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Women on The Front Lines of Entrepreneurship Weigh In

Discrimination against female and minority founders is real, albeit sometimes subtle. Find out how women in Tennessee succeed in spite of it

Being asked to fetch coffee, hearing commentary on their physical appearance and feeling pressure to hide a pregnancy are just some of the stories we heard from our Tennessee trailblazers. It’s not easy being a female founder, especially in a heavily male-dominated industry.

The good news is that the landscape is evolving for women in our state, and we’ve actually got a leg up on diversity efforts in other cities. For example Start Co., the Entrepreneur Center in Memphis, represents a portfolio that’s comprised of 76% female and minority founders. And they run a programming track in their accelerators, called Upstart, specifically for women that equips them with skills to level the entrepreneurial playing field.

The rest of the state is catching on; WalletHub found that Memphis, along with Nashville and Chattanooga, are among the top five best cities in the country for female business owners. And at 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival in 2017, half of the startups in the pitch competition were women-led.

Find out how our trailblazers deal with out-of-touch partners who didn’t get the memo that companies led by women are valued 63% higher than their male counterparts, according to a 10-year study by First Round Capital. Plus, get their thoughts on where the ecosystem is going.

In the female business ecosystem, have you seen or experienced discrimination, and how did you deal with it?

“Early in our journey, someone in the tech ecosystem told Kerry to her face that Mixtroz was a “good idea” but because she is a black, female cofounder in the South there was no way the business could succeed. Needless to say, almost three years later, we’re still laughing!”

 Ashlee Ammons & Kerry Schrader, Mixtroz 

“The first meeting with a potential mentor opened my eyes to discrimination and underestimation that women face! This professional had years of experience but instead of providing advice, he spoke down to me through the whole meeting. He told me that my idea was “too aggressive” and that while the business could work there was no way that  “I could ever pull it off.” I use that as motivation to redefine what women can accomplish.”


— Stephanie Cummings, Please Assist Me 

“I have absolutely experienced discrimination. I was at an investor conference in New York where several men individually made comments about my physical appearance while talking to me. That is simply unacceptable. There are literally thousands of other topics we can discuss if you do not want to talk about my company, including football, as I am a Fantasy Football champion, and golf, which I play regularly, just to name a few. There is no reason to cross that line, and yet it was second nature to them. I am fortunate that my team witnessed a few of the occasions, giving us the opportunity to discuss them together afterward. It is unacceptable behavior and my hope is that the more we talk about this occurring, the more we become aware and the less likely it will happen.”



— Kayla Graff, SweetBio 

“I really wish I could say no to this question; however I have experienced more discrimination than I expected to as a female founder. I had an investor tell me one time, “Gosh, I am glad you cannot have kids since you are paralyzed. We won’t need to worry about family taking away from you running a business.” I was so shocked, I couldn’t even respond. I stood up, shook his hand and politely walked out of the room and told him I was not interested in their fund. This incident happened early in our fundraising days. Today, I may not be so quiet and polite about the situation.”


— Jessica Harthcock, Utilize Health

“Yes, I’ve both seen and experienced discrimination, but it’s never been an obstacle that I’ve let slow me down.”

— Courtney Jones, MomSource Network 

“Absolutely! We have horror stories from every single one of our female founders.  It is a hard road out there for them, particularly in fundraising. They are constantly demeaned or even cut down in subtle ways because of their gender and/or race. They have been asked to “get coffee” when they’ve come to pitch; told what “beautiful eyes” they have during business meetings; or hidden their pregnancies because male funders are worried they may “step out” from running their companies, when all we’ve seen is that moms lean in even more!  The cuts are many and add up significantly over time, sometimes breaking down their confidence or just making them angry and embarrassed. We have hosted CEO dinners and monthly calls for our female founders so that they can share their stories and feel a sense of sisterhood as they tackle the tough realities of being a female founder, many in heavily male-dominated industries.”




— Kristina Montague, The JumpFund 

“I’m fortunate to have strong businesswomen around me, in addition to an incredibly supportive co-founder and personal social support structure. My previous experiences of discrimination within the workplace were actually what pushed me to attend business school. The world is slowly changing but it’s not quite there yet. The female founders I know are a large part of that change. I’m thankful to know them and lean on them through the ups and downs that come with starting a company.”


 Tori Samples, Leaf Global Fintech 

“I’ve had many experiences in my career, and many that include discrimination. I think the perspective to remember is that discrimination says more about the discriminator and that you, as a person (woman, minority, etc.), don’t have to accept it or take it as your own.”

Van Tucker, Nashville Fashion Alliance

How has the ecosystem evolved for women in Tennessee since you’ve been in the game, and where do you think it’s going?

“Yes, people in the Tennessee ecosystem have become more aware of the problems facing both women and minorities, but we are at a critical point where awareness must move to action to continue to grow and attract talented and colorful entrepreneurs to Nashville.”

 Ashlee Ammons & Kerry Schrader, Mixtroz 

“There has been more and more discussion about women and entrepreneurship. We are beginning to shine a light on the unique obstacles that women experience and it is beginning to foster change.”

 Stephanie Cummings, Please Assist Me 

“I am incredibly proud to be living in Tennessee starting a business. There are many opportunities for women here, such as mentoring, competitions, programs, etc. Over the years, it seems that more people are beginning to recognize the value of gender-diverse teams and the positive impact they have on businesses.”

— Jessica Harthcock, Utilize Health

“The amount of women in Tennessee who are starting and building badass companies is incredible! There are more of us than ever and we represent a diverse set of industries. We’re going to see a few big wins from these companies in the coming years, and that will do even more to elevate the status of female entrepreneurs in the state.”

Courtney Jones, MomSource Network 

“I have seen a tremendous amount of support for female entrepreneurs in the Tennessee ecosystem. Not only have I seen an increase in media exposure for female entrepreneurs, but I have benefited from programs specifically geared towards helping female founders.”

— Sinead Miller, PATH EX 

“We founded the JumpFund as a clarion call to everyone in this ecosystem that the game needed to change — we needed to see more female founders being funded in our region. In just five years since our launch, the landscape has changed significantly, with women WINNING the pitch competition at 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival the past three years (two were JumpFund companies) and half the companies in the past few LaunchTN accelerators being women-led. We also have now invested over $3M in women-led ventures and leverage co-investment of more than 19x for our portfolio companies. We know we will have made real and lasting progress when a mission-focused vehicle like JumpFund no longer needs to exist to ensure women-led companies are being considered equally and fairly and receiving the same access to funding as their male counterparts. Ideally, we will see more gender-diverse teams across our startup ventures, as performance metrics will drive the need to have both men and women equally represented as leaders of early-stage companies.”




 Kristina Montague, The JumpFund 

“I’m new to the startup world but came from a traditional IT shop. Even within the IT environment, I’ve seen cultural changes in the last five years that have made it easier to succeed as a woman. Diversity is having its moment. Now the challenge is to make those changes meaningful to actually realize the added value of diverse perspectives. Because of recent news coverage, I think more investors and customers are looking for female leadership in startups. There is plenty of opportunities to be recognized as a female in fintech. The unfortunate reality is that women are still underrepresented in the industry but the positive spin is that there’s a huge opportunity to stand out. I’ve already experienced that in Tennessee and have heard the same from friends across the country.”



 Tori Samples, Leaf Global Fintech 

“I have worked for over 40 years. During that time, it became acceptable for women to wear slacks or pants, work outside of the home, choose to not have children, choose to marry or not marry, assume leadership roles not previously accessible to them, and so many other changes! Yes, I have seen evolution. More importantly, I love what I see in the future of women leaders — the next generation. As CEO of the NFA, I work with many younger women who are empowering themselves to assume leadership roles. They’re not waiting to be asked.”


Van Tucker, Nashville Fashion Alliance

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