Ladies Who Launch: The Strength of Booth’s Women Entrepreneurs

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business has helped transform hundreds of student ideas into thriving businesses.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), the annual business competition at the university’s top-ranked business accelerator program, Chicago Booth gathered alumni over the course of the three-week celebration to talk to Inc. magazine editors about what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.

Since its founding in 1996, the NVC has inspired and fostered more than 800 startups. Today, more than 140 of those companies remain in operation generating about $434 million in funding and $3.7 billion in exit value.

Eric Schurenberg, president and editor in chief at Inc. magazine, hosted a conversation with four Booth women about the unique challenges of seeking funding and running a startup as women in an industry that is largely made up of men.

Here is what the women had to say about the most valuable lesson they learned at Booth:

Jennifer Fried, MBA ’15, CEO and cofounder of ExplORer Surgical, an interactive surgical playbook that promotes optimal teamwork in the operating room.

There's so much that I learned. There were specific hard things that I learned -- like taxes and entrepreneurial finance. I actually still keep both of those binders on my desk and refer to my taxes notes at least twice a month. Then there are softer lessons, too, in terms of my approach to things. I love that Booth has a philosophy of always having data in support what you say. When I come in (to the hospitals) with our pilot data and show them—here are the results. The data speaks for itself. That always really is very powerful.

Grace Lee, MBA ’10, CEO and founder of Nine Naturals, all-natural hair and skin care products that are safe for pregnant women.

I think it's so amazing to be in such a supported environment where you can (practice), and you can do it in a way that it doesn't mean the failure of your company -- in the way it would if you were doing it in real life. Being able to go through this process of vetting out ideas with distinguished professors and really smart classmates and judges and the NVC panel is so valuable to me. Once I really was putting real money into the company, I was thinking about it in a smarter way than if I hadn't gone through that whole process.

Katlin Smith, MBA ’15, CEO and founder of Simple Mills, maker of gluten-free baking mixes.

The things that help you, help you at different points in your business. Definitely the entrepreneurial selling (was key) in the early days of the business. I (also learned) the quote that ‘the difference between success and failure is a couple small disciplines you practice every day.’ In the very early days of the business, when my desk was three feet from my bed and I had a TV in my bedroom, that quote was actually very meaningful, because there was nobody to hold my feet to the fire. Getting up every day, early in the morning and going to work three feet from my bed and working until late at night, that was all discipline, and it didn't always feel like that much fun.

Now in the business, one of the things that I've reflected on that I didn't learn as clearly in negotiations as I should have,...that the point of a negotiation is not to get the best deal, but it's to find the best deal for both parties and to find the right place to meet in the middle. Sometimes if you take too much value out of a negotiation, it actually ends up hurting you in the end.

Andrea Sreshta, cofounder of LuminAID, make of inflatable solar lights.

I was in architecture school before I came to business school, so I started from a very low base. There have been so many countless lessons that have been very practically applied to my business: entrepreneurial selling, how important it is to just make a sale no matter what else is going; cost accounting -- I use it every day (and) intro to accounting class, getting your taxes done and understanding what goes into it. It's all been very helpful.

Read more about what the women had to say about how to fire someone, what to look for in your head of sales, and what to say if an investor asks if you plan to get pregnant anytime soon in Inc.: "3 Things These Women Founders Wish They Knew Before They Launched."