Women’s Startup BOSSY Wins $3000 at Northwestern University Pitch Competition

 In Entrepreneurial Women, Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Funding

Entrepreneurs Sam Letscher and Isabel Benatar, just won $3000, taking second place for their startup at Northwestern University’s 2017 Summer Wildfire Demo Day pitch competition. Over the summer, they’ve created the new company BOSSY, an online directory and map of women-owned small businesses in and around Chicago. Their mission is to celebrate female business owners and to motivate consumers to buy from local, women-owned businesses. This last summer, they applied and got into Northwestern’s pre-accelerator program called Wildfire at The Garage, which is the university’s entrepreneurship hub. Through the program, they gained access to some funding, mentors and resources to help this first venture get up and running.

Isabel, what led you to think about becoming an entrepreneur?

Isabel: Well I’m from Palo Alto California and I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurship. My dad is an entrepreneur. So, I think that’s probably what made me excited about and open to the idea of going in that direction. And, I’ve always worked at smaller companies and I think that how I am personally matches up with the culture where everyone working on a little bit of everything and moving really quickly and learning as you go. That’s really exciting and fun to me. So I’m really glad that I’ve been working on BOSSY this summer instead of going off to some office building and sitting 9 to 5. We get to go out and talk to people and we’re learning so much. It’s really exciting.

Isabel, what are you studying in school?

Isabel: I’m studying learning and organizational change, which is a major within the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern. My minor is in the Business Institutions Program, with classes leading in a general business direction, but also more human-centric focused including how they learn, etc.

What’s your story, Sam?

Sam: I’m from just outside of Minneapolis. I have a lot of family in Chicago and know the city quite well, so that’s what brought me to Northwestern. Right now, I’m studying manufacturing and design engineering with a minor in global health plus a certificate in entrepreneurship. I think because of the very male-dominated spaces that I inhabit at Northwestern, I’ve come to realize how much that affects my ability to be confident and comfortable in this learning environment. Because only 10% of the students are women, it’s automatically less comfortable to speak up. In many ways, women are subtly taken less seriously in male-dominated spaces, especially in spaces like engineering and business entrepreneurship. It can be a bit like a boy’s club. So, I think getting involved in entrepreneurship has inspired me to look at the challenges that women face who own businesses.

So, how did you decide to become partners in your first business?

Sam: We’ve been friends since freshman year at Northwestern. We took an entrepreneurship class together and realized that we had compatible skills and interests. Then, a professor I took another course from encouraged students to just get started on something rather than wait until they got out of business school. It’s a time when you still don’t need any specific credentials to start a venture. So, Isabel and I got together to come up with some ideas.

How did you come up with the idea of BOSSY?

Sam: We first thought about helping people vote with their wallet by buying based on their values. We’re both passionate about empowering women and promoting gender equity and became super passionate about promoting local women-owned businesses, but had no idea how to start. We began by talking to women business owners – listening to their stories and struggles and decided we wanted to help by motivating consumers to buy from them. That’s how we landed on the idea of our online directory – listing women-owned brick-and-mortar local businesses across Chicago.

Isabel: There are many organizations out there that help women succeed in business already – lots of communities and networks. We’re different because we’re taking a consumer-facing approach – helping people who want to support women-owned businesses – find out who they are and where they are located.

What’s your goal with BOSSY?

Sam: Our goal right now is to become a community resource – the place that people can go when they’re looking for a woman-owned business. We want to make sure that as many businesses are represented as possible on the BOSSY map. We want the map and directory to represent the entire city of Chicago. And, we’re building a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of supporting women business owners. We want BOSSY to be a known destination online to find women’s businesses. Consumers may not realize that buying from women is an important component of supporting them.

Do you think there is a way for you to monetize your business?

Isabel: Yes, we do think there’s a way to monetize and be a for-profit company. We want to emphasize the experience of people getting out into their neighborhoods and engaging in their communities – talking to local owners of businesses. So, we’re hesitant to make our site an e-commerce place. We’re thinking about creating events that people can go to support local businesses or a program where they can buy certificates to bring into those businesses. No matter what our revenue model will become, our goal is to get people out in their neighborhoods and into local brick-mortar businesses owned by women.

Sam: We definitely have the goal to make this financially self-sustaining so that it can either be our living once we graduate or, at the very least, be a sustainable side project. We see our directory adding real value to local society. When people become part of BOSSY’s community, they’ll be part of a supportive and excited group of people. Right now, there aren’t great options out there for small businesses to advertise online. And there are sites that can be may unfairly hurt small businesses, like the review site Yelp (see this Business Insider article). And, Groupon isn’t a great option because small business are pushed to give up to 40% discounts – then they have to give half of that to Groupon. So, they’re actually losing money by giving great deals to customers that aren’t loyal. We’d  like to provide a valuable tool that women-owned businesses can use to fairly market their businesses and brings them loyal customers. That’s one direction we see to monetize it, but there are a lot of different options.

What unique barriers do women face when starting and running their own businesses?

Sam: So women face a lot of barriers when it comes to starting and running their own businesses. Women have a hard time gaining access to capital. A report from a Senate committee a couple of years ago found that, of every $23 given out in traditional business loans, only $1 goes to women business owners. We think that the ways in which people subtly take women less seriously in business indirectly contributes to the result of banks giving out smaller loans to women. The impact continues for years because they, with less money, women can’t hire more employees or grow their business as quickly. So, even though 36% of businesses are women-owned in the United States, their businesses only make around 12% of the revenue (S.B.A. Report Data). These are reasons that women need extra support – because the institutions that support business growth give them less support.

Another thing we’ve heard from many women business owners is that when women are running their businesses, they rarely have customers come up to them and ask them about their business. Instead, customers will go up to one of their male employees, even if they’re 10 years younger and working there for a month, and ask them if they’re the owner. It’s just one of the ways that internal biases and assumptions are shown.

Something else that women often encounter is trouble with contractors including maintenance and repair workers. Some of these professionals make the assumption that the women don’t know much about their physical space or about doing business and try to get them to pay extra for things that they don’t need.

What is the benefit to consumers and the community to support women-owned businesses?

Isabel: Female business owners are more likely to put their money back into their community, which is true on an international scale.There’s research that states that women reinvest $0.90 on the dollar of their income back into their communities, including children’s education, their family’s nutrition, etc. With men, it’s about $.30. So, it’s more beneficial to your neighborhood to support women businesses.    

Sam: Our directory and website gives an added opportunity to people to learn even more about their neighborhood and the small businesses that are there. Women-owned businesses and stores are part of what gives a neighborhood its unique culture and personality as opposed to big box retailers and chains. So, actually spending your dollars at those businesses are what’s going to allow women stay in business. If you are someone who believes in women’s economic progress, then you’re supporting that with your purchasing power. Go to our website and find women-owned businesses on our map and support them!  BOSSY website

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