The Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship added a new chapter to its storied history with the launch of a program aimed squarely at advancing women as entrepreneurs and agents of innovation. The Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program (WE Lead) debuted at the University of Washington with a series of five events this fall quarter, including a signature luncheon and workshop timed for Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. The plan, however, goes far beyond hosting in-person events.
“We’re building a community of impact that will benefit generations of students,” said Winona Kantamaneni, program manager and assistant director at the Buerk Center. “WE Lead will be a bridge connecting the diversity of our student body with alumni and leaders from Seattle’s startup ecosystem.”
The multi-pronged approach began with a solid foundation. WE Lead combined the strengths of the Foster School of Business, UW’s Population Health Initiative, and WE Rise (Women Engineers Rise) in the College of Engineering for two events focused on entrepreneurial women in each respective space. Panelists embodied everything from changemakers at large organizations like Swedish and the City of Seattle, to founders of early-stage and established startups like Joon, Zócalo, Shape Therapeutics, Data2insight, and CathConnect.
“The best time to shine a spotlight on entrepreneurial women was yesterday. The next best time is today and tomorrow,” said Amy Sallin, director of the Buerk Center. “Achieving that requires strong collaboration with our partners and an engaged community on and off campus who are as committed to this vision as we are.”
Getting the program to this stage required teams of entrepreneurial leaders, alumni, and students to guide it moving forward.
Partners in Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership
On November 18, 2022, Anthony’s Forum in the Foster School became the scene of a remarkable test case. More than 100 students, alumni, and members of the community came together to share stories and hear from a panel of women “making waves in the startup world”. Tables were lined with facts from PitchBook, Forbes, and Crunchbase on a dramatic shift for women in business.
Unicorns (startups making more than $1 billion) founded or co-founded by women quadrupled to start the decade. African-American women represented 42% of new women-owned businesses—three times their share of the female population—in 2020. Venture capital deals for female founders raised more capital than any year prior to record highs set in 2021.
“WE Lead represents a timely response to the growing momentum and appetite for diverse and inclusive leadership,” said Jilyne Jarvis, co-founder and Executive Director of ZGiRLS. “Society is increasingly recognizing the unique challenges and opportunities women face in entrepreneurship.”
Jarvis served as one of the six speakers at the 2022 event alongside serial entrepreneur Keisha Credit; director of startup development at Innovyz USA Volha Hrechka; CEO and co-founder of Mocel Mezcal, Rosalinda Mendoza; partner at Keeler Investments Group, Rochelle Whelan; and the owner and operator of IAGL, Inc., Sara Weaver.
Today, Jarvis, Mendoza, and Weaver are three of the nine WE Lead Advisory Board members providing strategic programming advising, resources, and connections.
“The magnitude of the problems we need to solve, the speed of change and the fact that we’re going through the AI revolution means we need more people stepping up,” said Christy Johnson, CEO of Artemis Connection and Advisory Board member. “Women see different problems and thus it is critical that we have more diverse builders.”
Each board member was selected with intentionality and purpose. From Dani Cone of Fuel Coffee and Cone & Steiner General and Sara Mosiman of Global Sports & Events (GSE) to Sarah Studer at Techstars Seattle, Minda Brusse at First Row Partners, and Elisa La Cava of Trilogy Equity Partners.
“I see it as creating a world with MORE—more innovation, more economic opportunity, more creation, more GDP, more impact on the world around you,” said La Cava. “Today, you may be aiming for a leadership role for a school club you’re passionate about, and tomorrow, those skills you develop will translate to setting you up for success in your next job with your next set of opportunities.”
Building The Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program
The big dreams that form the basis for a program like WE Lead cannot power it alone. Following the success of the 2022 event, WE Lead received the opportunity to move forward with a funding gift from longtime supporters and UW alumni Artie Buerk and Sue Buerk. The pair’s rich history with the Center, the community, and the University cannot be understated.
“We’re honored to have the Buerk name on our Center and the Buerk drive to take risks and build things as a driving force for WE Lead,” said Sallin. “We’re also excited for Sue Buerk to share her incredible journey with students at the Women’s Entrepreneurship Day event on November 16.”
The funding gift also included an opportunity for fact-finding before launching the program this fall. WE Lead managers visited peer colleges and universities with existing programs related to women’s entrepreneurship including UT-Austin, NYU, and Babson. Takeaways included lessons on how to solidify programming and cultivate strong engagement.
“Young women are already innovative, passionate, and ready to change the world. They need supportive connections, mentors, and inspiration,” said Kantamaneni. “Not everyone has the same access to the resources they need to grow, but if you create a space where people can find and build those resources together, that’s when the magic happens.”
Still, there was one remaining element needed for WE Lead to be set up for long-term success, even as events took place this fall. This element would be the key for advancing not just WE Lead’s mission but the Buerk Center’s as well.
Students and the Future of Entrepreneurial Leadership
Panelists can share experience and insights, but WE Lead seeks to make a deeper connection with students. For example, a study conducted by Harvard Business Review found a large gender gap in self-promotion—with men rating their performance 33% higher than equally performing women. So, the program held a workshop with a facilitator for the #IAmRemarkable global movement to provide exercises on how to self-promote, identify unconscious bias, and articulate achievements.
WE Lead also launched a Mentoring Circle initiative that will take place at least once each quarter. Each event will offer collective, shared experiences from no less than two or more cross-sector entrepreneurial women leaders with a small group of student participants. Each understands the unique challenges of professional settings and can give practical advice drawing on their own careers. In this way, students can form a deeper connection and understanding of what opportunities lie ahead.
“My vision is for a world where women can confidently pursue their ideas without self-doubt, having the unwavering belief in their innovative abilities,” said Meera Patel (’26 Electrical and Computer Engineering). “Establishing an entrepreneurial community is a powerful way to break down these barriers and equip women with the tools they need to fully realize their potential.”
Students like Patel will help create that path forward in a very real way as part of the WE Lead Student Advisory Board. Students have assigned roles in outreach, marketing, community development, and board leadership.
“It’s key for women to inspire the younger generation to better promote economic growth, better humanity, and create possibilities,” said Iris Zhou, student advisory board vice president (’26 Finance). “I envision a global community where we uplift one another, innovate solutions, and create more seats at the table.”
Students and community members who want to engage with the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program can learn more at startup.uw.edu. New events will take place each quarter. You can also connect with the Buerk Center on LinkedIn, Instagram, and on Discord.