When Atlanta’s Julie Salisbury started her public relations firm in the late 1980s, she was one of the only female entrepreneurs in what was then a male-dominated field.
Since then, says the founder of The Bee Colony, things have changed rapidly in Atlanta. The number of women running their own media-related firms has steadily increased.
Atlanta has a total of 202,900 women-owned firms, according to a report published by American Express OPEN in 2015. That makes it the country’s seventh largest metropolitan area in terms of female-run businesses.
“There’s a spirit of ‘you can do this’ among women entrepreneurs,” Salisbury says. “There’s a sense among the community that we’re here to lift each other up.”
Take one of Salisbury’s personal heroes, Sara Blakely. Four years ago the founder of the Atlanta-based company Spanx was named the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how Sara Blakely’s story will unfold,” says Salisbury. “She started a foundation that’s designed to channel her business success and give back to female entrepreneurs.”
Blakely has continued to give back to women. The Sara Blakely Foundation provides entrepreneurial grants and educational training to young women globally in places like South Africa.
Opportunities for women starting their own businesses are popping up all over the place. Take Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, for example. The incubator program offers rent-free office space, among other perks, for a number of female entrepreneurs starting new companies.
Funding opportunities for women entrepreneurs are increasing as well. One of the largest local organizations is the Atlanta Women’s Foundation. The foundation has invested more than $13 million in nonprofits that provide women of all ages with the resources to be self-sufficient.
New on the scene is Valor Ventures. Backed by entrepreneur David Cummings, the firm is investing in female-led companies starting out in the consumer tech and health care tech industries. Valor is expected to raise at least $20 million this year.
When it comes to providing training for women business owners in Atlanta, Bernie Dixon is your woman. Four years ago, she founded a women entrepreneurship program called LaunchPad2X (the name refers to the two X chromosomes women carry).
“We focus on how a successful CEO can manage through some very difficult business situations,” says Dixon. “In the end, that builds confidence in a big way.”
The impact of LaunchPad2X has been substantial. The 75 women-led companies that have graduated from the program have contributed more than $100 million to Atlanta’s economy.
Anna Ruth Williams, founder of tech PR firm AR|PR, enrolled in LaunchPad2X in 2013 because there were areas where she felt she needed more guidance. Since then, she’s continued to take LaunchPad2X ‘s monthly alumni courses because she doesn’t want to be complacent about her level of knowledge of the startup world.
Williams says now that AR|PR has proven itself by doubling its business year-over-year, she wants to take advantage of Atlanta’s strong corporate sector.
“There’s an abundance of corporate innovation in the market that can enable my agency to move more upstream,” Williams says.
There are plenty of other ways for women working in early-stage companies to connect. Startup Chicks helps women entrepreneurs, especially those in tech-related startups, to meet up with each other.
Startup Chicks founder Jennifer Bonnett says that half of the women who attend the monthly meetings are minorities. The average age is 40, although the women she personally coaches tends to be in their late 20s to early 30s.
“The main issue I see and still see with women entrepreneurs is that they’re scared to get big,” Bonnett says. “One woman had a very successful business approaching $1 million in revenue. But she had zero employees and she was doing everything herself.”
Bonnett says the woman thought, “no one could do it the way she could.” Her fears were confirmed, she assumed, when her search for a chief operating officer didn’t go well.
“Really what happened was a bad hire,” Bonnett says. “I helped her put processes in place to prevent bad hires, and now she’s got a $10 million business with seven employees.”