A new group in town wants women entrepreneurs to fail — in a good way

If trading embarrassing work stories is your idea of a good time, check out an event at U.T. Tyler on Friday hosted by Embark Women, a scrappy new local startup aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs.

The panel is called Favorite Failures, and it features three Tyler professionals, all women, relating the story of a major bump they hit in their career. Crystal Bryce, founder of Embark Women, says she hopes the panel will encourage women who are interested in taking a professional leap, but worry about what could go wrong, or are stuck on a past shortcoming.

“We want to have a conversation about how it’s okay to royally screw up. It happens. It doesn’t need to paralyze you,” says Bryce, who will moderate the panel. “Women can take those setbacks harder than men, and we want to talk about how your greatest failure can open the door to your biggest success.”

One of Friday’s panelists will be Cherie Paro, founder of Granite Girls, a local home building and remodeling company. Today, Paro runs a million-dollar business with thousands of customers. She’s been on the board of the Tyler Area Builders Association and other local organizations. She’s recognized as a local female pioneer in a heavily male-dominated industry. But first, she had to overcome a serious drug and alcohol dependency, and even a drug-related prison sentence.

Then, once she got clean and established a niche business selling and installing granite countertops, she decided to do something no woman was doing in Tyler at the time: she wanted to build homes. At first, she says, no one wanted to work with her, but she endured. Then, when the Great Recession hit and home construction flatlined, she adapted once again by expanding into remodeling existing homes.

Courtesy Embark Women

Paro says being unafraid of reinvention has been key to her success, and she wants to share that lesson at Friday’s panel. “I want to be up there telling entrepreneurial women, no matter when in life you decide to make a change, you have it in you to do it,” says Paro. “I don’t care what field it is. I’m a big believer that yes, we can, and when you have other women around you saying you can, it keeps you going.”

Crystal Bryce, who launched Embark Women earlier this year, says the idea for the group was born of an argument she had over dinner at a restaurant one night with her husband, who works in the tech industry. He was telling her about problems he’d seen female colleagues struggle with, like sexual harassment, being underpaid, not being taken seriously in work meetings, or having their ideas credited to male colleagues.

Bryce, who’d worked as a homemaker, couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “I had lived a fairly sheltered life,” she says. “I thought, he’s crazy, it’s not like that anymore, he must be imagining things. I think I just didn’t want to believe women were dealing with those kinds of problems today.”

But later, when Bryce decided to make a career change, she gained a different perspective. “My life was shifting,” she says. “My son was seventeen. I felt I needed to move on and do something else.” She was interested in local technology initiatives and began making connections in various organizations and companies in the region. That’s when she starting noticing patterns like the ones her husband had mentioned.

“It was nothing horrible, but it was frustrating,” says Bryce. “I would suggest something in a meeting full of men, and wouldn’t get a single reaction. Then a couple minutes later, a guy says the same thing, and everyone jumps in and we have a ten-minute conversation about it.” She also noticed that meetings with potential investors or collaborators tended to go better when her male business partner came along.

From Embark Women’s Facebook page.

Gender-specific issues faced by women in the workplace have exploded into national conversation in the past few years, often originating in the tech industry. In February, millions read the account of a former Uber engineer who quit, she says, after battling a year of sexual harassment and sexism at work. I’ve written about Silicon Valley’s “brogrammer” culture and the way it drives women from the tech talent pool. Similar problems have surfaced in science, law, medicine, academia, and other fields. And here in Tyler, several women point to to an “old boy’s club” atmosphere in some local business circles, in which women can get excluded in both subtle and overt ways.

“My experiences made me want to talk to more women in Tyler,” says Bryce. She sought advice from her mentor and friend Beth Womack, a seasoned Tyler entrepreneur and networker who runs her own telecommunications business. “Beth would give me very wise counsel on how to navigate the waters and keep rowing. I wished everyone had access to a Beth.” She decided to find a way to connect more professional women in Tyler, and Embark Women was born.

Womack says the time is right for these conversations in Tyler, and wants Embark Women to reach even younger would-be female entrepreneurs by connecting with local middle schools. “I believe that with the amount of growth we’ve seen, the influx of so many new people coming here from around the country — and even around the world — has changed the dynamics of how women can interact and relate to this community,” she says. “The community as a whole is more adaptable, more open, and more ready for change.”

The Favorite Failures panel is Embark Women’s second public event, after a launch meetup in February that drew a diverse crowd of 30 women. Among them was former Tyler mayor Barbara Bass, who says the challenges facing aspiring local businesswomen today aren’t so different from when she started her career as a certified public accountant in Tyler 30 years ago. “How do I carry myself? How do I interact with male counterparts? How do I balance the needs of family with the needs of work? These are the same questions we had,” she says.

From Embark Women’s first meetup in February. Courtesy Embark Women

Bass says her generation of local female business leaders needs to do more to share their experiences with the younger set. She recently started a new luncheon series through the Tyler Executive Women’s Network to help bridge the divide. Bass says it’s a good thing that more than one group is working on these issues in town — and she believes experienced businesswomen can learn from those just starting out, too. “They’re looking at things from a different perspective,” she says. “There are ways we can learn and stay relevant in our work environment by hearing what they’re dealing with.”

Needhi Vedartham, 24, joined the Embark Women team shortly after it was founded; she’s listed as the group’s “opportunities developer and media rockstar” and works on building its web and social media presence. Vedartham, who is from South India, recently earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering from U.T. Tyler and is now on the job market.

“I’m always self-conscious about my accent and how I present myself to others,” Vedartham says, “but at the meeting, there were all these business leaders who were willing to talk to me and share their advice. I felt so comfortable and so inspired.” She says that after the meetup, half a dozen women she’d met followed up with job leads or offers to connect her with others in their networks.

“Even though I’ve been in America for two years, this is still shocking to me, such selfless kindness,” says Vedartham. “It makes me feel like I can do anything I want to do, because I won’t have to figure it all out on my own.”

Here’s more information on Embark Women’s Favorite Failures event at U.T. Tyler:

The Graduate School at The University of Texas at Tyler will host a “Favorite Failures” panel discussion, presented by Embark Women. The campuswide event is 11:45 a.m. – 1 p.m. Friday, April 14 in the University Center ballroom. Lunch will be provided. Registration is open to everyone, and RSVP is required. All female graduate students are encouraged to attend.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.