SW Womens edition

This weekend, the Maine College of Art will be a hotbed of new business ideas, partnerships and entrepreneurial ambition as 40 women gather to spend 54 hours building businesses from scratch.

The school, which has been lately increasing its focus on entrepreneurship, is the site for Portland’s fourth Startup Weekend, an event that brings together people interested in starting a business. Over the course of two and half days, people pitch their business ideas and then coalesce into teams around the best ideas. They then spend the entire weekend building that business — whether it’s a mobile app or a hardware product.

This Startup Weekend, however, tweaks the traditional model. It’s only open to women.

The decision to hold Startup Weekend: Women’s Edition was not in response to any perceived problems faced by women in Maine’s startup scene, says Sarah Guerette, one of the event’s organizers and director of the Women’s Business Center at Coastal Enterprises Inc. On the contrary, she says Maine’s entrepreneurial community is very supportive of its female members.

“The thing that amazes me about Maine is that folks go out of their way to help one another out with resources or connections and I see that happen across gender lines,” Guerette says. “So I think the entrepreneurial community in Maine has done a great job to create an environment and atmosphere that is encouraging and supportive of all entrepreneurs.”

And, in fact, women have been well represented during Portland’s last three Startup Weekends, which were open to both men and women, according to Liz Trice, one of the event’s organizers and the proprietor of Peloton Labs, a co-working space in Portland. She says the ratio is usually 50-50, sometimes 60-40, men to women, which is very good compared to some Startup Weekends held around the country that have 80-20 ratios.

However, one observation Guerette has had is that even in a supportive environment, there are some traditional gender roles that emerge and limit some opportunities for women to participate.

“The idea to have a women’s edition really stemmed from a desire to have a weekend where women get to play all the roles in the Startup Weekend, making the big decisions and being forced to do the analytic pieces and really the ones running the show and running the team,” Guerette says. “I think that’s an exciting opportunity for a lot of women and forces some of them out of their comfort zones and I think there’s a lot of learning and growth when that happens.”

As a result, organizers have been careful to frame the event as “women-positive, not male-negative,” says Guerette.

“It’s not about creating an environment where men aren’t welcome,” she says. “We just want to create a positive weekend for women.”

However, data does suggest that female entrepreneurs are at a disadvantage.

While 30 percent of all businesses in this country are owned by women, only 4 percent of the total dollar value of all conventional small business loans in the United States go to women business owners and only 7 percent of venture capital funding goes to female entrepreneurs, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Maine currently has an estimated 41,700 women-owned firms, according to the 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses report from American Express (the full report hasn’t been released yet, but some of the data has). That figure is a 36.3 percent increase from 1997, when Maine only had 30,598 women-owned firms. While that appears to be a healthy increase, it’s actually much slower than other states. In fact, Maine ranked 47th in the country for the pace of growth in the number of women-owned firms, beating only Alaska, West Virginia, Iowa and Kansas. The state with the steepest growth in the number of women-owned businesses was Georgia with a 132.2 percent increase between 1997 and 2015.

Maine does even worse when it comes to revenue growth for its women-owned firms. Revenue grew 14.4 percent at Maine’s women-owned firms between 1997 and 2015 — from $3.2 million to an estimated $3.7 million — ranking the state 50th in the country.

While those numbers may be distressing, it’s not a problem with a simple solution, nor one that can be solved over a long weekend of hacking and ideation (yes, it is a word).

In the end, Guerette and Trice say this Startup Weekend is just about providing a positive experience and removing the hurdles to launching a business.

Starting a business can be fraught with stressful questions about time and money, worries that are often enough to quash a person’s business idea before they even have a chance to blossom. But the wonderful thing about Startup Weekends is that it allows people to forget those nagging worries and removes those very real-world pressures, says Guerette and Trice.

“We ask you to commit to your team, to your idea, but it’s only for two days,” Trice says. “And people are often so surprised and delighted by how far they can go and how much fun it is when you remove those psychological barriers. So it’s exciting for us to give people that experience.”

There are already 40 women registered for this weekend’s event, but registration is open until Friday (the $99 ticket also comes with a free full pass to the upcoming Maine Startup and Create Week). So far, attendees range from seasoned professionals to college students, and will bring a hodgepodge of skills and experiences to bear in the process of building a business, Guerette says.

“It’s the mix of all those people that make Startup Weekend so magical,” she says.

This Startup Weekend is sponsored by Blackstone Accelerates Growth, Idexx, MECA, the Women’s Business Center at CEI and Gorham Savings Bank.