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What a difference a year makes. 

In one year, the conversations about the challenges women face in the technology industry broadly and the startup world specifically went from being segmented and novel to widespread and national. Major media companies like Newsweekchronicled in detail women’s experiences in startups and tech companies in Silicon Valley. The Valley’s tech giants released reports detailing the diversity, or the lack thereof, in their workforce. And thought pieces about why more women should and how they can be more involved in technology popped up almost as frequently as stories about startups.

Here in the Triangle, the movement to encourage more women to start their own businesses or join the growing local tech industry has almost taken on a life of its own. E51 went from being a one-time session for women to air their grievances about working in startups to co-hosting the Inaugural Innovative Women Conference at NC State University. Triangle Startup Weekend hosted its first weekend focused on increasing female attendance, and garnered over 70% participation from women. And local news sites regularly feature articles about the “women in tech/startups” issue. 

And then there’s Soar, backed by Google for Entrepreneurs’ #40Forward initiative with the mission to—“build a Triangle-wide community specifically geared to preparing female entrepreneurs starting scalable businesses for success.” The program launched less than a year ago and has already had an impact on four mentee women and their companies, and helped build momentum for the “women in tech” conversation in the Triangle through networking and educational events.

At a celebration hosted by the American Underground on its new rooftop patio last week, Soar celebrated its first year, its first class of entrepreneurs and their companies, and laid out a roadmap for the year ahead. We attended the event and caught up with three of the Soar mentees afterwards to hear about their experiences with Soar, get an update on their companies and ask their advice for the next class of applicants. 

SOAR Event 2015

Soar’s First Year

When Soar launched just under a year ago, the core team— Lauren Whitehurst, Co-founder of Side*, Kimberly Jenkins of Microsoft, Adam Klein, Chief Strategist of American Underground, Vickie Gibbs of Albright Digital (pictured top), and John Austin of Groundwork Labs wrote that they would consider Soar a success if it could hit three milestones. They met those milestones and then some, and in less time than originally. The team’s first sign of success was to regularly engage at least 20 female-led startups. Instead, over 300 participants (mostly women) attended the seven events they hosted. They set out to provide one-on-one mentoring to four female-led companies. Two of those companies have since raised money—the Soar goal was for one company to raise funds by June 2015. 

John Austin at Soar
Groundwork Labs' John Austin is one of the principal's at SoarTriangle. He's pictured here at the 2015 Soar celebration. Photo Credit: Zoe Litaker, http://zoelitaker.com

Despite meeting its own definition of success, Soar is recalibrating for its upcoming year. Like any smart startup, the team combined the success with lessons learned over the past year and has new ideas for initiatives to increase offerings and impact in year two.

Soar’s Next Chapter

Gibbs gave an overview of Soar’s future at the celebration and we caught up with her after the event to get more details. To continue Soar’s work, the team raised sponsorship dollars for the coming year from Google for Entrepreneurs and other yet to be named investors to continue the program for 2015, support a new part-time hire, and the creation of new programs. The total dollar amount is currently undisclosed.

In 2015, Soar will continue the mentor program and educational events—although Gibbs would like to see more men attend the events this year. In addition, Soar will work to “expand the funnel” of women in startups by partnering with nearby universities to gather and analyze data on successful female-led companies. The group hopes to compile best practices and lessons learned to help other women as they ponder whether to start a business. 

Soar’s key activity, the mentorship program, will be tweaked slightly for the next class of mentees. Some of the key changes are:

Soar will select up to eight (up from four last year) female entrepreneurs to mentor
The deep mentoring will be split into two main phases—all mentee companies will participate in the first phase consisting of tailored deep mentoring, and up to four of the companies will continue into the second phase. 
Mentoring will be ad-hoc initially then move into more structured, half-day sessions. Each company will receive 6 half-day mentoring sessions in each phase.
Soar’s core team will continue mentoring, but will tap into its long list of advisors this year as well (if you want to be an advisor contact Soar).

Soar Companies

Two of Soar’s four mentees from the inaugural year—MaryAnne Gucciardi founder of Dragonwing Girlgear and Justine Chow Kmiecik Co-Founder and CEO of BaseTrace—were on hand to update the crowd on their companies and how they’ve progressed over the past year. We caught up with them, and Tatianna Birgisson, founder of Mati Energy to get their perspective on their companies’ progress over the past year, Soar’s role in their progress, and any advice they have for this year’s Soar applicants. We’ll follow up with an update on Melissa de Rosier’s Adaptive Health Systems (now Personalized Learning Games) soon.

Mary Ann Gucciardi Soar
Photo Credit: Zoe Litaker, http://zoelitaker.com

MaryAnne Gucciardi, Dragonwing
Gucciardi's company Dragonwing Girlgear seeks to empower young women through its uniquely designed athletic performance wear for pre-teen and teen girls. Gucciardi expressed many ways that Soar has assisted her in scaling the business: "Soar's mentoring helped us become more efficient by encouraging testing and focus."

Specifically, Soar helped her narrow her sales channels and focus on pursuing those that aligned most closely with her business's goals and mission—e-commerce and single level marketing through a team of independent specialists. Soar also helped her identify potential partners like Girl Scouts, who were impressed with the high quality of Dragonwing's products and now sell them in their online store. Locally, Gucciardi partners with the Capital Area Soccer League, Girls on the Run and Fleet Feet.

Justine Chow of Soar
Photo Credit: Zoe Litaker, http://zoelitaker.com

Justine Chow Kmiecik, BaseTrace
BaseTrace is the company behind a, “breakthrough application of cutting-edge DNA tracer technology for environmental monitoring.” Or in other words, technology designed to follow industrial fluids like natural gas to find leaks and trace them back to their source. Kmiecik was the co-inventor of the technology and has been working full-time on the product since 2012. 

She says the company has continued to mature over the past year, hitting milestones like carrying out demonstration tests with a large utility it will co-present with at a nuclear industry workshop this summer. It also raised $100,000 in a bridge convertible round of funding this past year. Kmiecik said that the advice she received—particularly around fundraising strategy and pitching—was valuable in helping to raise money and will help in future fundraising rounds.

Tatiana Birgisson Mati
Tatiana Birgisson is founder of Mati Energy, a healthy tea-based energy drink made in Durham.

Tatiana Birgisson, Mati Energy
Birgisson is probably the most recognizable Soar mentee. She and her company, Mati Energy, were recently featured on CNN Money, and regularly make the front pages of local news sites. Later this week she'll represent the Triangle at Google’s Demo Day. But in case you’re uninitiated, Mati Energy is the company behind the healthy energy drink, MATI. 

In the past year, Birgisson says Mati went from $15,000 in revenue to surpassing $100,000—a 666 percent in a year. Birgisson says her company’s growth is a “testament to the value of the Soar program.” In addition to the mentoring and publicity the program provided her—she says the media publicity MATI received in association with Soar increased her sales at Whole Foods by 40 percent—her mentors were “instrumental” in helping her navigate and prepare for the NC IDEA grant application process. She won a grant late last year.

She also credits Soar for helping her make connections with heavyweights in the industry like Jonathan Prinz, a former Coke branding consultant who helped Birgisson refine the MATI brand and messaging. And as a true testament to the types of relationships the Soar program has the potential to build, one of Birgisson’s mentors is joining the company’s board.

Advice for Applicants

Gucciardi advises Soar applicants to make time to attend the educational events because they are excellent. Also, be ready to work hard, “because this is a program that can take a business to the next level.”

Kmiecik encourages applicants to “be determined,” and take advantage of the resources and the Triangle’s “great community” of people who are willing to share experiences and connections.

Birgisson’s advice for Soar applicants is to demonstrate early traction and the ability to scale within the timeframe of the Soar program, to plan to fundraise during the program to get the most out of it and to remember to be “coachable” and to take advantage of the mentor’s time and resources.

Gibbs also offered some advice to Soar applicants—“do not be shy about applying,” and “be honest about your gaps as you see them.”

The application opens April 1st and can be found at soartriangle.co