It’s time to set InnovateHER KC on the path to long-term growth, said Lauren Conaway, announcing her plans to leave the Kansas City Startup Foundation in early July to lead the womxn-focused startup full-time.
“InnovateHER KC’s No. 1 priority right now is building out our community with intention,” said Conaway, founder of InnovateHER KC and director of operations for KCSF. “Hundreds of our members have been added within the last three months, and that number is growing every day. But that’s only one metric, a data point. What really matters is the value women receive from being a part of this community. If the group were to become another sales channel for people to sell their products or a negative, angry space, that would be the worst outcome to me and avoiding that takes deliberate stewardship and culture building.”
Founded in 2018 initially as “Startup Sheroes”, InnovateHER KC is currently organized as a membership-based LLC, designed to create a support system around strong, diverse female and female-identifying leaders, Conaway said. With enough fiscal sponsorship, the startup ultimately could become a 501(c)3, she said.
Click here to learn more about Conaway’s passion for InnovateHER KC.
“How do we elevate women in leadership? How do we support them? Amplify their efforts and connect them to others who can help them?” she said. “Whether you are a startup founder, or an educator, or a community advocate … as a woman leading what we call ‘radical, positive change’ in your community at the macro or micro level, what do you need to thrive?”
“There are a lot of pieces that make a woman’s journey into leadership unique,” she added, “Even more so when you’re a woman of color or intersectionally part of any other underoptimized group — different viewpoints, struggles and tactics, and so connecting and working with other women who have had or are having similar experiences across disciplines can be transformational.”
Conaway joined KCSF in 2017 as community and events manager, rapidly taking on additional responsibilities as needed by the growing organization, which runs such programs as Startland News, MECA Challenge, Startup Crawl KC and Back2KC.
“Lauren has been an invaluable part of the KCSF team over the past couple of years,” said Adam Arredondo, CEO of KCSF, noting Conaway’s versatile roles ranging from human resources to marketing and event management to accounting. “Although her contributions are many, I’d say her biggest contribution has been to MECA Challenge — KCSF’s one-day student innovation competitions — which she has really gotten down to a science. MECA Challenges have many moving parts and participants and she developed a system that works masterfully. Lauren has also done an amazing job building out an impressive mentor network of more than 100 people.”
Crafting InnovateHER KC was inspired by her work with the ecosystem builders at KCSF, Conaway said, as well as the individual women leaders she met during her day-to-day interactions in the community.
“I was seeing them briefly at events and touching base or talking about coffee some day in the future, but we weren’t forging lasting, deep connections because we were so busy and focused on achieving our goals in that moment,” she said.
Click here to learn more about InnovateHER KC and how to join.
Watch below for an announcement of Conaway’s planned departure, from this month’s KCSF newsletter.
Watching InnovateHER KC evolve dramatically in just a few months since those early revelations has been amazing, said Arredondo.
“From the first casual mani/pedi get-together less than a year ago to where it is today, it is so exciting to see. The community clearly needs what Lauren and the IHKC team is building,” he said. “We’ve loved seeing many of the women in KCSF’s network engage with and become leaders of InnovateHER. We are also glad that we were able to fund several of IHKC’s early events to help it get off the ground.”
InnovateHER KC wouldn’t be possible without its incubation at KCSF and support from the organizations leaders, Arredondo and Matthew Marcus, director of development, Conaway said.
“The work that I have done through KCSF is really the only reason I can do InnovateHER KC,” she said. “KCSF is all about community building — which is both a skill and a calling — and I was fortunate to learn the value in that and how to do it effectively from some of the best. Adam and Matthew are quintessential community builders. It’s core to who they are, and luckily for me, they were patient and willing to teach me. Everything we do in IHKC is an extension of that.”
Conaway credits KCSF with helping teach her the intricacies of non-profit management, network building and the “give-first” culture of the startup community, she said. Such lessons already have manifested themselves in InnovateHER KC’s development of a Diverse Speaker directory and Womxn-Led Business directory, as well as the coming Sept. 9-13 Women’s Empowerment Week.
“Above all, we are hyper-aware that silos don’t serve anyone so we’re open to collaboration opportunities,” she said.
In a perfect world, InnovateHER KC wouldn’t need to exist, said Sarah Shipley, KCSF’s board chair and a leading advisor for IHKC, but the reality of Kansas City’s startup ecosystem is that people of different genders aren’t funded or treated equitably.
“Women have banded together successfully for years. From early agricultural societies to World War II, women have shown an ability to toss aside differences for the greater good,” said Shipley. “Many of us have experienced lower pay, sexism, and substandard treatment because we are women. With the #MeToo movement, data on inequalities in funding, and the last election, women are coming together on political issues, social issues and on entrepreneurial issues. This triplicity along with other factors (social media, transparent membership and an organic agenda) make InnovateHER KC resonate with women from micro-business to Main Street.”
As Conaway transitions out of KCSF, much of the ecosystem building organizations operational duties will move to Jessica Powell, who also will continue managing KCSF’s annual events, Back2KC and Startup Crawl.
“Jessica is more than qualified for this role after being co-founder and COO of FUND Conference for almost four years,” said Arredondo. “In addition to Jessica’s shift, we will be hiring a second full-time employee for our rapidly growing education work led by Katie Kimbrell, KCSF’s director of education.”