Golden opportunity: Investment organization links women entrepreneurs with funding, feedback

When it comes to funding and mentoring the next generation of women leaders, New Jersey quickly got down to business.

With a (less than optimal) start date of about a month before the pandemic’s 2020 kickoff, New Jersey’s Golden Seeds, a seed-stage investment firm focusing on women entrepreneurs, is one of the newest iterations of this nationwide initiative.

But it’s already one of the largest, according to Kathleen Coviello, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s chief economic transformation officer.

Across the eight chapters of Golden Seeds, an organization that has invested in more than 200 companies since its 2005 formation, New Jersey’s chapter ranks as the third-largest — and it’s closing in on the No. 2 spot.

“At Golden Seeds, a lot of the focus is on supporting female-led entrepreneurs through what we call monthly office hours, and our first one had to go virtual, before anyone else was, because of the pandemic,” Coviello said. “We’re extremely proud of the success we’ve had despite launching at a difficult time. Maybe it was just the right time — to ensure we had support for so many women-led businesses struggling at that point in time.”

Any up-and-coming business has a difficult path, Coviello said. But, among entrepreneurs, she added, women tend to lack the sort of network or background experience that would serve as an advantage when going out to raise capital.

That’s making for gaps, such as only 19% of companies receiving startup funding being woman-run businesses. Golden Seeds is out to address that across the country, with local chapters that identify promising women entrepreneurs and link them with investment, mentoring and networking opportunities.

The New Jersey chapter, which was founded with the support of first lady Tammy Murphy and the NJEDA, was one of the first innovation-focused public-private partnerships forged under the Gov. Phil Murphy administration.

“And it’s an important one, because it addresses a key pillar in the administration’s strategic economic development plan: Making New Jersey the most diverse innovation economy,” Coviello said.

The organization relies on the participation of high net worth individuals taking their own reserves and investing into businesses. New Jersey’s chapter of Golden Seeds now has 33 of those members committed to engaging with the entrepreneurial community, on top of partnerships with accelerator and business incubator programs.

Those members have met with 154 entrepreneurs across almost all of the state’s 21 counties since the launch of the New Jersey chapter in February 2020. Not all of them have been ready for funding. In fact, a large majority haven’t.

“So, these women are also getting constructive feedback from folks that have been there,” Coviello said. “In the past, you might have had to hire someone for that, and it costs a significant amount of dollars if you hired a consultant. … Bringing this wealth of knowledge we have from talented folks in New Jersey to this amazing crop of female entrepreneurs is the secret to success here.”

Often, the entrepreneur doesn’t walk away with a check, Coviello said.

“But, many times it’s about discussions of: Did you think about who your customer is going to be? Have you thought about this other competitor? Do you realize someone else did this three years ago? Do you know there’s this market condition or legislation?” she said. “It becomes this hands-on, nurturing information session.”

Other times, walking away with a check is exactly what happens.

Madhu Stemmermann.

Two women-led businesses did last year, including Eatontown-based manufacturer SunRay Scientific. Coviello calls SunRay’s CEO, Madhu Stemmermann, a “tenacious” leader, who combined the funding she received through Golden Seeds with other local investment groups, such as Tech Council Ventures.

“(SunRay’s) story is one of community building, networking and understanding that — again — not one resource brings you across the finish line, but there has to be this multitude of opportunities,” Coviello said.

On the economic development front, there’s an expected benefit to keeping entrepreneurs such as Stemmermann invested in the Garden State. If she ends up seeing success and exiting her company, Coviello said, the hope is that she’d continue to grow with another business in New Jersey — replicating the cycle that led to an ecosystem like Silicon Valley being what it is today (except with a whole lot more diversity, the thinking goes).

Coviello believes in the potential for long-term continuity of this public-private partnership. She’s also eager to include the next generation of women entrepreneurs in that future.

“Not only do we want to make sure we have the tools to support these companies along the way; we often partner with universities, because we want to make sure we have resources for future graduates to think about how they’re going to start a business in New Jersey,” she said. “Opening up the vision of opportunities in New Jersey to create and grow your own business as a career path is something we’re keenly focused on for this next generation of graduates.”