Women are Leading the Charge in One of America's Hottest Startup Cities

Friday, December 14, 2018

Women are Leading the Charge

By Jeff Barrett, CEO at Status Creative 
4-minute read

In short:

  • Columbus, Ohio, continually ranks as one of America’s most promising startup cities due to its educated population and a recent government grant and influx of VC funds.  

  • Writer Jeff Barrett visited the city recently to learn what makes its startup culture tick. At its center, he found a network of strong female leaders.

  • These leaders focus on sharing power and working together to create more business, a strategy that can grow other startup economies and your own organization.

You can learn a lot about a city from reading an in-flight magazine. It will tell you where to eat, wander and visit. But it won’t tell you why a city is growing or why its entrepreneurial economy has momentum

This past summer, I toured Columbus, Ohio to learn about its entrepreneurial culture and “how to grow something” there. As I visited business after business, I concluded that strong female leaders have banded together to grow the region by working together instead of fighting over one specific client. This is unique, especially in their field of marketing and communications.

“Women are in leadership positions at many of [Columbus’] largest companies, and there’s a strong network of women entrepreneurs,” said Heather Whaling, founder and president of Geben Communications, a local PR firm. 

Geben Communications is a core part of the Columbus female startup scene. (credit: Instagram/gebencomm) Geben

It turns out these women share certain traits that, based on my observations, keep the city’s entrepreneurial culture growing.

They believe there’s enough power to go around.

Whaling left a great job in 2009 to create something greater: a firm focused on pushing digital public relations boundaries while giving back. She could have hoarded the leadership for herself, but she didn’t. She created an organization in which 20 women, her employees, could grow. And though she didn’t tell me, she is also a mentor to numerous business leaders I met on my trip. Her name kept popping up as the person who gave someone their first job or first break or first piece of great advice. Nowhere in the entrepreneurial manual does it say you need to do that.

But Whaling’s habit of building others up has everything to do with growing your business. Your business will meet competition, politics and angling. But the more lives you touch, the more allies you’ll have through it all.

They “bake more pies.”

A similar theme emerged when I visited Treetree, an agency of special projects. The team comprises 25 members, mostly female, who are relaxed and actually enjoying what they do. Founder Becca Apfelstadt sat with me and talked more about the culture of Columbus than her agency while I petted a very adorable dog. Group Account Director Rachel Hillman showed me the agency’s major clients while casually chatting about a Beyonce and Jay-Z concert we’d both seen the night before. 

The team at Treetree values collaboration. (credit: Instagram/treetreeagency) Tree

The women at Treetree took their work very seriously, but they also weren’t gritting their teeth trying to grapple for a singular client. They fostered relationships knowing that if they did so, more clients would come around. The experience in their laid-back office reinforced my theory that a successful city economy is one that fosters collaboration between all major players in an industry. Too often, in too many cities, businesses fight for pieces of a small pie rather than collaborating to bake more pies.

They help their teams “live the brand.”

I’ve seen a lot of “fun” offices in my life. I’ve toured “startup cities” for 14 months. And I’ve learned that an “open office” isn’t open if your C-suite sits walled-off in corner rooms. I never saw that once in Columbus. The sentiment rang especially true when I visited Tenfold, whose offices look more like a well-appointed living room than a strategy and creative firm. Employees sit at clean, white desks, all in the same room, with slim-legged gray couches and orchids abounding.

“The design of the workplace exists as a channel of communication to associates and visitors,” said founder Rachel Friedman-Webb. “The result is improved associate engagement and an immersion in company purpose and values that enables associates to more fully and authentically live the brand.” 

Tenfold's office is open-plan. (credit: Instagram/tenfoldbrand) Ten Fold

Friedman-Webb has renovated the offices of ESPN and a dozen Fortune 500 companies. Her unique strategy is branding through interior design, telling a company’s story with its space. A branded office helps attract new hires, and as folks increasingly move from job-to-job, this becomes important for organizations. Her overall dogma is characteristic of the female leaders in Columbus: Sometimes, the lifestyle and relationships surrounding your work can make the difference between profitability and not.

 The bottom line

These are just three women in Columbus who make up a greater group of collaborators. It would be easy for them to be competitors; they all work in branding. But they aren’t. 

In their own ways, they express the game-changing idea that you can’t make it anywhere on your own and that if you don’t build up your city and the people around you, then you will never grow.

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