To kick off Women’s History Month, the University of North Florida hosted the eighth annual PS27 Female Founders Forum on Friday in a sold-out event that welcomed inspirational guest speakers and the opportunity to build meaningful connections among other female founders in the community.
The event centered around “embracing equity” and the value of supporting female founders through a sense of community and other resources needed to succeed in the workforce.
Addressing a room filled with waves of women in red, Jaclynn “Jax” Brennan was the first speaker to motivate the crowd with her story and experiences. Brennan is the founder of Fylí, which stands for ‘tribe’ in Greek and ‘family’ in Latin. Fylí is a Network as a Service (NaaS) business for early-stage female founders, offering education, accountability, mentorship and funding opportunities.
When Brennan left the corporate world of fashion a few years ago to start a brand new technology company for the fashion industry, she was met with failure. But the tech company’s failure showed Brennan the needs of female founders like herself and inspired her to start her own company dedicated to helping women in business find resources, guidance and accountability throughout their journey.
Her story exemplified the process of turning failure into inspiration and the importance of building a tribe and community that will constantly support you along the way.
“I was going to women’s networking events, but they weren’t talking about raising capital. I just felt there was a need, there was a lack, and that’s why I created Fylí,” said Brennan.
Next on stage was Sarah Kauss, the original sole founder of S’well water bottles – a brand that started with just a 17-ounce bottle and a pure desire to reduce single-use plastics, turned into a multi-million dollar company. with now a wide range of products dedicated to displacing plastic bottles and giving millions of dollars to organizations that help communities around the world.
While attending the University of Colorado Boulder, Kauss learned about the global water crisis that prevents millions of people from accessing clean drinking water. Trying to find a reusable water bottle that was also stylish proved difficult for Kauss, so she developed the idea of a bottle that could also be an accessory, and thus ‘Can’t Live Without It’ was born – the original name of the S ‘well.
After being advised to shorten the name to something catchy, Kauss said that when she heard “swell”, it reminded her of old, innocent values and was a “fuck, kind of word”. The original bottle design was inspired by a traditional glass milk carton, capturing the desired essence of her company – simple, practical and environmentally friendly.
While building her company, Kauss quickly learned that things don’t always go as planned. She said a career is more like a jungle gym rather than a ladder – there’s not always a linear path to success, but you should enjoy the sideways nature of dabbling in different things and learning as you go.
She offered a piece of advice to UNF students entering the workforce:
“In school it’s very linear … but in your career it’s more that you pick up a lifetime basket of skills,” Kauss said. “So, I would say in the first job, take the pressure off yourself and just make sure you learn one or two things that you think will be valuable, and sometimes the learning in learning what you don’t like…but it’s a very good lesson too.”
She suggested that when you learn that you don’t like a particular job or area, try to deconstruct that feeling and figure out what specifically you don’t like instead of quitting the whole job.
“Ask yourself what’s working, what’s not working, what are the best and worst things, and how do I continue to refine what it is that I’m looking for in the next part of my journey,” Kauss said.
The final keynote speaker was Kawanza Humphrey, Chief Human Resources Officer for VyStar Credit Union, who also sits on the UNF Foundation Board. She shared her moving story about the sometimes harsh, unexpected life changes that happen while working towards a successful career and how to come out on the other side.
Humphrey reminded the audience to share their stories so others can see themselves in a part of it because you never really know what impact you can have. She also emphasized the importance of being deliberate in every opportunity to get the most out of every experience and relationship because they all have value.
The event concluded with a Shark Tank competition where six female founders pitched their company concept for the chance to win $250,000 to invest in their company. The winner was Manuela Zoninsein, the founder of Kadeya, a company that offers sustainable solutions for drinking water through an “eternal glass bottle” with the future vision of an all-in-one water filling and sterilizing machine.
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