Women’s Entrepreneurial event showcases success, builds community

Chelsey Roney (foreground), Sarah Studer (left) and Melinda Haughey

The newly launched Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program (WE Lead) embraced Women’s Entrepreneurship Day with a packed signature event in Denny Hall on November 16 hosted by the Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. Speakers shared insights about career paths and startup creation to an audience of nearly 200 students and female founders, investors, and business leaders at the “Rising Tide: Women Making Waves in the Startup World” luncheon.

The event was anchored by an interview Techstars Seattle Accelerator director of platform Sarah Studer interviewing Proxi co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Chelsey Roney (MBA 2017) and co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Melinda Haughey. Proxi is a business-to-business software company that enables creators to produce and share interactive maps for use in building community, marking points of interest, and increasing engagement.

Haughey said the concept took shape when she created a map of homes in her Seattle neighborhood for trick-or-treating on Halloween during the pandemic. The map ended up going viral, with thousands of people adding their homes, and landing Haughey on a Good Morning America segment billed as the “Mom who saved Halloween.” Haughey and her long-time friend and business partner Roney realized that they had the foundation for a business.

“We started thinking about building a Canva for maps,” Haughey said. “We could enable people to map information about their world and build this incredible data set about places that is rich, that is contextual, and is not just a business listing.”

Roney and Haughey made an ideal match for turning this concept into a successful business. Roney is a serial entrepreneur, having founded businesses since her days as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University. Haughey has had a fascinating career path, starting in chemical engineering and later working for the Central Intelligence Agency before enrolling in the UW PhD program for Human Computer Interaction. The duo had collaborated previously on several ventures, and shared how they complement one another’s skill sets.

To take their business to the next level, Roney and Haughey participated in Techstars Accelerators, where they met Studer. Techstars is a rigorous three-month program serving as boot camp for entrepreneurs, providing training in finding product-market fit, access to capital, and mentorship.

“I remember being so excited about Proxi and struck by the passion the two of you had and the respect you had for each other,” recalled Studer. “I could tell that you were a great team.”

Proxi has since gone on to raise $2 million in venture capital and now has over 70,000 maps on its platform. But Roney says “The road is never short in entrepreneurship.” The company has had to make some key pivots in its first three years, including transitioning from a consumer product to the business-to-business market, and Roney taking over the CEO title once they determined Haughey needed to dedicate herself to the technical side of the business.

The luncheon kicked off with remarks from Sue Buerk (BA 1974), now 80 years old and still an active participant in the Foster community. Buerk recounted her career, noting that many of her positions were newly created, enabling her to succeed as a woman in the workplace in an earlier era on her own terms. Buerk took questions from the audience and stressed the importance of seizing opportunities. “You have to be willing to try something new, something different,” Buerk said. “Always be expanding your circle and meeting new people.”

The Proxi leaders were introduced by Winona Kantamaneni, program manager and assistant director at the Buerk Center. Kantamaneni pointed out that women still make up a startlingly low percentage of CEOs. “Diversity leads to better business outcomes. Innovation happens when there are many voices in the room. WE Lead is at its heart about community, and how we can uplift each other.”

The event concluded with WE Lead Student Advisory Board President Cheryl Delostrinos (MS 2024) leading a Community Connections Bingo networking game. It highlighted the diversity of the attendees’ connection to UW and the surrounding entrepreneurial ecosystems, while also providing a networking opportunity.