“As women, we can’t be afraid to ask for what we want. Men always do. But the women I’ve worked with tend to stay quiet. Don’t. Speak up and set new standards. Make your idea heard,” encouraged LÄRABAR founder Lara Merriken at last week’s Women in Venture conference.
In 2018, women received only 2.2% out of the $96.7 billion available in venture capital funding, and women of color received less than 1%. Women in Venture wants to change that…starting now!
On Thursday, February 21st, more than 250 alumni, students, and female business leaders from across the country came together at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary for RAISE – a mega-region Women in Venture conference. The half-day symposium is one of many events this year celebrating William & Mary’s 100th anniversary of admitting its first female students. Other notable events are Katherine A. Rowe’s inauguration as W&M’s first woman president and the 4th annual Women’s Stock Pitch & Leadership Summit in late March. This mega region event featured a keynote address by Lara Merriken, the founder of LÄRABAR, as well as multiple workshops and networking opportunities aimed at educating women on the investment experience and entrepreneurial journey.
Merriken, who now works for General Mills as a brand consultant and advisor, spoke to her experience building LÄRABAR into the top-selling brand it is today. In 2000, Merriken was recently divorced and without a job when she decided to start making energy bars made solely out of fruits, nuts, and spices. While working at Whole Foods part-time to learn more about the health food industry, Merriken worked on crafting indulgent recipes – using nothing more than a rolling pin and her Cuisinart! After three years perfecting her product, Merriken’s LÄRABAR hit stores and became an instant success. Five years later, in 2008, Merriken sold LÄRABAR to General Mills where it remains one of the company’s best and fastest selling brands.
“I had a passion for something – I had an idea, and I went for it. I made it happen. And that’s what I’m most proud of. To me, that’s my greatest accomplishment,” Merriken said. “You have to do whatever it takes – even if you’ve been up the entire night before making bars for a demo the next morning – to get your idea where you want it to be.”
Connor Glendinning, a senior studying History and Finance with a concentration in Entrepreneurship, noted that “it was so interesting to see the progression of her business. To see how she developed both in terms of her entrepreneurial skill and as a person over the lifetime of her business, from its inception to being bought by General Mills, was really inspiring.”
“She really emphasized having a passion for what you do, and how having that, combined with hard work, you can never really go wrong,” said junior Kristina Posner. “Anything you do is going to be hard, but having a passion for what you do is really the key to endurance which enables you to still find excitement and reward in your work. At the end of the day, hard work can only get you so far. You have to be excited about what you’re doing.”
In addition to Merriken, event speakers included U.S. Reps. Elaine Luria and Abigail Spanberger, Mason Dixie Biscuit Co. CEO and co-founder Ayeshah Abuelhiga, and Old Dominion University’s Strome Entrepreneurial Center’s Executive Director Nancy Grden. Speakers led sessions on key investment terminology, how angel investors navigate early-stage investment deals, what to expect after investing in a startup, and how entrepreneurs decide whether to take private capital.
“I learned actual steps for the future about angel investing and how to encourage women to help other women, not just financially, but in all aspects of entrepreneurship to create an impact on the start-up ecosystem and the national economy. What a difference getting more women investors would make!” said senior Natalie Marcotullio. Marcotullio is a Marketing major concentrating in Entrepreneurship and facilitated a Q&A session between Merriken and current W&M students.
“We need people to be doing good things,” concluded Merriken during her address, “So stay innovative, and be true to yourself. And remember, that in any industry, there’s always room for more.” Within the world of business, there’s plenty of room for more products, more women, and more diversity. And as more and more female students choose to study business here at William & Mary, perhaps soon we’ll see more of our alumnae running their own companies and being more and more innovative.