In acknowledgement of Women’s History Month, a designated time to highlight women’s contributions to both history and contemporary society, we gathered a few female leaders in the Buffalo entrepreneurial ecosystem and sat each of them down. They talked about their own leadership styles, why it’s important to have more women assuming such roles, and what makes them feel optimistic. Upstart NY Managing Editor Jana Eisenberg spoke with them individually. Here are the edited conversations.
Colleen Heidinger, president of 43NorthProud Buffalo native Colleen Heidinger was recently named president of 43North; before taking over her current position, she was the company’s VP of programming strategy and community engagement. Heidinger founded Ignite Buffalo, a small business grant program, bringing $1 million in investment from national partners to WNY creating over 100 local jobs. She also owns Space on Seneca, a Larkinville yoga studio and events space, and is an adjunct professor at Daemen College. Before returning to her hometown, she spent over a decade in Los Angeles and New York City working in the film and television industry.
Marnie LaVigne, Ph.D., Launch NY co-founder, president, and CEO, has been in her position since 2014. She co-founded the venture development organization with the mission of identifying, supporting, and investing in high-growth, high-impact companies, while working to catalyze Upstate New York’s entrepreneurial culture. Previously, she led economic development with hundreds of businesses at UB, the NYS Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics & Life Sciences, and the UB Center for Advanced Biomedical and Bioengineering Technology. In addition to her for-profit startup experience, LaVigne also spearheaded product development initiatives for corporations including Aetna, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Welch Allyn, and Medscape/MedicaLogic (now GE and WebMD).
Carolynn Welch, executive director, Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), has been in the nonprofit world for over 20 years, in a wide variety of positions including program management, grant writing, corporate compliance, and development. She leads WEDI in its mission to create equitable opportunities for children to learn, to empower anyone who wants to start a business, and to support communities, especially Buffalo’s West Side, with a thriving business district that provides unique and innovative products and services.
Editor's note: These interviews were conducted before the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic had hit Western New York. We decided to run this article, adding a follow-up with our participants on what they are doing now, in response to the circumstances. We will continue to update the story with their replies. Colleen Heidinger of 43North gave this comment; the rest of the interviews, as originally edited, follow.
Colleen Heidinger: The safety and well being of every member of the 43North community, from our team members to our portfolio companies and their staff and families, is our main priority. We remain focused on guiding our founders and enabling their success—especially in new and different ways, and in what could be a long term "new normal."
43North is doing our part to follow guidelines, like cancelling events and shifting to remote work; we've temporarily closed our offices at Seneca One. We're grateful to live in a world where technology keeps us all so easily connected. This has been especially critical in maintaining close contact with our newest cohort, with founders who are mostly new to Buffalo.
Jana Eisenberg: What does it say that we’re seeing a rise in women executives in impactful organizations like the ones you lead?
Colleen Heidinger: It points to the fact that we have something really special going on in the area.
Marnie LaVigne: Women haven’t traditionally been in this [economic development] world; now we are. And what’s happening here is a sign of what’s happening on a broader geographic basis—I chair the New York State Economic Development Council, and as [male] executive directors on our board are retiring, almost all the replacements are women.Marnie LaVigne is co-founder, president and CEO of LaunchNY
Carolynn Welch: It’s interesting that there’s a surge in women leadership, especially within the economic development field, which has traditionally been more male-led. These organizations use numbers to determine their loans, but they also tend to be more mission-oriented.
JE: How can female leaders impact organizations internally differently than a man?
CH: Empathy is stronger from female leadership; emotional intelligence is often higher, too. There’s more sincerity around the importance of relationships and team cohesiveness. That can result in higher amounts of trust, and therefore operational success.
ML: Collaboration is the name of the game in the innovation economy; women know that we can’t do it alone. Especially with nonprofits, females realize the need for cross-pollination from the beginning. Acknowledging the importance of collaboration then becomes part of an organization’s culture.
Carolynn Welch, executive director of WEDICW: I tend to grow teams and emphasize working together and relying on each other to reach goals, rather than competition. Women—and a newer leadership style that is less about the whole “power executive” thing—tend to be more responsive; to look at things more holistically. Because women are in more leadership roles, the dial has moved in that positive direction.
CH: The fact that the board named me president, and promoted me from within, is a good representation of the diversity we want to attract—both in our employees and in our portfolio. Diversity doesn’t always mean gender, color of skin, or ethnicity; it can be someone’s unique experience, which can enrich a conversation or team. As I’m traveling, I’m hearing that people are proud of what leadership put in place; they want to work with us.
ML: We’re in a period of bimodal response to women leaders. Some people might have trouble embracing female-led organizations—more from lack of experience than any negative feelings. On the other hand, it’s becoming more common for the world to embrace diverse leadership and underrepresented leaders. I am sensitive to my audience and consider where listeners are coming from. Nationally, we’re seeing funders, companies, and other stakeholders seek women-led companies as partners and stewards. There are great opportunities that didn’t exist before.
CW: Women feel more approachable, as the culture shifts toward more and different kinds of collaboration. It’s not as ego-driven. Instead of having to think you or your organization are the best at absolutely everything, women leaders help organizations to “stay in their lane”—you can be good at what you do, and, without it being a negative, identify any gaps and ask for help.
JE: Why is it important that more women assume these types of positions, especially in business/startup/entrepreneurial world?
CH: It’s proven that with females in your leadership, your organization performs better. Particularly when founders are creating teams with females are involved, the company is in a better position from many standpoints, including relationships, product development, etc. Women and minorities are so lacking in terms of the investment side.
ML: Our region is still extremely economically distressed; we need all the help we can get—especially from diverse and creative people. Women can help bring new opportunities to the fore; help the innovators who could be real job and wealth drivers. There’s also the role model effect; it cannot be underestimated.
CW: It’s important to be role models for the next generation. As leaders in fields that are typically male-dominated, we have an obligation to show others that we can do well, that we can get the respect that men get. It shouldn’t be a surprise that a woman is a leader, and we need more of them to feel that they can do it.
JE: What are the challenges for women in leadership?
CH: There are times when I am still in rooms full of men. We need women to continue to promote and speak up for ourselves and each other. It’s one thing to get into a role—then you have to nourish yourself and speak to what you need. Women don’t have to have an MBA or be in a leadership position to help another woman. Be an ear for someone; it’s free, and it’s a priceless way to foster the strength between and among women.
ML: Some of the things that make WNY home also present barriers to people’s opportunities. We need to break old patterns, where opportunity here can be based on who your family is or where you went to school. We need a diverse community to create a great and thriving economy. It’s helpful that the innovation economy is new for everyone. In that regard, women have an open door, we are willing to step up.
CW: As wives and mothers, women are still subject to expectations that men, as husbands and fathers, are not. That can be daunting; you can never feel you are doing the best at everything, and all the things you’re doing are so demanding.
JE: What makes you hopeful?
CH: While there is still work to do, the progress that our community has made is encouraging. It has me feeling optimistic about the potential to see more women leading the way. I'm particularly proud of Buffalo's entrepreneurial ecosystem and the opportunities it has created for the next generation to gather inspiration from females at the top of emerging businesses and new industries.
ML: This is a “high quality of life” place to be. And we are seeing both the strength of the people who are coming, or staying, and expatriates’ feelings for it. There is more and more interest in bringing those forces together and investing locally to get things done. People also want to “do good and do well” right in their own backyard—or hometown. Many of our new financing programs are in response to that. And younger people are moving back. That drives me to ensure that they can have meaningful engagements; people want to plug in and we have ways to help them.
CW: I’m seeing people raising both genders in a better way. Men are not behaving in as typically traditional “masculine” ways, and that makes them able to take a more holistic view to interacting and supervising. I’m seeing more females being accepted as leaders.