Panelists speak at Forward Fest, including, from left, Marina (Bagot) Bloomer, founder of Stellar Tech Girls; Aimee Arnoldussen, innovation and commercialization mentor at UW’s Discovery to Product; Janet White, senior partner at J. White Consulting; and Guelay Bilen-Rosas, UW assistant professor of anesthesiology and CEO and co-founder of AyrFlo.

Don’t let what the room looks like limit you. Ask for help. Create the company culture that you want to see embraced. Talk about it, then get to work. Mistakes are learning opportunities.

All were pieces of advice a group of four female panelists offered to fellow women with aspirations to become entrepreneurs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM), as well as biohealth, during an event Wednesday night. Just under 70 people attended.

The event, “Activating Women’s Impact on Science Entrepreneurship” was held at the Old Sugar Distillery on the Near East Side as part of Forward Fest, the state’s largest technology and entrepreneurship festival.

The panelists each provided insights about the costs of female underrepresentation in both the biohealth and STEM industries. Those costs include “missed ideas” and overlooked opportunities to solve the world’s problems through innovation, said panelist Janet White, of J. White Consulting, a business strategy coaching agency.

White has spent more than 30 years driving profitable growth in mid- to large-sized life science companies, and has an extensive engineering background.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from January 2021, women have over the last nearly 50 years made gains in some STEM occupations, including for math and science. Computer and engineering jobs have not seen as much female representation.

In 1970, women made up 38% of all U.S. workers and 8% of STEM workers. By 2019, they made up 48% of the workforce and 27% of STEM occupations.

Event attendees listen to panelists during “Activating Women’s Impact in Science Entrepreneurship” as part of Forward Fest at Old Sugar Distillery in Madison.

“We need all of you to be entrepreneurs,” White said of that low percentile while addressing the audience, for which women made up a majority. “There are more men entrepreneurs than women. Help us start new companies and bring innovations to market.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of resources here in Madison,” she added.

The other panelists — including Marina Bloomer, founder of a Middleton startup that helps girls get interested in STEM, Stellar Tech Girls; Aimee Arnoldussen, innovation and commercialization mentor for UW-Madison’s Discovery to Product organization; and Guelay Bilen-Rosas, UW-Madison assistant professor of anesthesiology and co-founder of AyrFlow, a medical device startup — all said they agreed with White’s sentiment during discussion.

Women have also made some strides in Wisconsin’s biohealth industry.

Lisa Johnson, CEO of biohealth business advocate BioForward, said in an email statement “many” BioForward companies report that half of their respective workforces include women. She did not provide specific figures.

BioForward’s Women in Biohealth group helped host the panel event Wednesday, along with the UW-Madison Innovate Network and Forward BIO Institute. Johnson was not a panelist, but was present at the event.

“We don’t have a lot of female entrepreneurs and founders,” she said. “We need to continue to give opportunities to women to hold executive positions in (BioForward) companies. That’s where the biohealth industry needs to improve.”

Janet White, senior partner at J. White Consulting, with Aimee Arnoldussen, at left, innovation and commercialization mentor at UW’s Discovery to Product, participates in a panel discussion as part of Forward Fest at Old Sugar Distillery in Madison.

Greater voice

Each panelist also shed some light on how women can amplify their voices as entrepreneurs, as well as how companies can improve gender balance in their hiring practices, during the Wednesday discussion.

“In my career, I’ve encountered all kinds of implicit and explicit (bias) challenges,” White said. “For me, it was finding the ways to ignore the bad stuff — to have confidence in myself.”

Research defines implicit biases as attitudes people harbor toward others but without conscious knowledge. Studies have shown implicit biases can negatively affect everything from company hiring decisions to how well certain employees are paid.

Arnoldussen said “many of us are conditioned to not jump in,” and so women should ask themselves about what they think the worst-case scenario could be when becoming an entrepreneur in STEM. A majority of the time, that worst-case is hearing “no,” she said.

Bilen-Rosas stressed the importance of building a network of mentors, saying that’s what helped her when she began her career — having little income and eating Ramen noodles for the majority of her meals.

Of how companies can take on more women, Bloomer said “being here is a great first step.”

A Forward Fest event, “Activating Women’s Impact in Science Entrepreneurship,” at Old Sugar Distillery in Madison.

And while it seems there are a lot of people in her network who are passionate about diversity in STEM, Bloomer said she frequently wonders how many business leaders and entrepreneurs truly scrutinize their team’s makeup.

“You can influence the culture so much,” she added. “It requires more work, but it is up to you to decide what diversity looks like. Hire the best candidate for the job no matter what. No one wants to be a token. Create a mentorship program. Support girls who are 9 years old. There are a lot of steps you can take to make a difference.”