Four women, whose resumes could land them in top-paying corporate positions, discussed how they chose the nonprofit path instead, during the “Social Entrepreneurs Changing the World” event Oct. 19 at Montclair State.
The panel discussion was part of the fourth annual Women Entrepreneurship Week, a program celebrated this year at 76 universities and nonprofits in 22 states in the U.S. and 15 countries all over the world. Montclair State started WEW in 2014 as a way to inspire women entrepreneurs, and give college students all over the world the chance to network with female founders. Nearly 150 people attended the Oct. 19 event.
Overcoming challenges was one theme of the evening. In a keynote address to kick off the event, Alfa Demmellash, co-founder and CEO of Rising Tide Capital, shared her journey from Ethiopia to Harvard to Jersey City, where she started her nonprofit that helps urban entrepreneurs start businesses. Her goal in launching RTC was to provide economic opportunity to others, after she overcame hardships growing up in Ethiopia.
Later, as a panelist, Demmellash talked about the importance of leading from vulnerability and finding your power from that. But she also advocated having fun, letting yourself relax and finding trusted allies you can quit to (where it won’t really count) when you’re feeling discouraged.
Denisse Rojas Marquez co-founded Pre-Health Dreamers to help undocumented students pursue health care careers after undocumented relatives had trouble accessing medical care. Marquez said it could be hard to find undocumented people willing to tell their story publicly—an important tool for fundraising and building support. But eventually the people she was helping would realize “we’re not going to gain anything if we stay quiet,” she said. Marquez also mentioned that her age—she started Pre-Health Dreamers in her late teens—made funders think it was merely a student group. “It was really tough keeping my morale up,” she said.
Susan MacLaury, co-founder and executive director of Shine Global, a nonprofit film production company, said she was surprised to be invited to speak on a panel of entrepreneurs, because it wasn’t a word she had ever considered to describe herself. But throughout the discussion, she exhibited hallmarks of entrepreneurship, such as her belief that starting a nonprofit “takes courage, but even more than that it takes a passion.”
Laurel Dumont, a former public school teacher who has been involved in many entrepreneurial endeavors in Newark, advocated the power of never being afraid to ask. She shared how her nonprofit applied for funding that seemed like a long shot, and learned that hearing “no” is part of every entrepreneur’s experience, but sometimes won big for Newark. She advised aspiring entrepreneurs to do their homework, engage various stakeholders to understand the problem and hone their solution, and then to dive in and see what happens.
Funding was a big topic of conversation during the event. The moderator, Linda Lacina, managing editor of Entrepreneur Media, noted fundraising isn’t a transaction but a relationship, and the panelists agreed that they needed to keep building a base of supporters.
Marquez said she found that once her organization landed one well-known funder, it “gave a little more security” to other funders considering a gift or grant. MacLaury agreed, and also talked about a connection that led to the actress Eve Longoria providing three-quarters of the funding needed for a documentary about American child migrant farm workers. Dumont echoed the importance of referrals, noting many Americans donate $25 here, $30 there because someone they knew asked. “They don’t remember the cause, but the friend who asked,” Dumont said.
MacLaury said Shine Global’s board started as close friends and family, then people with expertise and then they tried to add wealthy people. “It’s like building a web,” she said.
Dumont, currently senior director of New Ventures at Leadership for Educational Equity, said it can be tough to be told “no” in fundraising, but she also figures the rejection is universal for nonprofit leaders. She said she might choose to take on the “no” if she believes there is bias involved but otherwise just walks away, noting you don’t have to fight every fight. But Dumont did advocate diving in to get started, instead of waiting for everything to be perfect. “Do what you can after hours. Do what you can with a small grant,” she said. “If you don’t put your idea forward, it will never sprout.”
All photos courtesy of Keith Muccilli Photography, LLC