Women driving the surge in U.S. innovation

Start-Up NY's Leslie Whatley: Today's entrepreneurs are part of an ongoing cultural shift.

By GREGORY ZELLER // Almost 15 percent of Americans are launching or running a startup, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor reports, the highest rate ever recorded in GEM’s 16 years of research.

And the numbers get bigger from there: Twenty-four-million Americans are engaged in startup activities, with another 14 million running established small businesses. Optimism is also at a 16-year high – 51 percent of all Americans see good startup opportunities – and pessimism is inching down, with only 30 percent of Americans fearing startup failure, according to GEM, which was launched in 1999 by Babson College of Massachusetts and the London Business School.

Leslie Whatley, the Empire State Development executive vice president in charge of the state’s Start-UP NY program, isn’t surprised.

“It’s been a cultural shift for years now,” Whatley told Innovate LI. “Decades ago, you started with a company and hoped to stay there forever. Today, people get an idea and want to develop it themselves, without the constraints of a big company.”

Innovation certainly plays a major role, according to the GEM report. Among entrepreneurs, 36 percent believe they’re innovators, offering unique products or services.

While Whatley specifically noted that “millennials like the idea of independence,” U.S. entrepreneurs are generally getting older, accoding to GEM: Eleven percent are 55- to 64-years-old, the highest rate of fifty and sixtysomething entrepreneurs among 29 developed economies surveyed.

And they’re increasingly female. The percentage of women among U.S. entrepreneurs is now 11 percent, among the highest rates in the developed world, with women outpacing men in the innovation economy: Forty-one percent of female entrepreneurs qualify as innovators, compared to 34 percent of males.

If Whatley isn’t surprised – “some of the constraints that existed on women historically are falling away,” she said – neither are some of Long Island’s most successful female entrepreneurs.

Decision Nutrition founder Keren Gilbert: Counseling, a cookbook, bagels and much more to come.

Decision Nutrition founder Keren Gilbert.

Keren Gilbert, a registered dietician who launched Great Neck startup Decision Nutrition in 2009 and has built the firm into a multimedia health-and-nutrition empire, noted the motivational effect of “more women in power than ever.”

“Young women are feeling empowered and motivated and able to accomplish great things,” she said. “Hillary Clinton running for president. [Former Hewlett-Packard CEO] Carly Fiorina in the Republican primary. Meg Whitman moving from eBay to Hewlett-Packard. Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo.

“And she’s going on maternity leave,” Gilbert added, of Mayer. “She’s still being a woman, while running one of the largest Internet companies in the world. I’m inspired.”

Marie Arturi, who launched Riverhead-based presentation software firm Buncee in 2010 and has grown it into a hot educational platform, said the rise of female entrepreneurs reflects a lesson she learned decades ago, while working as an IT consultant.

“In IT, we used to say you could be a green Martian and it wouldn’t matter,” Arturi said. “Whether you were a man or a woman, if you were talented, you could succeed.”

Today, the Internet is the great neutralizer, she added. “If you have a great idea, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are or how old you are. Everyone has a shot.”

That was certainly the case with Decision Nutrition, which the Gilberts – Keren and her husband Jonathon – have grown from a neighborhood consulting business with a limited client base – women around Keren’s age, married with kids, living close by – to a wide-ranging healthy-living mainstay complete with a popular diet plan, a new book and a growing food line. There have also been multiple appearances for Keren on the “Today” show and “Access Hollywood.”

Technology has been key, according to Jonathan, especially social media and online exposure. But, like Whatley, the cofounder also noted the need for independence – specifically Keren’s determination after a career that bounced from a residency at Mount Sinai Hospital to clinical work for United Cerebral Palsy to a stint in a Glen Cove pediatrician’s office. And finally to entrepreneur.

“A lot of people just don’t want to work for someone else,” he said. “They have ideas and they want to execute those ideas themselves.”

Buncee founder Marie Arturi: The startup's pivot toward education continues to earn high marks.

Buncee founder Marie Arturi.

Arturi noted a similar DIY attitude behind Buncee’s launch. After her 7-month-old daughter died from a rare blood disorder, Arturi spent a decade running a foundation, raising funds for Diamond-Blackfan anemia research. When the foundation missed out on a sizeable federal grant in 2010, she decided it was time “to earn money, rather than raise money.”

Focused at first on creating a push-button social media connection for the many healthcare professionals involved in her daughter Daniella’s case, the former IT consultant quickly realized she had a hot commercial commodity. Buncee has subsequently grown, primarily through the 2013 introduction of Buncee for Edu, an award-winning digital-connection platform being used by schools in 48 states and 71 countries.

Boldness helps, according to Arturi, who suggests she’s likely missing the gene that controls “fear and reason.” But, like the Gilberts, she credits much of her success to self-sufficiency instincts and right-time, right-place technologies.

“It’s a whole new paradigm of what careers can look like,” Arturi said. “Now, if you have an idea, you can just go after it.”

According to ESD’s Whatley, many of the early-stage companies in Start-Up NY – which creates tax-beneficial hot zones around universities and other research institutions – recognize that “the innovation economy is about new and disruptive technologies.”

Which just might explain the GEM report, said Whatley, who also has come to recognize the allure of entrepreneurism.

“I never would have thought of it 20 years ago,” she said. “But I did 30 years in big business and now I’m doing a government stint. Capitalizing on these experiences in my later years, figuring out how to put them to work as an independent company, is an exciting prospect.

“There are many interesting opportunities,” Whatley added. “My mind has shifted, along with a lot of other minds.”