When Washington State native Jennifer Donogh was recruited out of college by her parents to take an ownership stake in Ovaleye, their cloud computing and web hosting company, she discovered that the conventional networking model–cocktail parties and conferences stocked with middle-aged business owners–was of little benefit for her. “I was 22 years old, this girl at the networking events, where people were like, ‘Oh, are you here for your mom?’” she remembers. “It was really uncomfortable. I’d always leave feeling horrible about myself.”
Frustrated, Donogh went out looking for her peers, and found a girlfriend who was hosting an all-female meetup group in her living room for five or so young women who had made the decision to leave the corporate workforce and strike out on their own. When the friend had a baby, Donogh took over the group’s leadership, and coined its new name: Young Female Entrepreneurs. “I changed the name to make it very black and white: This group is for women in their 20s and 30s that own their own businesses,” Donogh says. “We moved into the boardroom of a local co-working space [in Seattle], and about 12 or 15 people would show up. It was growing in popularity. But I live out in the rural Northwest, so to drive into the city for in-real-life stuff was just silly.”
Luckily, thanks to Ovaleye, Donogh had the resources to move the community online, launching the YFE website at the beginning of 2011. “That’s when it really took off,” she says. “People would search for ‘young female entrepreneurs,’ and of course we would pop up. I had people in New York contacting me and asking, ‘Why can’t we have YFE here?’”
Today, YFE.com’s informal membership numbers in the thousands, with hubs for real-life meetups in New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. But the community’s real heart lies in online opportunities like YFEtv, a weekly livestreamed video chat, and the bi-weekly Twitter chats Donogh launched in March of 2011 under the hashtag #YFEchat. “Everything that Young Female Entrepreneurs does online is utilizing technology that young women already use,” she says. “It’s not crazy to ask them to jump onto Twitter, they’re already there. We have a topic, the YFE Twitter handle moderates the questions, and people connect and say, ‘Hey, we have similar interests, similar goals, and our businesses are serving similar audiences, let’s do some sort of joint venture.’” The YFE team has since expanded the Twitter chats to welcome guests and partners, and in late September, they teamed up with CNN International’s Leading Women team to co-host a chat with The End of Men author Hanna Rosin.
Speaking of those men, here’s an obvious question: Why restrict the community to women only? “I get this all the time,” Donogh sighs. “As a young entrepreneur, we all are going through similar life transitions. But women have that added piece”–she’s talking about babies, people–“and things are just different.” While the majority of women involved in YFE don’t have children yet, many of them have voluntarily left the corporate world to start a solo business, “where they have complete control over their schedule, what clients they work with, and what type of money they can bring in, for the sole purpose, almost, of planning for when they’re going to have a family,” says Donogh (who has a son). That said, the male perspective is always welcomed. In fact, this month’s YFEtv chats have all featured men as guests. “It sounded silly at first, but it’s crazy how many young women don’t do peer-to-peer mentorship with male entrepreneurs,” says Donogh. “I think we can learn a lot from our male counterparts.”
Currently, Donogh is prepping for the first-ever YFE web conference, slated for November 15, featuring a combination of online panels and lectures, as well as a scheduled “Hangout Breakout,” night-before “Online Happy Hour,” and afterparties in the four cities with YFE hubs. As with any of her initiatives, Donogh hopes the event will continue to grow a support network, ensuring that “solo” is no longer short for “so lonely.” “You don’t realize how good you have it when you work for a corporation where you have basically a nice little group of friends,” Donogh says. “This has filled that void. I’m able to build relationships with people that get what I’m doing. We can talk to one another, figure out what we’re doing right, and what someone else is doing right that we can apply in our own business. You don’t have to be doing this alone.”
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.