UI to use NSF grant to help women, minorities

By Lily Mashayek

By Lilly Mashayek

Staff writer

Women and minorities looking to start their own companies will now be able to get a little extra help from a new program at the University.

A $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, NSF, will be used to fund programs for women and minorities in entrepreneurial startup companies.

The Accelerating Women and underRepresented Entrepreneurs, AWARE, program is funded as a part of the Small Business Innovation Research branch, SBIR, at the NSF. Jed Taylor, director of operations at the Technology Entrepreneur Center and principal investigator of the grant, said the NSF reached out to the University after seeing the success of their Illinois Conservation of Resources and Energy (iCORE) program.

According to the Illinois IDEALS website, iCORE “strives to achieve measurable energy and water conservation improvements among Illinois’ small, rural communities and businesses, focusing primarily on the manufacturing sector.”

(https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/46465)

“The NSF was impressed with iCORE, and they wanted us to pilot this program,” he said. “This is the first time the AWARE program has existed.”

One of the key factors influencing the AWARE program is the fact that women and minorities are largely underrepresented in startup companies, said Laura Frerichs, director of Research Park.

“Percentages are very small of how many (tech companies) are female-founded or minority-founded,” she said. “Investors of startup companies, which a lot of tech startups will pursue, are predominantly men — I think 90% are men.”

Some of the programs that will be offered within AWARE include funding for proof-of-concept grants, training for SBIR proposals and grants and workshops to help participants with their startup companies.

Outside of AWARE, there are other programs currently in place to help startup companies, such as the Women in Tech group that runs through Research Park, Frerichs said.

The University also offers a program called the I-Start Entrepreneur Assistance Program, I-Start, which provides services for startup companies — such as accounting advice — that companies can apply for.

“I-Start is a package of professional services that are tailored around what companies need when they’re starting out,” said Karin O’Connor, entrepreneurial resident with AWARE.

While AWARE will act separately from previous programs at the University and iCORE, a lot of the same goals and ideas remain the same.

“Our hope is to create a program that can be replicated in other places,” O’Connor said. “That is how iCORE started out, and now there are iCORE programs going in a number of different places.”

O’Connor said the AWARE program differs from other programs aimed at helping minorities and women looking to start their own companies, because it doesn’t try to create a “separate but equal” program.

“I have seen a number of attempts; however, often times they follow a misguided pattern of creating a different track for women, sort of a parallel universe,” she said. “There are problems with that.”

In order to avoid this problem, O’Connor said the AWARE program will encourage women to create start ups through mainstream programs.

“We’re not setting up a separate iCORE that’s just for women,” she said. “We are encouraging women to come into iCORE with everybody else. Same with the minorities, why should they be in a different group, they need to be in the group.”

The AWARE program is just starting out but O’Connor said they are already putting together programming. A panel will be held Thursday to discuss some of the struggles women face when starting their own companies. Additional workshops are planned for May that will offer more resources for startups.

“With that philosophy in mind, we have a really good chance of being successful,” O’Connor said.

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