By Sharon Fisher
According to studies such as Merchant Maverick’s Best States for Women-Led Startups in 2021, Idaho ranks as low as 41st. “Limited venture capital investments, low average income, and a higher-than-average income tax rate place Idaho just inside the bottom 10,” the study notes. Incidents such as Idaho college professors saying women don’t belong in tech fields don’t help. But networking organizations focused on women are working to improve that.
Running a woman-owned business in Idaho
A number of Idaho tech CEOs noted that they had run into issues at times.
“For me, what it comes down to is that women with big ideas are seen as risky and naive and men with big ideas are seen as brave and bold,” said Joni Kindwall-Moore, CEO of Snacktivist Inc. -- which won the inaugural Trailmix pitch competition in 2018 -- in an email message. “Idaho is no different, as this bias is seen everywhere. Women-led businesses are expected to fit into a box and not be disruptive. They are expected to play the common cultural expectations that we have for women, which is to provide a basic good or service, not to change the way we do business or revolutionize an entire industry. A woman leading a disruptive startup with the goal of becoming a global enterprise makes many people uncomfortable.”
Kindwall-Moore is embracing her role, becoming certified as a woman-owned business from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. “Wow, what a process!” she said. “We actually worked on it for two solid years. It was an enormous undertaking. But I am glad that you can’t get it illegitimately because running a women-led enterprise is a unique experience, with different challenges than male-led companies encounter.”
Alexis Rankin, cofounder along with her husband of Chillow, an app to help people find roommates, related something she’d been told by a mentor while she and her husband were deciding which of them should give the pitch. “’Just know that when a man gets up there to pitch for an investment, he gets to provide all the reasons why he will succeed. As a woman, prepare to get up there and convince everyone why you won’t fail,’” she said. “He said it with the best of intentions, and had I not been as strong and confident a woman as I am, it might have hindered me.” As it is, it fueled her instead, she said.
“I hate to say it, but he’s not wrong,” Rankin said. “I have noticed it, I have recognized it, I don’t let it get to me, but it’s the truth.” Fortunately, she said, things are improving. “We’re seeing it a little less and less,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’s the culture of Boise that’s changing, but it’s the culture of business that’s changing.”
“There are very few women business owners in Idaho, especially at the size and scale that Simply Eloped is currently at,” said CEO Janessa White, in an email message. “I’m not sure what the catalyst is, but I’ve definitely observed it to be a scarce landscape.”
“Idaho has some challenges, but it is important, as female leaders, that we must create opportunities for ourselves and others,” said Amy Gile, CEO of Silverdraft Supercomputing, who said she’d had a good experience as a female founder. “My way of looking at it is that, as a woman in business, the way to have an impact is by being successful.”
Building community through networking
What can also help – whether it’s through training, mentorship, or simple encouragement – are networking organizations, both women-specific and for everyone.
“We need organizations that can help with support, relationships, and funding opportunities,” Gile said, noting that she is involved with the Idaho Technology Council and Idaho Women In Technology. “I really feel the best way to improve is to connect with other women doing amazing things.”
Connections helped Allison Corona move forward with her business, Chicana Foods, which won the Impact Award in the Trailmix pitch competition this year. “Boise – possibly all of Idaho – lacks commercial kitchen spaces for food startups,” she said. “I was lucky enough to have been connected to another woman-owned food business, The Kula Connection, and through her we were able to rent her space after hours. I don’t know that we would have been able to launch when we did if it weren’t for her.” She has also been working with the Idaho Women’s Business Center, she added.
Some women tech CEOs said they hadn’t gotten much help from women’s business support groups. Kindwall-Moore, for example, based in Post Falls, said there weren’t many such groups in her area. “That being said, I love the Idaho Women’s Business Center, and I wish I lived closer,” adding that she had also received training from a women’s business center in Spokane. She has also worked with the Idaho Small Business Development Center, she said.
Idaho’s technology community has been very welcoming of Simply Eloped, and White got her first advisor through Trailhead and has participated in Boise Entrepreneur Week a number of times. “I haven’t participated in help or support for women-owned businesses because, frankly, I haven’t needed it,” she said.
“I reach out to mentors and those I admire, women or men, when I need it,” Rankin said. “I have a business coach who holds me accountable. I must be honest – I’m not a part of any women-run organization, and it’s simply because I don’t have the time.”
Idaho organizations that support women
Several networking organizations – themselves women-owned business startups – have sprung up in the past few years to help support Idaho women business owners.
Women Ignite, which holds an annual conference called WICON, was formed by Sheli Gartman. Originally, she started her own mortgage brokerage as a 26-year-old single woman. “I was a unicorn,” she said. “I would go to conferences and be asked, ‘Where’s your husband?’” or asked in a job interview whether she was going to have children. “I was taken aback because this dude was lighting himself on fire. Why would he do that? You know they’ve had training.”
Gartman then got into public speaking about personal development, and about ten years ago, she was challenged to start a women’s event. “There’s tons of women’s events, with great intentions, and similar speakers saying similar things,” she said. “Women know we’re not paid proportionally to men. I didn’t see a lot of solution-based ideas.” Moreover, women didn’t work together, she said. “Young professionals were over here, and classic professionals were over there,” she said. “It was very cliquey, very siloed.”
Gartman’s organization is starting to evolve into executive coaching, retreats, and professional and personal growth, she said. Her organization doesn’t have members per se, just events such as LinkedIn workshops, some of which are free.
“A lot of men are the big funders of small business,” Gartman said. “If you can’t bootstrap it or go into a ton of debt, the pie’s smaller for women to get funding. Women need to be a part of that, the way they pitch, the way they negotiate. Men are taught all those things. Women are taught to be kind, be graceful, don’t show too much emotion, especially in conservative places. We need to arm women for battle for funding and for staying the course. Their piece of pie is smaller, and women aren’t that collaborative together. Whenever there’s a smaller piece of pie, they get super competitive, because it’s a matter of survival.”
The Women Innovators Network was founded about five years ago by Alecia Murray, who serves as president. Wanting to give back to the community, she and her co-founder started asking around. “We got a ton of feedback that there was not a lot of support for women in tech careers,” she said. After meeting with the Women Tech Council in Utah, they decided to form a similar organization in Idaho, but called it “innovators” because they didn’t want to limit it to women involved in technology. “We wanted to be more broad,” she said. “Tech touches everything.” Their founding sponsors with TSheets/Intuit, HP, and In Time Tec.
Currently, the organization is focusing on young women – junior high, high school, college and some professionals – and holds events once or twice a year that up to 300 girls attend. “We’ve impacted more than 1,000 girls to give them more visibility on careers – not just sitting behind a desk and coding but aligned with their interests and sharing the possibilities of what a career looks like,” she said.
Jenny Anderson founded Maggie earlier this year, an organization with the goal of connecting women from underrepresented communities and nonprofessional backgrounds with high-paying, hard-to-fill jobs in tech sales. “Imagine you are a single mom, working in retail, making less than $30,000 a year,” she said. “My company will provide a training curriculum to teach you the foundations of tech sales, provide a community of mentors in tech sales, and then provide job placement assistance,” paid for by the hiring companies.
“In tech sales there’s a whole movement around a need for more women,” Anderson said, adding that women make up only about 1 in 4 sellers. “Companies are prioritizing diverse candidates. There’s one candidate for every 12 software jobs.”
Moreover, women can get these lucrative jobs without having to move to major cities, Anderson said. “It’s all remote,” she said. “If you’re a woman who lives in Boise, where 76% of us can’t afford to be first-time homebuyers, now suddenly the world is your oyster, because you have access to the wages of tech companies.”
Such jobs can give women – and their children – a path out of poverty, Anderson said, drawing from her own experience. “If you spend more than seven years in poverty, your chances of getting out are 16%,” she said. “Sales has afforded me a living wage that’s much higher than the average. If I can help some women get aware of these positions – which don’t require a degree or experience, just coachability and charisma and communication skills and curiosity – if I can help women who have those things find their way out of low-wage jobs, I can show them their own path out of poverty.”
What do Idaho’s women-owned businesses need?
Not surprisingly, what businesses owned by women need isn’t particularly different from what businesses owned by men need: Money, growth, and promotion.
“Two things,” said Anderson. “First is a platform where I can get the message out to women, ‘This is an opportunity for you. Here’s this woman who’s helping women like her find six-figure roles that don’t require a ton of experience.’”
The second is funding, said Anderson, who is largely bootstrapping her single-person company. “I would love the investment to come from Idaho, rather than huge VCs in big cities,” she said. “I don’t think they have the kind of knowledge of what it’s like to be in a rural or micropolitan area and understand that I don’t have an opportunity for a job here.”
Funding is a common refrain. “We are closing an investment round to finance growth,” said Kindwall-Moore. “We are looking for investors. That is the biggest thing we need now. We are poised and ready to enter a rapid growth phase, so capital will be critical to scale.”
“My business needs what every business needs: Opportunities for growth, and partnerships,” Gile said.
“We need money for equipment purchases that will help us scale,” Corona said. She is also looking for more opportunities like Trailmix to promote her business, she added.
“We need an investment,” Rankin said, describing several partnerships that Chillow now has with a variety of apartment complexes in the Northwest. “We’re at the point where we are seeking our first round of investment.”
“My business most needs capital right now -- we're fundraising!” White said. “We're embarking on building a new product and are seeking outside capital for it.”
“Sponsorship is always helpful,” said Murray. “The less time we have to spend fundraising, the more we can create value.” In addition, her organization is partnering with Idaho Women In Technology on a mentorship circle and is looking for people to get involved in a pilot program. “It’s not just ‘I’m a mentor and you’re a mentee’ but more of an equal sharing of how we can help one another,” she said. Her organization is also looking for people with video production experience to reach younger girls about diverse women in exciting careers, she added.
In addition to funding, Gartman is looking for training, adding that she loves the Idaho Women’s Business Center. “How do you go in and negotiate? That’s an intimidating process,” she said, describing how she’s been at a table with eight men drilling her about her qualifications. “If we don’t build women’s confidence -- not bumper stickers, but the real thing, their worth and how to articulate that -- they can be the best whatever it is and not get the funding and opportunities to collaborate,” she said. “One-to-one is great, but one-to-many is where the money is. Women don’t even want to promote themselves on LinkedIn. That’s not men in our way -- that’s us in our way.”
Sharon Fisher is a digital nomad who writes about entrepreneurship.