Jen Bonnett, vice president of innovation and entrepreneurship at SEDA (Savannah Economic Development Authority), describes herself as a recovering entrepreneur. Through the years, Bonnett has been involved in seven different technology startups. But in 2009, Bonnett decided to channel her years of experience, failures and successes, love of technology, and desire to help female entrepreneurs succeed, with a new initiative: StartupChicks, a nonprofit that specifically serves and coaches female entrepreneurs in their business ventures with a vision to “create a global community of female founders.”
Bonnett attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., where she majored in mathematics and computer science. She attributes her love of computers and technology to a basic computer language class she took during her senior year using a TRS-80. After college, Bonnett began her career in corporate America and became the vice president of a software company by age 28.
“That’s when I got the startup bug,” she says. “I found I always liked creating. I liked programming because it’s an act of creating.”
Bonnet’s first involvement with a technology startup was in 1997 with a friend who had the idea for a search engine (before Google, when Yahoo was still very basic).
“Most startups [I’ve been a part of] since then have been some element of my ideas,” says Bonnett. “The idea is important but the execution is key.”
After selling Nexpense, an expense management solution company, Bonnett joined the Georgia Institute of Technology as a coach and catalyst for the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC). Now with SEDA, Bonnett runs The Creative Coast, focusing on the collision of creatives and entrepreneurs through community-building activities, events, educational programs, and coworking spaces (labs) in Savannah, Georgia. Bonnett believes her own experience is key when coaching and working alongside entrepreneurs. She takes business ownership seriously, knowing full well the high cost of starting a business and employing people.
“It’s one thing to coach entrepreneurs through a bad day, realizing they won’t make payroll for the first time or have to close down a business,” says Bonnett. “When going through them you feel like you’re the only one who has ever been through this. I met with someone who had to lay people off and I remember when I had to do it. I still hurt from having to make that decision. When you hire people, you’re responsible for them. You’re responsible for their families, livelihoods, and mortgage payments. Having walked the walk and been an entrepreneur, I can often have conversations with folks who are going through difficult and awesome times and help in a meaningful way. I don’t think I could had I not walked it.”
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Bonnett is passionate about supporting entrepreneurs, specifically female entrepreneurs having experienced the corporate and startup world as a woman herself. StartupChicks’ mission is to inspire prospective entrepreneurs, connect like minded women and mentors, and to educate through seminars, workshops, and programs.
“All sorts of studies show that women in boardrooms make better boards — diverse boards make better boards,” explains Bonnett. “Companies grow faster with women at the table … There’s all sorts of gender studies that show women make better managers and make more educated decisions because they take time to do research. We take what started with the March on Washington that turned to the #metoo campaign and once and for all say we are equals. We refuse to be treated as anything less.”
Bonnett is hopeful — 2017 and 2018 have been banner years for women raising funding and growing scalable businesses. And because of this, more open conversations, and good changes in the corporate world, Bonnett believes the “future of entrepreneurship is female.”
With her computer science and programming background, Bonnett has always been drawn to technology companies. Studies show since 2009, most technology jobs are being started by small startup companies. A growing economy will require more focus on entrepreneurs, specifically technology entrepreneurs.
“I believe that entrepreneurs are the people to solve big problems,” says Bonnett. “We have a lot of big problems and I believe it’s entrepreneurs that are going to show the way.”