How This Program for Entrepreneurs Is Fostering Female Talent

November 17, 2016, 6:08 PM UTC
Courtesy of EY

For millennial entrepreneur Rita Gurevich, the collapse of a major financial institution spawned a startup.

Gurevich, who was working as an assistant vice president in messaging at Lehman Brothers when it went bankrupt in 2008, managed to turn her ill-timed experience at the bank into a burgeoning cyber-security business. Her firm, SPHERE Technology Solutions, has grown over 600% in the last four years by focusing on financial services and now is considering expansion into other industries.

Looking back at her tenure at Lehman, she recalls having an “aha moment” during the bank’s demise. “I was 24 at the time, I had a few pennies to my name, and I lost them all,” says Gurevich, whose business is based in Jersey City, NJ. “It was really, really scary. At the same time, I knew I had a job to do.”

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This year, Gurevich, 32, got some training in her new endeavor through EY’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women program, which selects a group of high-achieving female entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Canada to mentor every year. It’s part educational opportunity, part networking opportunity. It gives participants access to advisers and lessons in leadership, scaling, and financing. This year, the women met for a two-day orientation session in late October in New York, and are meeting again this week at EY’s five-day “Strategic Growth Forum,” which brings together high-growth companies in Palm Springs, California.

EY started the program in 2008 with five women. Its overall goal is to help increase women’s rate of business success. In the U.S., women start businesses at 1.5 times the rate of men, but male-owned businesses are 3.5 times more likely than women-owned firms to break $1 million in revenue, according to data provided by EY. “Women and minorities both receive less funding than male entrepreneurs,” says EY Americas Chairman Steve Howe. More women are starting up businesses, but they need more help, he says. “They are not as readily attracting capital and resources,” he explains.

The EY initiative has sparked rapid growth for its participants. According to the Babson College Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership, 2014 revenue for participating firms was 54% higher than before they joined the program.

Participants in the program must head businesses with an annual revenue of at least $2 million for the past two years, and also must demonstrate “ambitious company growth goals, energy, creativity, entrepreneurial purpose and passion,” according to EY. Execs at the consultancy like to describe it as a sorority for entrepreneurs: Once you’ve made it through the recruitment process, you’re part of the sisterhood for life.

Gurevich says the EY training provided her with valuable advice on her business pitch. “I’ve been doing this for eight years, but I found that my pitch was long, cumbersome, and had words that people didn’t recognize,” she says. “When you’re doing this day to day, you forget that not everybody knows your business.” As a result of the advice, she says she was able to come up with “really good punchlines” to make her case.

Fourteen entrepreneurs make up the 2016 EWW class, which was announced today. Of the group, eight are millennials. That make-up reflects the generation’s tendency to found startups. According to the recently-released 2016 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report, millennial entrepreneurs—ages 20 to 35—have launched about twice as many businesses as their baby boomer predecessors. They’re starting more companies, managing bigger staffs, and targeting higher profits than boomers.

Another EWW participant, Katie Warner Johnson, 32, was a ballet dancer-turned fitness instructor, but she realized she didn’t have a lot of career mobility in fitness and was looking for a way to “scale” herself. At the same time, she noticed a shift in the way professional women were spending their money—away from personal luxury and toward personal fitness. So in 2013, along with co-founder Caroline Gogolak, she launched Carbon38, which has generated over $20 million in revenue in its first three years.

The Los Angeles-based business with 32 full-time employees sells a variety of apparel—from yoga leggings to bomber jackets to shirt dresses—and is an effort to tap into what Warner Johnson views as the new clothing needs of working women. “We used to buy in three categories: active, work, and leisure,” says the Harvard graduate. “Now it’s all one category—you’re wearing your leggings to work.”

Warner Johnson, who just completed a funding round that raised $11 million from 65 investors, says getting going hasn’t been easy, particularly when pitching venture capitalists on the idea. “I went to all of these VCs and at one, a guy turned to me and said, ‘I don’t get it, I wear my old lacrosse shorts to the gym,'” she recalls, adding that the episode made her realize that there aren’t enough female investors.

While each millennial founder’s story is unique, they tend to start small, and often have co-founders. Take the approach of Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, CEO of Her Campus Media. She, along with co-founders Windsor Hanger Western and Annie Wang, met as undergraduates in 2008 and took a lifestyle print magazine for Harvard women online. They soon realized their readership included women at others universities, so in 2009 they launched an online magazine written by college women for all college women.

Now,—with more than 9,000 contributors and more than 5 million monthly users—has chapters at more than 300 college campuses nationwide Since the launch, Kaplan Lewis, 27, has expanded the business to include conferences and events, as well as marketing services for companies looking to reach college students. The Boston-based firm, which has 35 employees, counts Merck, Vera Bradley, TRESemmé, and IKEA among its clients. Kaplan Lewis says the business has been profitable since it started.

Like her fellow EWW colleagues, she says the venture hasn’t been without its challenges. “Starting a business is incredibly intimidating,” Kaplan Lewis says. “We started our company with no money and no business experience. There is still that scariness of taking that risk, but we were able to do it.”

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