New Florida High Tech Corridor program to help women entrepreneurs in need of funds – Orlando Business Journal

Amy Beaird earned a doctorate in chemical engineering and spent years working with startups, and she’s witnessed firsthand the challenges many women entrepreneurs face in accessing funding. 
Beaird, senior cluster manager for the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, will help reduce some of the barriers by overseeing the implementation of an initiative to equip more Central Florida women-owned businesses to tap into one of the nation’s biggest early-stage funding sources.
A team led by the Orlando-based Florida High Tech Corridor Council last month won a $150,000 grant as part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research Catalyst Competition. 
As a result, the corridor and its partners are working to implement a regional program to get more women entrepreneurs involved with the SBA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, Beaird told Orlando Inno. The corridor’s team includes four university-backed business development programs: the University of Central Florida Business Incubation Program, the University of South Florida’s USF Connect, Collaboratory for Inclusive Entrepreneurship at the University of Florida and weVenture Women’s Business Center at Florida Tech. 
Small Business Innovation Research grants, known as SBIR grants, are awarded by the federal government to small businesses to fund research and development, especially in high-tech fields. SBIR grants help entrepreneurs get off the ground as they ready their product for commercialization. Unlike venture or angel capital, SBIR grants are non-dilutive and a business owner doesn’t give away any ownership in the company by taking the funds. 
However, the corridor wants more women-owned small businesses to apply for these grants. A 2020 report by the National Women’s Business Council found that just 13% of phase one SBIR grant awardees are women-owned businesses. That means the proportion of winners is slightly less than the 16.8% of U.S. businesses in the professional, scientific and technical sectors that are women-owned, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 
The Catalyst Competition initiative starts with talks among the four partners to share best practices and recognize each program’s strengths, Beaird said. The goal of the program is to let women entrepreneurs tap into the best each partner has to offer, from business support resources to technology commercialization assistance. Plus, the corridor’s program will connect women entrepreneurs with business mentors, help them competitively apply for SBIR grants and highlight successful SBIR awardees. 
The focus is on entrepreneurs in the STEM fields, Beaird said. The corridor expects companies that spin out of universities or use their research to be a major part of the program. That’s another advantage of the partnerships with the universities, Beaird said. The corridor easily can find promising businesses through university business incubator programs. “It’s all about serving women in the region and elevating them.” 
The practices the corridor will pursue line up with successful initiatives noted by the National Women’s Business Council in its 2020 report. “Outreach methods included leveraging external networks, particularly social media, partnering with professional organizations that serve diverse populations, participating in webinars, sponsoring conferences and developing success stories highlighting women.”
This program is important for a few reasons. First, it opens the door for more women entrepreneurs to fund and grow tech firms. That’s important for increasing the diversity of metro Orlando’s tech scene, which real estate brokerage CBRE ranks as the fourth-least diverse in the U.S. for women. Women make up 25% of Central Florida’s tech workforce, compared to women making up 53% of total office workers. 
Plus, the growth of these companies can lead to the generation of high-wage jobs. The average Orlando wage for tech occupations is $89,180, according to a 2021 study by CBRE. That’s higher than metro Orlando’s $48,530, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Startups also create innovative solutions for businesses, help develop a community and make it easier for other new companies to form in the future. 
Anyone interested in participating in the program can reach out via the Florida High Tech Corridor’s website or email Amy Beaird at [email protected] 
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