Boulder Conference Seeks to Encourage Women Entrepreneurs to Lean In

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg might have made “lean in” a mantra for female entrepreneurs with her book this year, but it’s a lesson TRUSTe co-founder and chairwoman Fran Maier learned years ago—and she learned it the hard way.

Maier was part of the team that founded and was the startup’s general manager in the 1990s. While is one of the companies that revolutionized dating, its early years were tumultuous. Investors and the founders clashed, the company took a while to find its focus, and it had to fight the stigma that online dating was weird.

The outcome was that was sold for less than $10 million in 1998, well below what Maier and other execs thought it was worth. It was a tough experience to go through, and Maier said the lessons have stuck.

Maier believes many of those lessons are especially relevant to women who are trying to start companies.

“There were a couple of instances in that period where I didn’t quite lean in enough,” Maier said. “I didn’t step up. It was partially the lack of support, and the lack of confidence, and not knowing how to go out and ask for help. It was a tough lesson.”

On Tuesday, Maier will be in Boulder, CO, for the inaugural Startup Phenomenon Women conference, where she hopes her message will help encourage other women entrepreneurs who face similar challenges.

“I think they want to tell people’s stories as an inspiration for female entrepreneurs,” Maier said. “My message is to go for it, try to lean in, do things like ask for help, network, do deals, recognize the market you have.”

The conference’s roster of speakers features a mix of local and national figures. Techstars Boulder managing director Nicole Glaros will speak, and Lucy Sanders, CEO and co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, is on the schedule as well.

The sessions also are a mix of big-issue discussions, like improving STEM (Science, Technology, Education, and Mathematics) education for girls or the gender balance in Hollywood, and topics more focused on practical advice, like a panel on angel capital and fundraising moderated by Techstars co-founder and CEO David Cohen.

There won’t be a lack of subjects to talk about, or issues to be faced, Maier said.

“I think there are a number of things that are interesting right now, because there seems to be a lot of increased attention on women and progress in some of the male-dominated areas in technology, like the board of directors and the C-suite,” Maier said.

Maier said she tries to reach beyond women entrepreneurs trying to run startups. She also wants to reach men who have money to invest.

“It’s oftentimes difficult for female entrepreneurs with a product for a female market to get funding,” Maier said. “They really have a difficult time getting the attention of the investment community, and yet the markets they are going after are very large.”

It’s not that VCs and angel investors, who are predominantly men, are trying to exclude women, but that men sometimes overlook how much buying power women have, she said.

“I want to cheer the gals on, because their solutions are no less important than other solutions,” Maier said.

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