Women Who Launch

Women Who Launch Kicks off last year in downtown Ann Arbor.


According to a 2015 Economist article, the world needs female entrepreneurs, because they “see the world through a different lens, and in turn, do things differently.” Of course, needing female entrepreneurs and providing them with the opportunities and resources they need are different things. This kind of diversity is crucial, though, and one graduate student at the University of Michigan has realized this need and is providing innovative women with resources and connections to propel them forward.

Marianna Kerppola, a graduate student at the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, a dual Masters program between the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ross School of Business, is changing the atmosphere of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. A co-founder of the organization Women Who Launch, Kerppola has dedicated herself and her talents to creating gender equality in entrepreneurship and innovation alike.

Women Who Launch was founded in the spring of 2014, by Kerppola, Alexandra Pulst-Korenberg (MD/MBA 2015), and Stefanie Thomas (MBA 2015), all current or former graduate students of the University of Michigan. Prior to the creation of Women Who Launch, Kerppola had launched BetterHope, an online marketplace for ethically made clothing. She applied to the Erb Institute based on the recommendation from Sabrina Sullivan (MBA/MS 2014) and became involved with entrepreneurial groups right away. That’s when she noticed a severe lack in women entrepreneurs.

“I’d go to events where there would be over one hundred men and maybe four women,” Kerppola says. “And meanwhile I was having all these conversations with friends who were passionate about education in Detroit or all kinds of social impact-oriented things, and when I’d suggest starting their own company, they’d immediately answer ‘Oh no, I could never start a company. I could never do that.’”

After consulting with Jilly Badanes (MBA 2014), who’d done an independent study on women in entrepreneurship at Ross, Kerppola decided to do something to provide resources for women to achieve their entrepreneurial goals.

“Jilly concluded her research with a lunch featuring different women, including entrepreneurs and capitalists in the community and students, and it was this extraordinary event where women were being very honest about the challenges of being an entrepreneur, about the risks associated with it, along with the gains as well. And it was coming out of that where we asked ‘Okay, how do we build something out of this? How do we keep this momentum going?’ And that’s where we kind of first came up with the idea for Women Who Launch.”

Women Who Launch has definitely continued that open dialogue amongst female entrepreneurs. The group, which Kerppola and her co-founders were adamant in making open to all majors, not just Ross students, aims at connecting female students and entrepreneurs with one another as well as established businesswomen, through various events, informal networking opportunities, and workshops.

When asked about the difficulties creating Women Who Launch, Kerppola noted not only time, but also “stickiness.”

“On the surface, there’s interest in Women Who Launch, but then there’s that hurdle of women not identifying themselves as entrepreneurs, and how can we get them to consider coming to an event? That’s been a challenge—getting out there and getting awareness.”

Another obstacle to overcome was how to create a place for Women Who Launch amongst the other entrepreneurial organizations on campus.

“The University of Michigan is an incredible campus,” says Kerppola, “and they provide a lot of great opportunities and events, so one of our main concerns at Women Who Launch was how to provide something unique that adds value and that people will actually come to.”

Part of creating something unique meant not just offering skill sets, because that is already on campus. Instead the main focus is on the gap between what a woman entrepreneur is passionate about and her actually acting upon that passion by creating her own venture.

“A big part of closing that gap is confidence,” Kerppola says. “Confidence is a huge hurdle for women, but really anyone, who wants to engage in entrepreneurship.”

To help close this gap, Women Who Launch held a rapid-fire event, where women could come and talk about their ideas, and then receive coaching or advice from other women in attendance. Women Who Launch wanted to tap into that sense of community amongst women, because, as Kerppola says, “Women are extraordinary at finding the strengths in others.”

Women Who Launch held three other events last year, including their main kick-off event that was held at Arbor Brewing, Co. Over forty women attended, including a mix of students, local entrepreneurs, women from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and some women from Detroit.

“I was so impressed with the support from the older generation of entrepreneurs,” says Kerppola of the event.

Kerppola says that last year was great for generating buzz about Women Who Launch, but this year it will be more about getting into a rhythm, having events and workshops once a month, and establishing informal networking events each month.

It’s crucial for women to create these networking ties and have beneficial relationships with one another. Kerppola notes, “It’s interesting, because I’ve had very corporate jobs before, and I feel like a lot of the women who had made it to higher levels of a company had very much of this ‘Well I made it because I fought really hard, I was really gritty, and I fought the guy’s game’ mentality. And I just don’t see that kind of competitive nature bringing a lot of joy and energy to people. I think women get a lot more support from within a community of women.”

Kerppola personally credits her mother as an inspiration, saying, “I, by nature, am a fairly confident woman, and I’m very inspired by my mom.” Kerppola’s mother is the founder of Atterocor, a drug development company focused on the accelerated development of treatment for adrenal cancer.

Now, Marianna Kerppola is passing that inspiration along through Women Who Launch.

“What it comes down to,” she says, “is that women have incredible ideas, and women are going to develop and run very different companies than men.”

Women Who Launch is kicking off its monthly meetup on October 13 at 6:30pm. Keep up-to-date on the organization’s latest happenings and events

By Hannah Gordon, Innovate Blue Student Associate

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