We sat down with five of Charlotte’s female founders to talk about collaboration, women helping women, and what’s on the horizon for Charlotte’s startup community.
Milkful, SkillPop, and The Waggle Company: Techstars’ selectees are six weeks into their program, and they already have big plans to bring what they’re learning back to the Charlotte startup community.
Three of Charlotte’s highest profile startups—The Waggle Company, SkillPop, and Milkful—were selected for Techstars, a prestigious Austin-based accelerator. These three businesses were among only ten selectees out of over 1,000 applicants. That such a large percentage were female founded, Charlotte-based companies means that Charlotte can expect an influx of big ideas when these founders return from their 13-week program.
All three of the companies were born from the experiences of the founders while living in Charlotte, and challenges they faced for which there was a need for better solutions.
Dina Carey, Milkful
Dina Carey didn’t fancy herself an entrepreneur, but she did see an opportunity help women and parents in a big way. From her own experiences as a mother, Milkful was born.
Carey coupled her culinary background with the challenges she faced while breastfeeding to create Milkful, a lactation oat bar brand that sells wholesome bars to increase breast milk supply. She’s now sold her product to thousands of moms, who have flooded her inbox with gratitude for the bars’ role in helping them achieve their nursing goals.
“Just hearing how our bars have played a role in helping them to meet their goals, or helping them through an emotional challenge— it is more rewarding than I could have ever imagined,” Carey said.
Meggie Williams, The Waggle Company
Meggie Williams founded The Waggle Company after started her company after her own dog ownership experience in Charlotte left her uninspired by the services and options available to dog owners in the area.
She began as its only dog walker, traveling by scooter — and has now raised $750,000 in seed round funding to expand The Waggle Company geographically.
The Waggle Company is a dog walking service that utilizes tech to provide peace of mind, trust, and convenience for its clients (including through GPS mapping and real-time updates). When The Waggle Company took off almost solely through word of mouth, Williams knew that they were on to something.
“We knew that we had something because people stuck around, they kept using it, they loved the experience, and Waggle became a part of their lifestyle—part of their routine…it’s way more than dog walking,” Williams says. “It’s peace of mind.”
Haley Bohon, SkillPop
Haley Bohon is a lifelong learner, and in a city as dynamic as Charlotte she knew she wasn’t alone in wanting better ways to cultivate experiences, learning and connection. She founded SkillPop to give people a way to do that in-person — and now they are, in four markets and counting.
“It felt to me that learning should be much simpler as an adult,” Bohon says. She has now seen the power of what making that learning more accessible can do, with SkillPop customers reporting back that they’ve made friends, developed hobbies, networked, and facilitated career changes.
Lauren Miller and Olivia Wolff, UpDog Kombucha
Lauren Miller and Olivia Wolff started UpDog Kombucha out of their Wake Forest dorm room with nothing but a brand name and a vision. They’ve transformed that vision into a 2,000 square foot brewery, a distinct product sold in over 80 locations, and a loyal community following.
They differentiate themselves by being accessible — both in flavor and through in-person customer service.
“We offer nuanced kombucha, without making it overly sweet or vinegary for the general public to enjoy,” Wolff said. “As a business we strive to offer the best customer service around, and to build and maintain relationships within our market in the process.”
It’s something they accomplish, in part, through their kegerator model. They’ve installed kombucha on-tap across Charlotte (and in many of their other locations). The process of installing and restocking their taps means that they are constantly connecting with clients in person as they grow their brand. UpDog drinkers know their founders.
What is the female founder experience here in Charlotte?
It’s a fairly normal one, these five women say. It’s one in which being a female founder seems to melt quickly into the backdrop, ensuring that it’s the founder role that takes center stage.
“If you’re good enough, nobody will stop you,” Williams says, and the others agree.
That confidence has been earned, and many of these women have no shortage of experience operating in male-dominated spaces. Bohon remembers looking around her engineering classrooms in college and counting how many (or rather, how few) other women were in the room.
Carey, too, notes that while it’s something she rarely thinks about anymore, speaking publicly about breastfeeding and using words like “lactation” were adjustments as her business took off.
“Something I love so much about these mentor and investor meetings that I’m walking into, with predominantly males in the room — I could not be more comfortable talking about these things,” Carey said. “I think one of the things I’ve delighted in most, is when the guy sitting across from me just kind of looks at me and is nodding, and then lets you know that he remembers this, when his wife was going through it years ago. It has affected so many men, and so many husbands, and it’s so cool to hear it from their perspectives.”
Miller and Wolf, both fewer than two years out of college, have brought determination to ensuring that neither their age nor their gender inhibit them in what they describe as the “hyper-masculine world of brewing.” Much like all of these businesses in their youngest stages, they’ve earned being taken seriously.
“Moving to a new city as a young woman business owner, in a world where the beer culture is so strong, like in Charlotte, it was and sometimes still is hard for me to break through,” Wolff said. “But eventually, we got some good press…and people realized, ‘Oh—she’s not just some girl running a lemonade stand.’”
They still experience a disconnect in the innumerable customer requests they receive for their product at breweries compared with local breweries’ hesitation to carry a non-alcoholic specialty beverage like kombucha.
But along the way, when the UpDog girls have been tested — whether being stood up at meetings, or meeting clients surprised to discover they are the founders rather than employees—they’ve responded with positivity. “We just try to do better on our end,” Miller said. Their following have responded in kind, noticing the team’s dedication to the customer experience and recognizing the brand as a personable, community-based one.
Bohon, Williams, Carey, Wolff and Miller talk a lot about women helping women and Charlotte helping Charlotte. The startup community does a lot of that, and these businesses work to provide the same for their customers.
For example, when Carey started Milkful, she created a community for women struggling with a deeply emotional challenge of motherhood. Difficulties with breastfeeding are often accompanied by shame, and Carey strives to make Milkful a community that supports mothers through more than just the product itself.
“I’m wanting to connect all of our moms with other moms that might be at the same stage as them, [giving them] more of that community, that network, that accountability in a way, and also just support,” Carey said. “I know that [not] every woman that eats our bars will necessarily see their production double. Certainly, some women have had that response, which is incredible, but I struggle with the fact that not everyone sees those incredible results. I want to still support those women in other ways. I’m really trying to think about what that means as a brand and how we can better support all of our customers.”
Bohon’s creation of SkillPop also does a lot to further the communities and resources that people have access to, with a desire to see Charlotte improve as a core value underlying that.
Many of these women are intentional about surrounding themselves with female peers and, more generally, fellow Charlotte-based entrepreneurs who inspire them and who they can support in turn. Miller and Wolff work with local networks including Ellevate to that end, and Williams has collaborated deeply with startups 2U Laundry and Ecomdash and networks like StartCharlotte and Charlotte Pitch Breakfast.
“I think that the mentorship and the environment here, I have never felt limited,” said Williams of Techstars and here experiences with the Charlotte community. “I have always felt like if you work hard enough and ask for the support, you’ll find it.”