to take a look at where you are revenue wise, how are you going to grow this business?
A venture capitalist recently said to me, “when you’re pitching your business, no one is in that room because they got lost. Everyone’s there expecting you to make an ask for funding. You’re there to raise capital. We want to hear about your financials. It may be a difficult conversation to bridge, but that’s what we’re in the room for.” It should be very intentional.
How have you seen this first cohort grow?
We already had the success by way of one of our entrepreneurs creating her first job. She’s hired two people. That’s one of our core metrics for success. We want to see these women economically empower other people through job creation. Again though, seeing them work together and start to hire one another. That economic impact, when you think about it, they’re contributing back dollars to another entrepreneur within the city of Atlanta and it’s a metric of success.
These businesses’ goals are to grow within the incubator. How can they know when scaling makes sense and when to stop?
I always say to entrepreneurs, if you are solving the problem that you’ve set out to solve, and if this for you is validating the passion that you have, that is the business. What you need to think more so about in terms of taking it bigger might be in terms of taking it better. How do you just make the business better? What can you always do to help supplement what you’ve got? You don’t want to dilute and spread yourself so thin that, to your point, you’re just trying to grow, grow, grow, and then you end up in a situation where not only did you not grow, but you ultimately went out of business.
How do you feel your past experience has helped you lead these women into bigger companies?
For me, that background has been very helpful, because it’s been able to hopefully help them think about, what does your exit look like? It doesn’t always have to look like you end up scaling to become the next fill in the blank, Facebook, or Twitter, whatever. It could be for you that you grow it to employee base of five people and set up shop downtown Atlanta and that’s your win. That’s what you ultimately want to do, or it could be an exit by way of folding into a larger company. It could be, which would be so fantastic for me and I’m hoping we get to see, two businesses coming together and you’re creating a joint venture and maybe that’s your scalable business model, and that’s how you grow the business.
It helps to think that coming from a place of knowing what it takes to think bigger and be more innovative in your approach, and be a problem solver. In order to have a business that’s really going to be able to grow the legs and have traction, it’s really coming from a place of innovation and being a problem solver in something that’s really for our community. What’s your one hope for the WEI program?
Hopefully that we create a real sense of community that, again, does show a strong signal of the city supporting them that ultimately just began with the mayor’s vision and dream. I think it’s just so cool to finally see it come to fruition for him, an idea, a vision he had even before he became mayor has been realized.
[images sourced from WEI website and social accounts]