Creating Spaces for Women Entrepreneurs in NC

Lauren Marturano

There’s rarely a seat at the table for women founders, but policymakers can help 

I’m a woman working in male-dominated tech—more specifically, I’m a Charlotte-based startup founder and CEO of Zinnia—a software company that provides offsite and corporate event planning services for organizations to support and cultivate deeper working relationships. By day I am building a tech company to pave the path for other female founders, and by night, I attend events and build out my own network with entrepreneurs in my home community and across the country. But when I’m gearing up to speak on stage, I see a pattern: more often than not, the seats to my left and right are filled with people who don’t look like me.

It’s 2023, and by now, I thought I’d see something different.

Women are increasingly pursuing entrepreneurship and solving important issues in many communities—but in comparison to their male counterparts, they are underrepresented. The number of startups with at least one woman founder has steadily grown over the years. And here in North Carolina, 44.2 percent of businesses are woman-owned—and more are launching every day! But nationally, we need to catch up. The number of startups with at least one woman founder hovers around 30 percent, and when it comes to leadership, just 14 percent of startups have a woman CEO.

My first team at Microsoft consisted of all men. They were incredible allies, but I realized it was important for me to lay the groundwork for other women to work in tech and become founders as well. I learned how to present myself with confidence and stature like my male colleagues, knowing I could go toe to toe with my capabilities.

Leaving the corporate world, the dynamic didn’t change. Every startup conference was dominated by men. The panels I saw rarely boasted women founders. Just as the big funding announcements skew toward men.

While frustrating, I knew that I was uniquely positioned to change the dynamic and statistics and got to work.

Scaling Zinnia has been the best experience. I made all the typical first-time founder mistakes with my last company and took what I learned to build a strong foundation for growth this time around.

I started by building the best team. Our team is specially curated with not only the best talent, but the best people on a human level. Our ethos is based on the power of human connection and community, and we live it daily.

I also rely heavily on my founder community and investor mentors. gWen (growing women’s entrepreneurship network) has provided a safe haven of women founders here in North Carolina. My investors have been integral in bringing me into the most important conversations. When I started, all I wanted was to provide jobs to good people and inspire women to go for gold. Zinnia has grown into its own community and I couldn’t be more grateful.

What women innovators need is simple: we need more support across the board—from funders, policymakers, and fellow innovators.

Startups with all-male founders are more likely to secure capital than startups with women founders. Recent reports show that women-led startups receive less than three percent of all VC investments. And women are also underrepresented in the investor community. In 2020, 65 percent of venture firms had no women partners. These numbers are even worse for women of color who face even more barriers.

Policymakers have the power to ensure there are more opportunities for women founders to find success—like easing caregiver burdens, which fall disproportionately to women. They should also explore opening up more avenues for directing capital to entrepreneurs in need. Recently the SEC has been considering changing the “accredited investor” definition by raising its financial thresholds—limiting the ability of would-be investors to build wealth and invest in the innovation ecosystem. The ecosystem is already lacking investors who are more likely to invest in women entrepreneurs, and this would make that worse. Policymakers should be looking for ways to encourage greater participation in startup investment.

Without the growing contributions of women founders and entrepreneurs, the startup ecosystem becomes more monolithic, failing to live up to its potential for creating change and generating whip-smart solutions for global problems. Diversity in the innovation ecosystem means more and better innovation. We should be hearing the voices, perspectives, and experiences of communities across the country that see firsthand where the market is currently falling short, and that requires women having a seat at the table.

The next time I’m at an event, I want to see the faces of women innovators sitting next to me, who are doing the work to make North Carolina—and other states and communities across the country—thriving ecosystems for everyone who lives there.

Lauren Marturano is the Founder and CEO of Zinnia, a platform to automate offsite and corporate event planning, backed by Atlanta Ventures. She hails from a long stint in corporate at Microsoft and Salesforce and is passionate about building community through the power of human connection.

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