Women Entrepreneurs Driving Economic Growth
It was an exciting day in the Church Street Exchange building in downtown Orlando on March 12, buzzing with some of the most prominent local leaders and entrepreneurs celebrating the grand opening of weVENTURE powered by Florida Institute of Technology in Orlando, formerly the Women’s Business Center (WBC) at FIT. Born in Melbourne, the organization’s new site is located in Orlando’s new co-working space, Canvs, a dynamic and innovative workspace for local entrepreneurs.
At its opening, Orange County Mayor Buddy Dyer expressed that the addition of weVENTURE in Orlando will further strengthen the region’s economic potential. “Florida Institute of Technology brings an award-winning program to Orlando with weVENTURE and adds another resource to our entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said. “Strategically located in Canvs, Downtown’s tech co-working space, the Center will help women start and grow businesses in our growing technology industry.”
Providing Opportunity and Driving Growth
weVENTURE powered by Florida Institute of Technology was created eight years ago through a $750,000 partially funded grant from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide opportunities for women entrepreneurs to drive economic growth in the region. Unique programs and services were created in order to accelerate the sustainable business growth of women-owned and women-led businesses, an underdeveloped market in the region and nationally – with less than 29 percent of businesses being owned by women.
Beth Gitlin became one of the stewards of this vision in 2007 when she moved her international trade consulting business to Central Florida. She signed up as a Melbourne center volunteer, shortly thereafter became a board member, and in 2012, was asked to fill the role of executive director. Gitlin oversees a regional network of centers (including locations in Melbourne, Orlando and Rockledge) that focus on increasing the economic growth and impact of women-owned companies. “What I have learned over these last several years, is that weVENTURE is a shared community of stakeholders (women and men) involving clients, board members, advisors, mentors, volunteers, strategic partners and donors, whom without their dedication and active involvement, we would not have been able to achieve such accelerated success,” she commented.
To date, weVENTURE has served 9,500 individuals, held approximately 900 business education sessions, and assisted in 360-plus business startups and expansions. In addition, its IGNITE 360TM mentoring program graduates on average have achieved 40 percent in revenue growth. Its success has been recognized with the national 2012 SBA Award of Excellence, the 2014 SBA Advocate of the Year for the State of Florida, and the 2015 SBA Southeast Region Women’s Business Center of Excellence Award. “We are constantly pushing boundaries by developing forward-thinking, client-centric programming for our market,” commented Wanda Lipscomb-Vasquez, Melbourne director, and bilingual in English and Spanish.
Reaching Beyond Borders
weVENTURE in Orlando was born out of an unfulfilled need the organization saw in the region: a center that exists to serve women entrepreneurs. Shea Glenny, Orlando director, and Leslie Hielema, board chair, have been instrumental in building innovative, customized programming targeted for the unique needs of the market. When they surveyed women in business, participants consistently stated that they needed assistance navigating the ecosystem in order to find the right resources for their business. Programs regarding preparing women entrepreneurs for gaining access to capital and leveraging technology in business were also a key need.
Gitlin commented, “A long-term vision is to lay the cornerstone for a women-managed investment fund specifically for woman-owned startups. Finally, we want to lead the way for Central Florida to become one of the top places for women entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses.”
“The center will shine a spotlight on women entrepreneurs,” said FIT President and CEO Anthony J. Catanese. “By raising the visibility of these successful women by showcasing the jobs they create, the wealth they generate and their achievements, we hope to create an environment that enhances their progress while inspiring future leaders.”
With its growing programs, increased community involvement and excitement, and its new strategic position in downtown Orlando, the bounds of what weVENTURE can accomplish for local female business leaders is proving to be limitless.