How will women entrepreneurs succeed? By building networks and opening doors for others

11/16/23 – BOSTON, MA. – The 2023 Women Who Empower summit is held on the eighth floor of the EXP building in Boston on Thursday, Nov, 16, 2023. The event featured a panel discussion with Betty Francisco, Meeta Kapadia, Jennifer Kaiser Neundorfer, moderated by professor Laura Huang and a conversation with That Cheese Plate founder and Northeastern alum Marissa Mullen. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Women entrepreneurs need to find people who will open doors for them and use that access to create a pathway for other female founders, according to the head of a nonprofit social impact fund.

Incubator programs, university networks and advisers can help open doors for women entrepreneurs, Betty Francisco, CEO of the Boston Impact Initiative, said during the annual fall Women Who Empower Summit at Northeastern University.

While financial investment in startups is key, “social capital is incredibly important as well,” said Francisco, a double Husky with an MBA and law degree from Northeastern.

“Ask, ‘who should I meet with?’” Francisco said.

Attending networking events like the one put on by Northeastern is a great start, she said. “The sisterhood Women Who Empower is trying to create is incredibly important. Everyone here can open doors.”

Gina-Maria Garcia, who graduated from Northeastern with a degree in journalism, can attest to that.

Garcia said she felt lost after the death of her mentor who helped her launch BUYa, an ethically sourced human hair extension company.

She said the support she received from Betsy Ludwig, executive director of Women’s Entrepreneurship at Northeastern, was invaluable.

“I said, ‘I’m having a hard time.’ And I just cried. I shared with her the problems I was having. She said, ‘I’ve been in your shoes in a different way.’ Sharing her experience as an entrepreneur made me feel less alone,” Garcia said.

Winning a 2023 Women Who Empower Innovators Award also has proven helpful, Garcia said. “It kind of gives me the street cred I need as an entrepreneur.”

Ludwig said that about 20 Innovator Award winners were among the more than 200 people who attended the summit held on the eighth floor of the EXP research complex Nov. 16.

In 2023, 28 women received innovator award grants that totaled a record $500,000 in funding.

Those funds can help play a pivotal role in launching women’s startups, especially since women receive less funding from family and friends during the critical first steps of launching a company, Ludwig said.

“The innovator awards are acting as the friends and family for that initial grant,” Ludwig said.

“The fact that Women Who Empower has acknowledged me as an innovator and validates me the way my mentor always used to just means so much to me,” Garcia said. “I have so much to say about how this community has supported me.”

Diane MacGillivray, senior vice president for university advancement, said she’s been inspired by the way summit participants and innovator award winners — including athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, writers, chefs and scholars — have shared their stories with the Women Who Empower program.

“They have been generous, open, authentic and vulnerable,” MacGillivray said. “In a word, what they have been with us is real. This is so very very necessary and so genuinely and truly appreciated.”

“I think we need to be more than open to helping and supporting one another,” she said. “I think we need to be unafraid to ask for help. I think we need to be unafraid to ask for funding — funding for our entrepreneurs and our innovators and our leaders and our people who are making a difference. We need to optimize this community, because this community is awesome.”

Also participating in the summit were Laura Huang, faculty director of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative at Northeastern; Meeta Kapadia of HSBC’s Innovation Banking; and Jennifer Neundorfer, co-founder and managing partner at January Ventures.

Amelia Brooks, vice president of the student group WISE, led a conversation with Marissa Mullen, a Northeastern graduate and author whose Instagram account, “That Cheese Plate,” turned into a global business.

“It basically started because my friends and I were having a wine and cheese party” in 2013 when she was a student at Northeastern, Mullen said.

Looking for inspiration, Mullen started posting photos she saw on line and grew the confidence to add her own cheese plates, eventually creating a global community for cheese plate inspiration and recipes.

With two how-to books already on the shelves, Mullen says learned the importance of crafting a mission statement and trusting her gut.

“It’s almost like a spiritual thing with me, trusting synchronicities and never doing things that are against your integrity and your mission statement,” she said.

Students attending the summit, held during National Entrepreneurship Month, said it was inspiring to see women take leadership roles in startups and businesses.

“It’s so interesting to see how passionate everyone is about the work that they’re doing and how they really utilize the resources around them,” said Aashka Dave, a second-year student studying computer science and business administration.

“Women deal with imposter syndrome way more than men do,” Dave said. “So the fact we saw these women come up today, talk about the work they do, the networks they leverage and how they killed it in their industry is so interesting and amazing to see.”

“They’re still here, giving back to the community and supporting each other,” said Arshia Mathur, a second-year data science and business student. “It was honestly really inspiring and very motivating.”

“My biggest takeaway is that we have such an amazing network of women (at Northeastern),” said third-year student Teresa Cassab, who is majoring in international affairs.

“It really gets me thinking, ‘What do I want to do next? How am I going to apply what I learned today in a new project?’’’ Cassab said.

Cynthia McCormick Hibbert is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at or contact her on X/Twitter @HibbertCynthia.