RALEIGH — Tatiana Birgisson knows a thing or two about taking risks.
The founder and CEO of Mati Tea, a tea-based carbonated energy drink, learned several years ago to be self-sufficient. After she lost the majority of her savings in the economic crash in 2008 and her mother lost her job at Microsoft, Birgisson began to question what she once took for granted.
“There’s always going to be some kind of risk. You choose the risk that you want to take,” she said. “I chose the risk of relying on myself.”
In the startup world, however, even someone as self-reliant as Birgisson can use some help. So the 24-year-old has gotten involved with Soar, a Google-backed program put in place to help four promising women-led local startups – including Mati Tea. Soar is one of several new initiatives in the Triangle working to encourage female entrepreneurs.
“(Soar) is a program that can really change something here,” Birgisson said.
As one of the mentored entrepreneurs, she meets regularly with Lauren Whitehurst of Side Star consulting firm and John Austin of Groundwork Labs, as well as Adam Klein, chief strategist at American Underground , and entrepreneurship and innovation veteran Kimberly Jenkins. The goal is to help her and the others tap into networks to which they might not otherwise have access and ultimately to get funded.
It’s a challenge all entrepreneurs face, but when it comes to attracting venture capital, women are at a distinct disadvantage.
According to a Kauffman Foundation study, only about 5 percent of venture capital is invested in women-led tech startups. Yet women are more capital-efficient, some studies have reported. An Illuminate Ventures study found that female-led private technology companies brought 35 percent higher return on investment and generated 12 percent more revenue than male-owned technology companies.
The inconsistencies are striking, and have caused many to speculate on the effect of gender bias and perceptions of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.
“It’s not good for our community long-term,” Klein said. “For wealth to be created broadly across the community, having strong female-led and minority-led companies is going to be really important.”
Soar relies on a network built up of both male and female mentors, a quality its leaders believe is crucial to its success.
“We intentionally did not want this to be just women-to-women,” Austin said. “There’s a place for (women-to-women networking) … but I believe to be successful, you’ve got to tap into the entire network of people who can help you.”
According to Sheryl Waddell of Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, women are looking for a different sort of networking.
Earlier this year, Waddell and Heather McDougall, founder and CEO of Leadership exCHANGE Global Leadership programs, launched e51, a women-to-women initiative.
So far, they have sponsored “Coffee Connections,” which are structured broad networking events, and more focused mentor and peer groups in a community that is mainly female.
“Women are looking for an increased sense of community, and they are looking to develop a female peer network,” McDougall said.
Are the two approaches in conflict? Not necessarily, both groups say.
“I think they’re trying to offer something different,” Austin said.
“We’re not going to re-create the wheel,” Waddell said, adding that the best entrepreneurs take advantage of many different programs.
Birgisson is taking the same approach, participating in both Soar and e51 events. In many ways, she is an ideal candidate for both programs. As a recent college graduate, she welcomes the expertise and connections that the Soar mentors offer.
Having made the transition from Duke University student testing recipes in a dorm room pasta pot to CEO of a scalable enterprise, she has the experience to help others, and she is passionate about getting more women involved in startups.
“I want to … make a name for the Triangle as the place for women entrepreneurs,” she said. “This is the best place to start a business.”