These days, much like it was in the late 90’s, it’s not surprising to hear about technology startups with valuations in the billions. Technology and finance get most of the love in business coverage with their mythical projections and growth rates. But while these companies get most of the press, there are 8.6 million businesses in the United States that generate $1.3 trillion in revenues, powering the all-important middle class through entrepreneurship.
These are women-owned small businesses.
Three years ago, three women—Carrie Nardini, Kate Stoltzfus and Emily Levenson—founded Propelle to respond to a glaring gap they saw in the market. As young women entrepreneurs running small businesses, and with many friends pursuing the same path, they were starting to see an emerging need to provide support for women like themselves.
Very few accelerators or incubators are targeted toward this segment. In fact, even with basic financing, women-owned businesses receive far less support—they are 20% less likely than men to receive approval on business loans and when they do, receive 80% less capital than men.
“We were attending business networking events and, often found ourselves in the odd position of finding few peers,” says Levenson. “One day, we were all having coffee and we thought of a great workshop that we can offer to share our experiences and provide a forum for young women entrepreneurs.”
Stoltzfus adds, “We thought we would throw a launch party to create buzz for the workshop and next thing we knew, we had over 100 women who were very excited about the workshop but obviously very eager to learn from each other. That’s when we knew that we had to provide support and community beyond what we were initially planning.”
Hence, Propelle was born.
Propelle provides connection, collaboration and “a very supportive environment.” Levenson shares that Propelle has naturally found a niche. “What we found is that, the segment that gravitates to the Propelle network are young women in their 20s and 30s who are running very creative businesses—graphic designers, photographers, store owners—and women who were on the cusp of taking that leap into entrepreneurship.”
Specific services that Propelle provides include regular networking and what they call “mastermind” groups –sessions where 7 entrepreneurs help each other move forward by collectively tackling roadblocks or generating new ideas. Each cohort bands together for 6 months and acts as each other’s sounding boards and cheerleaders. “There is something really powerful about that collective energy – just the sheer force of support, of people invested in the success of another person,” Levenson observes.
This year, the organization is celebrating its third anniversary. Nardini has recently spun off the group to focus on her growing I Made It! Market and Neighborhood Flea businesses. But Propelle is going strong and is expanding its footprint beyond Pittsburgh with virtual services.
Levenson concludes, “Propelle is where lifting each other up is the norm. It’s not with a spirit of blind competitiveness. We believe there is enough to go around and when one woman succeeds, we all do.”