Society of Women Entrepreneurs Co-founders Lynan Saperstein and Ellen Smoak bridged the gaps in Austin entrepreneurial circles to create a connected community of ambitious female leaders.
By Elizabeth Ucles, Photos by Ashley Sumida and courtesy of Leandra Blei Photography
Austinites Lynan Saperstein and Ellen Smoak knew their business was on the brink of success one day after more than 100 women gathered in Saperstein’s home. Now, instead of relying on foldout chairs taken from Saperstein’s apartment complex, they have grown to host hundreds of trailblazers at North Austin co-working space Impact Hub.
Before co-founding the Society of Women Entrepreneurs, Saperstein and Smoak were searching to fill a void they felt in their own lives, but one they also saw in the community: connection.
When Saperstein moved to Austin a few years ago, she initially struggled to find the tight-knit female community she longed for. And as a businesswoman, she questioned the so-called urban legend of women entrepreneurs, as she found herself immersed in a male-centric world.
At her wits’ end, Saperstein chatted with her best friend, Mary Catherine, who reminded her of the community in San Diego, where she regularly met with other entrepreneurs. She pushed her to recreate the same community in Austin, and for Saperstein, a long-dimmed light bulb finally lit up.
Smoak moved to Austin two and a half years ago, a decision she recalls felt like destiny. When deciding where to move, the astrology buff sought guidance from an astrocartographer, someone who uses astrology to identify varying life conditions through location, and in the end, all signs pointed to Austin.
Both Saperstein and Smoak arrived in Austin about the same time and even lived in the same apartment complex. And when Saperstein began to form what would eventually become the Society of Women Entrepreneurs, Smoak was one of the first women to attend.
With Smoak’s background in event planning and their shared branding and marketing experience, the two came together during the summer of 2016 to host 12 women in Smoak’s home. As the number of women attending began to increase, Saperstein and Smoak launched the Society of Women Entrepreneurs, with a proper membership, just one year later.
Today, that initial group of 12 has grown to more than 2,300.
“We lit a little spark but the community of Austin really built this,” Smoak says. “They are really the ones who came together organically and kept saying, ‘We want this.’ ”
Saperstein and Smoak say the women who have remained loyal to the group are why it has grown to all it is today.
“The women have brought their friends and a lot of them are hungry for a thing like this,” Saperstein says. “Some women come and say, ‘I’ve been looking for something like this in Austin for years and now I’ve found where I want to hang out.’ ”
The society gathers twice monthly at both the Impact Hub on North Lamar Boulevard and downtown’s Capital Factory. While the intent behind the meetings is clear, the personal and professional gain members receive is the ultimate reward.
To Lynan Saperstein and Ellen Smoak, the Society of Women Entrepreneurs can’t be successful without fun.
“If we’re not having fun doing this, we don’t want to do it,” Smoak says. “If the women aren’t having fun, they’re not going to want to be there.”
Saperstein explains women in tech make up the majority of those in other entrepreneurial groups in Austin, but for the Society of Women Entrepreneurs, the demographic goes beyond tech, with members working in graphic design, massage therapy, advertising, psychics, and health and wellness, among other industries.
Women in different stages of their businesses come to the gatherings, whether they’re college women looking for inspiration or angel investors. The diversity within the society creates a more resourceful group for women as they build better businesses.
Thanks to diversity within the community, members are presented with a variety of sources who are experts in their fields. They aid women entrepreneurs in any subject, from marketing to operational advice.
“How do we further train them so that we cannot just highlight the women’s brilliance, but actually make it accessible and readily available for other women?” Smoak says. “We’re not an incubator; we’re kind of like a mastermind.”
- Pushing Comfort Zones
The community gatherings challenge members in a new way each time. Community meetings help members network and mingle over snacks and drinks. The gathering then moves into a more formal meeting, beginning with grounding meditation to help members be present for the rest of the evening.
The next hour pushes members in a variety of connection and presentation games. Through this, Smoak explains, the Society of Women Entrepreneurs aims to be much more than just a networking event.
“What we find is the more that we can surprise them with different types of authentic, relating connection games or marketing games, the better prepared they are to go back into the world and present who they are as a person and as a company,” Smoak says.
“Nobody gets to be a wallflower. Everyone is given a little stretch push,” Saperstein adds.
As close as its members are at gatherings, that sense of community doesn’t stop there. The Society of Women Entrepreneurs’ online platforms continue the conversation and further connect women entrepreneurs.
“We want to create a space for women to get support both personally and professionally,” Saperstein says. “You can’t have one without the other to have a successful business.”
In less than two years, the organization has made waves for women entrepreneurs in Austin. Saperstein and Smoak aim to create a community that’s more than networking and leaving with a few tidbits. The duo works to give women a space to grow in all areas with the help of other women.