Women inspiring innovation


Lauren Whitehurst, co-founder, SoarTriangle


by Liza Roberts

Celebrating local women entrepreneurs

The Triangle is well-known as a hotbed of entrepreneurism. From global brands like Red Hat to fashion labels like Raleigh Denim, our local success stories span the worlds of technology, pharmaceuticals, consumer products, financial services, nonprofits, fashion, and design.

Next month, Walter is excited to partner with Bank of America to celebrate the women behind some of our area’s most innovative enterprises.

Our co-sponsored Women Inspiring Innovation event Sept. 10 will honor the achievements of six local women who have turned ideas into reality and changed our world in the process.

Each of our honorees will give a 5-minute TED-talk-style “WIN Talk” about their own individual entrepreneurial journey. They’ll tell us about the spark that got them started, the hurdles they’ve surmounted, and the lessons that they’ve learned.

They’ll do it in the elegant but informal surroundings of the Pavilion at the Angus Barn – a fitting venue, as it is owned and run by another of our region’s most successful female entrepreneurs, Van Eure. In addition to the iconic restaurant, Eure is also a force behind the Foundation of Hope, a groundbreaking nonprofit that raises money for the research and treatment of mental illness. Eure’s sister, Shelley Eure Belk, who serves as the Foundation’s executive director, is another of our community’s leading innovators.

Eure and Belk declined to “toot our own horn under our own roof” at the event, but their visionary leadership, spirit of innovation, and community spirit will set the evening’s tone.

We’ve got a lineup of women as diverse as the community that supports them. We will hear from Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who founded MedPro Rx, one of the country’s fastest-growing companies as ranked by Inc. Magazine. We’ll get the firsthand story of 17-year-old science pioneer and nonprofit founder Molly Paul’s adventures in a wider world.

We’ll hear from consultant and SoarTriangle principal Lauren Whitehurst, who’s working to close the funding gap female entrepreneurs face. We’ll get the scoop from techology pioneer Brooks Bell, co-founder of incubator HQ Raleigh and founder and CEO of her self-named, market-leading online conversion firm. Mobile farmers’ market visionary Guenevere Abernathy will tell us how she took the locavore movement on the road. And Green Chair Project co-founder Jackie Craig will share the story of how her generous spirit and work ethic have built one of the fastest-growing and most impactful nonprofits in the region.

Their stories are inspiring individually, and together paint a picture of the Triangle’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Lauren Whitehurst, co-founder SoarTriangle

When consultant Lauren Whitehurst moved to Durham eight years ago with her husband Jim Whitehurst for his then-new job as CEO of Red Hat, she founded her own consulting firm and became a visiting professor at Duke. With more than 15 years at Boston Consulting Group under her belt, she had a lot to offer.

But it wasn’t until she started spending time at Capitol Broadcasting-owned American Underground, a Durham incubator and co-working space, that Whitehurst says she began to “find her community.” The Underground was a bustling entrepreneurial ecosystem, eager for a “thought partner” with her bona fides, and ready for growth.

Whitehurst realized early on that the issues facing the Underground’s young companies were not necessarily different in kind from the challenges faced by her much-bigger BCG clientele, but they were different in scope. “A key insight for me was adapting my advice to the age of the company and the level of its resources.”

When Google came to the Underground and said it wanted to invest locally in female entrepreneurship as part of its #40Forward initiative, Whitehurst and a small group of like-minded folks did some research and learned some eye-opening statistics: Women receive less than 5 percent of annual venture funding, and yet women-led teams achieve 35 percent more return on investment than their male counterparts and 12 percent more revenue.

“Here is a real anomoly,” she says. “We wanted to right the wrongs, balance the imbalances.” Together the group founded SoarTriangle to do that. Today, with funds from Google, SAS, the Whitehursts, and American Underground, SoarTriangle mentors women-led companies, educates the start-up community, and conducts research on the status of women entrepreneurs.

“Not only do I really like giving back to the community; it’s also giving back to me,” Whitehurst says.

Jackie Craig, co-founder, the Green Chair Project. Photograph by Jillian Clark

Jackie Craig, co-founder, the Green Chair Project. Photograph by Jillian Clark


Jackie Craig, co-founder The Green Chair Project

This year, Raleigh’s the Green Chair Project will provide its 1,000th household in need with the furnishings that make a home. Rebuilding lives after homelessness, disaster, domestic violence, and other displacing events, the nonprofit’s clients come to Green Chair for more than vital necessities. They come for a fresh start.

The Project began five years ago, when merchandiser Jackie Craig and her friend Beth Smoot, a realtor, stashed a spare lamp and a hand-me-down toaster in a closet at Edenton Street United Methodist Church. They hoped to get the things into the hands of people who really needed them. Before the pair knew it, the closet was stuffed full. Pretty things, useful things – all in good shape, all needing a home. The friends found a bigger space in the Mordecai neighborhood, then a sprawling warehouse on Capital Boulevard. They called on agencies doing the hard work of getting people’s lives back on track, and got those folks the things they needed to start over.

Today the organization that started with a gut-instinct calling is a major operation. With five full-time and two part-time staffers, hundreds of volunteers, Jackie Craig as executive director, and a board of directors (including co-founder Beth Smoot), it now works with 50 partner agencies around the Triangle, and inhabits its fourth home.

The 30,000-square-foot showroom of well-kept rugs, couches, chairs, dressers, desks, artwork, bookshelves, kitchen and bath items, and other decor could easily be mistaken for a retail store. Part of the organization’s ethos is to honor the dignity of its clients, and it does that by offering them only tasteful, clean furnishings in good repair.

Craig believes that she found – and created – the work she is meant to do here. “It’s hard to deny the timing. At a time in my life when I had time to devote to it, I found something that culminates all my life experiences … my passion for volunteering and a lifetime of skills. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Molly Paul

Molly Paul, founder, Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption. Photograph by Chris Fowler


Molly Paul, founder Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption

Follow junior curator Molly Paul around the Museum of Natural Sciences on a weekday afternoon, and it’s clear that this 17-year-old science pioneer is an adored, homegrown phenom. “Our star,” one staffer calls her. She’s known by all for her work in and out of the museum, saving aquatic turtles and creating a STEM leadership camp for middle schoolers, and for her many awards and accolades, which include N.C. Youth Conservationist of the Year, Action for Nature’s Young Eco-Hero, City of Raleigh Youth Environmentalist, Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots National Youth Leadership Council – the list goes on. Most recently, she was a delegate to the U.N. to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the World Programme of Action for Youth.

In the museum’s animal collections room one afternoon, she feeds tortoises. “It’s like a toddler,” she says, “You have to put pretty colors in and make it smell good.” She’s been doing this kind of work here two days a week for more than four years, which explains her relaxed authority.

In the museum gift shop, staffers call out to show her that they’ve created a new display for her handmade turtle-shaped soaps, which she’s sold to raise more than $10,000 to help save aquatic turtles. Her work as founder and director of Raleigh Aquatic Turtle Adoption, which she began in 2006, is one of the reasons museum director Emlyn Koster chose her to join him at the White House to accept the museum’s 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

When Paul goes home, her science work doesn’t end. The St. Mary’s School junior rehabs turtles and takes four AP classes. “When you love it,” she says, “it doesn’t feel like work.”

Nancy McFarlane, Raleigh Mayor; founder, MedPro Rx

Nancy McFarlane, Raleigh Mayor; founder, MedPro Rx


Nancy McFarlane, Raleigh Mayor; founder MedPro Rx 

When Raleigh Mayor and MedPro Rx founder Nancy McFarlane was a high school student, her top score on an aptitude test opened her eyes. “If the taker of this test is male,” the results read, “he should be a surgeon, a physician, an attorney, or an architect; if the taker of this test is female, she should be a nurse, a surgical assistant, or a teacher.”

McFarlane says these comments inspired her to prove herself regardless of her sex by earning a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy at the Medical College of Virginia.

She then spent 22 years as a hospital and retail pharmacist before founding MedPro Rx, a specialty infusion pharmacy for patients with chronic illnesses. After four years as the head of her homeowners association and two terms on the Raleigh City Council, McFarlane was elected Mayor of Raleigh in 2011. She was reelected in 2013 and recently announced her plans to run again.

McFarlane was named one of the Top Women in Business by the Triangle Business Journal in 2009 and 2010 and one of the Triangle’s top entrepreneurs in 2013 by Business Leader magazine.

Her innovative spirit pervades her public service as well. A champion of business-friendly policies, she helped create the Small Business Initiative, creating a single point of contact for business permitting. And many credit her creative, collaborative approach with helping to forge the recent deal to create Raleigh’s central park at the Dorothea Dix campus.

Brooks Bell


Brooks Bell, founder Brooks Bell

Technology entrepreneur Brooks Bell launched her self-named company in 2003 by combining, as she says, her “study of psychology with a passion for digital design.”

The result brought right-brain marketing techniques together with left-brain scientific methodology for a new kind of online testing optimization business. It’s a niche that quickly found an eager market. The company grew quickly, and the Triangle Business Journal named Brooks Bell a “Best Place to Work” in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Bell is also the founder of Click Summit, a testing and optimization conference, and the co-founder of HQ Raleigh and ThinkHouse Raleigh, two communities that cultivate companies that produce jobs and positive social impact. She has also served as the president of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, as a member of the task force for Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and on the board of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

She has been named among “40 Under 40” by the Triangle Business Journal, the “Top 50 Entrepreneurs” by Business Leader, and serves on the board of the Digital Analytics Association.

Guenevere Abernathy, founder, LoMo Market

Guenevere Abernathy, founder, LoMo Market


Guenevere Abernathy, founder, LoMo Market

When Guenevere Abernathy launched LoMo Market to bring farm-fresh produce and local food directly to Triangle customers in 2012, it was her third entrepreneurial venture. The idea to create a farmers’ market on wheels came to her as the sale of her real estate conservation business was closing.

Abernathy had long been close to the local food movement; her work in real estate conservation and historic preservation had often involved farms. “Farmers were near and dear to my heart,” she says. She also loved what they grew. “Being a local foodie, I would be at the farmer’s market when the bell rang.” She realized that many of the local food entrepreneurs and farmers she knew had a hard time making a sustainable living from their work. “They’re…doing amazing things,” she says, “how could they get more market share?”

She learned that customers who cared about local food and wanted to buy it often lacked the time to seek it out. What if Abernathy could make it incredibly convenient? What if she could bring the market to the people? She figured out how to create a mobile point-of-sale and inventory system (it was early days for this kind of thing in 2012). She learned what kind of generator she’d need. Then, with the help of a part-time employee, she designed the truck itself.

Her first mobile market hit the streets in May 2012. Today there are three, serving neighborhoods and businesses across Raleigh, Cary, Chapel Hill, and Durham. Four full-time employees, including Abernathy, and eight to 10 part-time crew members serve 800 customers a week. “We really love working with emerging farmers and producers,” Abernathy says. Her plans are big. She aims to add two more mobile markets this year, and then to look for another market to tackle. “It’s been a huge learning opportunity.”

For WINnovation tickets, visit waltermagazine.com.