Panels explored why women entrepreneurs are important for global change

When the Society of Women Engineers at the University of Virginia marked Women Entrepreneurship Week for the second consecutive year on Tuesday evening, it had international help in the planning process.

Haiti native Nadia Jean Charles, who is a Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative visiting fellow hosted by UVA Engineering’s Department of Engineering and Society, teamed up with SWE to organize an observance of what has become a global movement. Groups on more than 160 college and university campuses in 32 countries and 45 U.S. states planned events to mark Women Entrepreneurship Week, which started just five years ago as an idea to celebrate women entrepreneurs.

Nadia Jean Charles leads the Women Entrepreneurship Week program

Nadia Jean Charles, a Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative visiting fellow hosted by the Department of Engineering and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, starts the Women Entrepreneurship Week program at UVA. Photos courtesy of Presidential Precinct.

UVA’s 2018 Women Entrepreneurship Week forum took the form of two panels ― one composed of international women entrepreneurs vising Charlottesville as Young Leaders fellows and one of local business owners. Panelists such as Melisa Díaz Acuña, co-founder of ME Motivador de Experiencias, came from as far away as Argentina and as nearby as Charlottesville’s Main Street Market, where Phyllis Hunter runs The Spice Diva Emporium. Yet, they all communicated in a common language: that of women who know the challenges and rewards of making a business venture work.

Jean Charles took the lead in arranging the speakers and planning the evening event, held Oct. 16 in Olsson Hall. The assignment is part of her four-week fellowship with Liz Pyle and Alex Zorychta in the Engineering School’s entrepreneurship and business programs. The international panelists are all fellows in the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative who are also working with local hosts.

The initiative, abbreviated as YLAI, comes to Charlottesville through the Presidential Precinct, a local nonprofit working to make lifelong investments in emerging leaders worldwide. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs funds the initiative, which brings 250 promising leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean each year to work with U.S. counterparts. The initiative empowers innovative business and social entrepreneurs to build their skills, advance their ideas, and contribute to social and economic development in their communities.

Jean Charles, who has an M.S. in computer science from Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haiti and is the co-founder of Haiti Femmes &TIC, put together the two panels to address why women entrepreneurs are important for global change. Underlying the conversation was the idea that everyone was in the room to “be inspired, network like crazy [and] hear valuable advice,” in keeping with this year’s event theme.

International panel at Women Entrepreneur Week event

The international panelists are (from left to right) Regina Smith (Bahamas), founder and managing director, Firehouse Spice Company; Dana Vidal (Peru), founder and CEO, Remodela Fashion Lab; panel moderator Raul Munguia Melgar (Honduras), entrepreneur; Delia Larez (Venezuela), co-founder, Besign Colmena; and Melisa Díaz Acuña (Argentina), co-founder, ME Motivador de Experiencias.

Jean Charles believes hearing that advice both from the local and international perspective was a big takeaway for the 20 or so students ― women and men ― who attended.

“It was great,” Jean Charles said, happy with how the panels turned out. “The environment was lively and light, and the students were participating in what was going on.”

UVA Society of Women Engineers webmaster Judy Nguyen, a third-year systems engineering major from Herndon, worked with Jean Charles to organize the event. She also was the SWE coordinator for last year’s Women Entrepreneurship round-table forum. While UVA Engineering students are taught to think entrepreneurially, Nguyen noted that the Young Leaders connection is a reminder that innovation and enterprise are don’t happen only in the United States.

“Nadia’s presence helped spread awareness of the potential impact events like this can have by showcasing global programs that support entrepreneurship,” she said, and echoed Jean Charles’ point that wherever the women are from, the opportunity to hear from them directly is important for students.

Nguyen speaks from experience. She is minoring in computer science and biomedical engineering and worked last year as a research and development intern at Contraline, a biotech startup co-founded by UVA Engineering graduate Kevin Eisenfrats (nanomedicine, 2015).

“An event like this associates a face and a story to a buzz word like ‘entrepreneurship,’ ” Nguyen said. “It makes being an inventor seem less daunting, and it’s inspirational. You have to start somewhere. Listening to success stories is a good first step.”

Pyle, who advised Jean Charles’ on the event, praised her guest fellow’s organization and preparation, but the advantage of having international participants is what most grabbed her attention.

“One thing that stood out is that the international culture seems to be more open to giving opportunities to women entrepreneurs,” Pyle said. “In some ways, they seemed more determined to make things happen with the resources that they have around them. There also seems to be a sense of community in sharing resources.”

She added that the discussion referenced statistics on women-owned businesses cited by the National Association of Women Business Owners, and the continued disparities between male and female representation in business leadership positions and in the tech sector.

“We should be able to do better,” Pyle said. “I am hoping that by putting on events like WEW, and making sure to encourage and include our women engineers, that we will be able to turn the tide.”