Venture FWD Aims to Bring Capital, Connections to Women and Minorities in Chicago Tech by Karis Hustad

Venture FWD Aims to Bring Capital, Connections to Women and Minorities in Chicago Tech by Karis Hustad

Michael Donnelly, CEO at Brandless Group, knows events: She was previously an early employee at Techweek, founder of events consulting company Red Suede Shoes and cofounder of BizDev Conference and Events.

But in attending and planning countless events around the Chicago she was frustrated at the lack of women and minorities on stage, which didn’t seem to reflect her diverse network of strong local entrepreneurs.

Now she’s behind an event that’s only putting women and minorities on stage.

This Friday Brandless is hosting Venture FWD, an event meant to highlight women and minority business leaders in Chicago in order to make connections, create community and increase access to capital. Donnelly sees it as a way to bring the energy she sees in local organizations, such as Ms.Tech, Women Tech Founders and Black Tech Mecca, into one place. The goal is to “shift the paradigm, to make seeing a diversified group of people onstage at every event the norm, and to have some fun,” Donnelly said.

“I think Chicago has some of the most prevalent and successful women and minority entrepreneurs,” she said. “It just makes sense to give all of us the opportunity to really talk to the community, get onstage and share our knowledge with others like us, and those who are looking to partner and support us.”

The day long event, held at the Kimpton Gray Hotel, features speakers and panels that range from early stage entrepreneurs to business veterans, including Genevieve Thiers, founder of SitterCity, Julius Givens, founder and CEO of The Explorer Program, and Nin Desai, CEO of NIN Ventures. Donnelly said she’s particularly excited about speeches from Pam Buchanan, managing director at NASDAQ, and Desmond Clark, a former Chicago Bears player who is now a wealth advisor.

The event kicked off with a happy hour at the Brandless office on Wednesday, as well as a screening of “Dream, Girl,” a documentary about female entrepreneurs.

Programming aside, Donnelly sees the value of the event as bringing strong, but siloed, communities together. She recalled calling up fellow entrepreneurs and friends in the C-suite when she had questions about her own business. An event that brings women and minority communities together to one place allows that peer-to-peer network to immediately grow.

“Online communities and communities for meet ups are great, but when you go big, full-scale conferences and events, I think more gets done because people are having fun and there’s more opportunity to get to know the people around you,” she said. “I really believe that a rising tide raises all ships, so the more opportunities for the spotlight to shine on work being done, the more opportunities for business to get done and funding to take place.”
Cayla Chambers of InvestHER

Approximately 200 attendees are slated to attend the event on Friday, Donnelly said. Beyond Chicago, they’re aiming to host Venture FWD events in two additional cities next year (one on either coast), then expand from there.

Cayla Chambers, partner at InvestHER Ventures, a local fund focused on women entrepreneurs, is speaking at Venture FWD. She’s looking forward to making connections, and attending an event that brings together all parts of Chicago’s tech ecosystem.

“I can’t wait to connect with the entrepreneurial talent that will be in attendance,” she told Chicago Inno. “The time is now to finally break down gender, racial, ethnic, religious or social barriers in our startup ecosystem through partnerships and, most importantly, action. There is no better hub to take the lead than our city. Bring on the next generation of job creators, Chicago. We are all ready, now let the flood gates open.”


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