Summit aims to support entrepreneurial women

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Next month, Arbor Midtown will welcome at least 200 attendees with a singular focus: to help women-owned and -led businesses thrive.

The Elevate Women’s Business Summit–scheduled for April 18–expects to appeal to founders, investors and entrepreneurs, including those considering a business venture. Organized by women in the region, the idea took shape after a Women’s Venture Summit in San Diego last year, where a few attendees from Rochester found each other.

“I don’t use this word lightly,” says Lori Sussle Bonanni, communications consultant at elssus, and an organizer of Elevate. “What happened at Women’s Venture Summit was magical. We were like, ‘Hey, we live here. Why do we have to go across the country to meet each other?’”

Natalie Sinisgalli-Kettavong, owner of NSP Studio and founder of Embolden, says she felt an undeniable support for female entrepreneurship at the West Coast event, which led to a sense of safety and honesty.  

“It felt very safe to be who you were, and be emotionally vulnerable and share your honest truth,” she says. “I never really felt that in Rochester, because it had never been facilitated, and never been the goal of an event.”

Elevate’s organizers hope to increase support for women who own and lead businesses in the region.

While Rochester has made space for women in corporate settings, support for female entrepreneurs tends to be siloed.

“We wanted to create kind of the antidote to that. We want this event to be about connection,” says Sinisgalli-Kettavong, bringing in prominent servant leaders who want to invest in women in the spirit of empowerment. 

Planning started a little over 10 weeks ago. Elevate organizer Flossie Hall, CEO of Stella Foundation, a nonprofit that supports women in every phase of the entrepreneurial journey, has lent her organization’s experience in planning such summits. 

“At Stella, we don’t have competitors. We don’t operate in (a) scarcity mindset. We don’t work in silos,” says Hall, who is based here and is an Elevate organizer and sponsor.

“Two percent of venture capital is going to women-owned businesses, less than 1 percent  to women of color, and only 4 percent of all women-owned businesses will ever reach $1 million revenue. So we cannot fight against each other. We have to work together to say here’s all the resources, here’s all the programs, here’s women who’ve done it, here’s women who are doing it, here’s how to do it. There is no keeping your cards close to your chest.”

Elevate will feature speakers from Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany and New York City as well as from national organizations. It is tactical, Hall says, with workshops on legal and financial strategies as well as marketing, sales and operations. Representatives from the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, SCORE and the Small Business Administration will be present as well. 

So far, more than 200 people have signed up for the event, which features a host of speakers on a packed agenda. Networking intentionally lies at the heart of the Elevate summit. Sitting next to a female entrepreneur can result in a powerful conversation, planting seeds for the future.

“Yes, there are workshops and speakers and things like that. But, really, it’s about connecting because usually there’s that sixth degree of separation,” says Yahaira Zapata, deputy director of economic development at PathStone Enterprise Center, who is also an organizer. “Every day is a different day (for an entrepreneur) so as you’re going through these phases, with these connections, you can say, ‘Hey, this is like my current situation, do you know someone that can assist?’ Or, ‘Where should I be plugging into? And I think that’s really, at the end of the day, going to be the most important thing about this event.”

Offering women tools to take actionable steps is important, Sinisgalli-Kettavong notes.

“We don’t want everyone to leave on this high … and then they don’t have that next step,” she says. “They don’t know what the next thing they’re supposed to do is, and then it just kind of dissipates.”

Organizers find that the Rochester community has welcomed the idea. (Other Elevate organizers are Latia Vaughan, founder and CEO of the U-Network and a keynote speaker at the summit, and Nina Piccini, studio manager and photographer at NSP Studio.) 

While the area hosts events for women, Hall would like Rochester to offer even more like larger cities do. She hopes the summit can be a catalyst and a cheerleader for other partners in this space.

“We’re hoping to just get really loud that women need specific resources, entrepreneurs need specific resources,” Hall says. “Women’s entrepreneurship is not the same as women in business or business in general, or entrepreneurship in general; it is different, and it feels different when you’re in a room specifically made for you by people who want to see you succeed.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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