Female Founders to Watch in the Rust Belt: Three Moms on a Mission

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This week's female founders to watch list comes from Silicon Rust Belt and spotlights impressive women from the Midwest who are managing to juggle their startups with motherhood.

By Carly Keyes (Writer, Silicon Rust Belt)

Why not grow a successful company while simultaneously helping thousands, possibly millions, of families – including yours?

These three women, who all hail from the Midwest, are living proof that women can innovate great ideas, start their own businesses and flourish in the tech industry and remain, at the same time, worthy nominees for Mom of the Year.

Sharon Schneider

Schneider, originally from Ohio, headed east to University of Pennsylvania for grad school. Feeling the pull of the Midwest, she moved to Chicago about five years ago, with her husband and two children, to a house just a block away from her sister and her family. Together, the two women started Moxie Jean, and after two years, still run the company from just a block apart.

Moxie Jean, "the busy mom’s upscale resale destination for baby and kids clothes," sells new clothing and buys the outgrown clothing that moms have piled up in their closets – all online. "Before starting the company, I was a philanthropic advisor to ultra high net worth families," Schneider says. "I realized I wanted to make my money and make a difference at the same time, and was drawn to the concept of social enterprise. Moxie Jean grew out of my own experiences as a busy, working mom with three little kids. I had a constant clothing merry-go-round and no convenient solution."

"Our vision is to make resale as attractive and as fashionable as buying new clothing," Schneider says. "If we can do that, we open up the resale market for millions of moms who don't have the time or trust in things like eBay or garage sales. If we can get those moms to buy resale instead of cheap new clothing, we will reduce our consumption of new material and that's good for us, good for the planet and good for our kids."

In addition to her work with Moxie Jean, Schneider is a member of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Technology Diversity Council, whose mission is to make the tech sector reflect the diversity of the city itself.

"I think we have a real opportunity now to create a region-wide tech sector where 'booth babes' and 'bro-gramming' would never be considered okay," Schneider says. "Where there are no panels with four white guys because the organizers would recognize that such a panel would likely be too homogeneous to present a good breadth of experience. And if we do that, the community we create becomes a draw to amazing talent from all over the country who are sick of the 'crush it' culture."

Schneider is also a founding advisor to Impact Engine, a Chicago-based accelerator for social enterprises led by managing director Chuck Templeton, founder of Open Table. Impact Engine graduated its first class of eight companies this past December, and applications are now open for Impact Engine's second class.

Mariela Santori

A fellow female founder, Mariela Santori, also calls Chicago home, but her beginnings were miles (and several countries) away.

Born in Argentina, Santori moved to Washington D.C. in her early twenties to work for Oasis Internaitonal, an import/export company, and influenced her employer to start importing Argentine beef, a move that proved extremely lucrative. After the U.S. began restricting beef imports, Santori left the company and founded her own, Tyerra LLC.

After 12 years in D.C., Santori moved to Chicago where she has spent the past five years with her husband and daughter, running her new company, Let’s Play Please, which helps families get closer through video chat by providing activities they can enjoy while they are using Skype. Like Moxie Jean, Let’s Play Please was born out as a solution to a personal matter for Santori.

"My parents live in Argentina," she says. "We bridged the distance with Skype but we couldn’t keep my daughter in video conference for more than few seconds before she’d wiggle her way out of my lap and back to her playroom. From my nieces in Ecuador, to my husband’s family in Philadelphia, we all struggled to make the most out of our video chats together."

Santori was determined to find a way for her daughter to engage in a meaningful way with her extended family. "One day my parents started drawing scenes on paper and showing them to my daughter through the video chat screen," she describes. "Voila! She began paying attention. She wanted to do more video chats because she was finally engaged. I scoured the Internet, looking for preschool activities that could leverage the video chat platform. I could only find games for older children or activities that didn’t take into account language barriers. That’s when Let’s Play Please was born."

Darcy Crociata

While Chicago has proven to be a thriving community for startups, Darcy Crociata found success as a female founder in the smaller city of Cincinnati, Ohio.

"Before having kids, I loved to scrapbook," Crociata says. "After having three kids in two years (yes, twins!), I had so many awesome pictures and memories that I wanted to savor, but I simply didn't have time to capture and organize them. Realizing that these 'blinks in time' were already living within my Facebook page, I started to focus on a finding a medium for connecting my digital 'story' with a tangible memory book."

Lifeblinx to the rescue; it helps people capture their memories in a quick and easy way. Crociata is in charge of all the day-to-day business but is aided and guided by a team of advisors including Kevin Crociata (Procter and Gamble), JBKropp (Twitter) and Lucas Watson (Google), as well as her tech team (MindBox Studios) and printing company (Print Management).

When asked to compare the Midwest to Silicon Valley as a region for innovation, Crociata mentions that she has been out thereto California a few times for business as it’s important to keep in touch with that ‘scene’, but she thinks the Midwest is an ideal place for anyone, especially newbies, to go for it.

"The Midwest startup scene is alive, intense and thriving!" she claims. "The biggest difference to me is that the scene here is less intimidating, and people will seriously go out of their way to help others in a small-town sort of way. So many people have helped me. Being accepted as one of the first classes to the Brandery funded by CincyTech played an integral role in my ability to launch LifeBlinx. Without the seed-funding, mentoring and connections that my Brandery experience sparked, LifeBlinx would have just remained a dream."

Crociata has graciously offered Women 2.0 readers a code (MIDWEST) for a 25% discount off of a LifeBlinx order, and if customers have any questions or issues while making their book, or wish to inquire about anything else, she can be contacted at: darcy@lifeblinx.com

About the guest blogger: Carly Keyes is a student at the University of Michigan and a staff writer for Silicon Rust Belt, which covers technology and cultural innovation in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Born and raised in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Carly studied at the Wharton School of Business at The University of Pennsylvania where she also played Division I soccer. After sophomore year, she transferred to The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She will graduate in May 2014.

Photo credit: Bob Jagendorf via Flickr