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How these Upstate women began their entrepreneurial journeys

Krys Merryman //March 16, 2023//

How these Upstate women began their entrepreneurial journeys

Krys Merryman //March 16, 2023//

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Just more than 40% of entrepreneurs in the United States are women.

The panel included (l-r) Tina Zwolinski, co-founder and CEO of Skillsgapp; Cecilia Zapata-Harms, chief business intelligence officer at Sync.MD and co-founder and managing partner of 3rdEyeBio; Erin Mehagan, founder of Livi Lu Lane; Nathalie Baulain, innovation lead at Michelin and founder of Nathurally Stylish; and Nicole Johnson, co-founder of Boyd Cycling. (Photo/NEXT SC)For Women’s History Month, NEXT hosted a Women in Innovation Panel, featuring some of Greenville’s most innovative and influential women, who shared their stories of resilience and success in a world primarily dominated by men.

Panelists included Nathalie Baulain, innovation lead at Michelin and founder of Nathurally Stylish LLC, a company that helps artisans from third-world countries access a larger market; Nicole Johnson, co-founder of Boyd Cycling, a craft wheel manufacturer dedicated to producing high-quality bike wheels; Erin Mehagan, founder of Livi Lu Lane, a women's intimates company created to empower women to create the shape they want when they want it; and Cecilia Zapata-Harms, chief business intelligence officer at Sync.MD, a mobile solution and cloud-based dashboards for secure verification of identity, document storage and document sharing, and co-founder and managing partner of 3rdEyeBio LLC, an accelerator supporting life science innovators.

Each of these women shared why they became entrepreneurs. Most of them said they didn’t necessarily plan on being business owners but fell into it to meet the needs of others going through what they faced at the time of their startups.

“I want to cure the world,” said Zapata-Harms, who has a background in cancer research and life sciences. “I want to be an influence for other women entrepreneurs, and I want to get rid of cancer.”

Zapata-Harms said she is a prime believer in women who start companies to be mentors to others.

“It makes a big difference if you are a woman founder,” she said.

And the business support system in South Carolina is unmatched, she added.

“The support you get not just from other business owners but legislative and other partners in this state, there is nothing like it,” she said. “And I’m going to be honest, getting funding is really hard.”

Zapata-Harms she has businesses failures, but success comes with mentorship and being fearless.

“Take the time to have an understanding of who you are, what you’re passionate about, and where you want to go,” she said. “And keep that with you, especially through the bad days.”

Livi Lu Lane is named after Mehagan’s three girls, not only their names but her journey following birth.

“Everything about Livi Lu Lane represents my personal journey and experience I went through when I had the inability to solve a problem I was having after having three children,” said Mehagan. “I know there are women out there struggling in the ways I was, and I want to give them an option to help boost their confidence and feel like themselves again. I was really disheartened when I was told my only option was to have drastic plastic surgery, and I think women deserve better than that. I wanted to bring solutions that can help and support women as their body changes and help them feel beautiful.”

Mehagan said she never wants to be another voice in the world telling women how they should look or feel by pushing an unrealistic body standard.

“I know my girls are going to hear that, so I want to be the voice that supports women and empowers them to make the best decisions they can for themselves, because that’s what they deserve,” she added.

Starting a company has been the most humbling experience of her life, said Mehagan, and continues to be daily. But there are challenges, too.

“But when you connect with someone, who you have made a difference in their lives, it really makes all the difference and all those challenges worthwhile,” said Mehagan.

Baulain, who is a Haiti native, founded her company because she is a creative at heart, she said.

“It pains me to see creatives that are not able to live from their work and art,” said Baulain. “Coming from a third-world country, there are a lot of women that do amazing traditional artwork, and they have a hard time continuing to live day-by-day. A lot of traditions are being lost because of that, and I want to help provide that.”

Baulain works with those women to design clutches that have Haitian flair and helps them continue their traditions while providing for their families.

“Showing others is key to inspiring the future (of female entrepreneurs),” said Baulain.

Johnson and her husband, who are both professional cyclists, started their company in 2009 from their 1,300-square-foot home.

“I had worked for corporate America and decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Johnson. “I had an opportunity to do something different and create the best life for myself and my family and have choices, being able to guide my life in a way that has been really exciting and challenging.”

Johnson considers herself a female pioneer in manufacturing after bringing their tire production from Asia to the U.S. And the Upstate, which has become a manufacturing hub, was the perfect place to do so, she said.

“Through COVID, which was challenging for everyone, we started looking at some of the benefits of manufacturing here in the U.S.,” said Johnson.

She said funding ran out very quickly and she discovered Michelin’s Development Fund that provides loans to small businesses for up to $50,000.

“We ended up doubling in size (with their help),” said Johnson. “Days sometimes can be hard, but you have to pick yourself up every time and tap into your network,” said Johnson.

The women all opened up about their successes and challenges, and how being a female entrepreneur sets the tone for other women to follow in their footsteps.