A Springboard For Female Entrepreneurs

Mary Naylor paced rapidly back and forth, wringing her hands just moments before stepping in front of 225 venture capitalists to ask for $20 million. The scene: the America Online Conference Center in Dulles, Va., in mid-July. "This will be fun," she said in an effort to psyche herself. Naylor, 37, was one of 40 women chief executives who pitched for funding at Springboard 2000, the only venture-capital forum to focus on female entrepreneurs.

Why is such a conference necessary? Most female business owners simply don't have ties or exposure to the venture-capital community. Even if they do, they often don't know the rules of the financing game. Women have been launching businesses at nearly twice the rate of men, but according to San Francisco research firm VentureOne, women received only 12.7% of the record $17.8 billion in venture funds disbursed in the first quarter of this year. That's up from 1.7% in 1995, but it's still a meager share.

The mid-July conference was the second of three Springboard 2000 forums scheduled for this year (www.springboard2000.org). At the first, in San Mateo, Calif., in January, 22 companies received a total of $180 million. "The fact that these conferences have been so successful clearly shows women entrepreneurs can use a boost," says Steve Walker, a venture capitalist in Glenwood, Md. The third forum will be in Boston in November, and more are scheduled for next year.

"We need to create a network of our own so that when the economy turns down, women aren't turned out," says Kay Koplovitz. It was Koplovitz who, as chairwoman of the National Women's Business Council, created Springboard.

The presenting companies at the two-day event in Dulles were chosen from 300 applicants in the Mid-Atlantic region, based chiefly on their business plans, and industries. The first day was devoted to 16 companies looking for seed capital to launch their businesses. The following day, 27 companies pitched for the big bucks for expansion. Among the presenters were KTWave.com, a developer of video-compression software, and Webservant, a business-to-business provider of voice-access technologies.

Once she made the cut, Naylor attended a one-day "boot camp," where she was grilled by local venture capitalists, then coached on refining her presentation. She has a lot of what venture capitalists like: a successful track record, strong management, and attractive alliances. Her new business, VIPdesk.com, grew out of an already successful company, Capitol Concierge, an operation with $6 million in sales that she started with $2,000 in 1987. Capitol Concierge provides services to Washingtonians who are too busy to pick up their dry cleaning, plan a bachelorette party, or stand in line at the Motor Vehicles Dept. "We will do anything that is legal and moral," says Naylor. Rather than market to individuals, she sold her concept to office and apartment buildings that then provide the service to tenants.

With the Web, Naylor saw the opportunity to go nationwide. She turned over Capitol Concierge's operations to a longtime employee so she could start VIPdesk.com. She's partnering with corporate clients such as AOL's Digital City, MasterCard, and PaineWebber, which provide the concierge services to their customers.

Last fall, Naylor raised $3.75 million from a few venture-capital groups after she pitched VIPdesk.com at the Mid-Atlantic Venture Assn. conference. Of the 75 companies chosen to present, VIPdesk.com was one of only two with women owners. "I've shown up at so many networking and venture-capital events that people ask me if I have a clone," says Naylor, who has been busy raising money since May. Her current investors have so far committed $5 million, and she's now in a round of meetings with several more investors from the Springboard conference. If they kick in some funding, Naylor's company ought to be ready to fly--which is just how springboards are supposed to work.

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