As we move closer to gender equality each year, the advancement of women in the political and business fields is only as meaningful as when it is actually visible. The number of women who serve in key strategic positions is growing slowly but surely in all industries. And this is also true for the Upstate entrepreneurial ecosystem, as more and more women tend to launch themselves on the entrepreneurial adventure or help grow the ecosystem through venture funds or in public entities.
We met with 3 powerful women who agreed to share with us their past and current activities, future challenges and thoughts on the Upstate ecosystem: Noa Simmons, who was recently appointed as Executive Director of Upstate Venture Association of NY (UVANY); Nikita Hardy, appointed as an Excelsior Service Fellow at Empire State Development and who has been recently asked to NYS Business Incubator and Innovative Hot Spot programs; and Theresa Mazzullo, CEO of Excell Partners Venture Fund and manager of the newly launched Minority and Women Owned Business Fund.
Noa Simons was born in Chatham, NY and went to College in Boston, where she met her mentor in business, Oliver Curme, with whom she has worked for the last 15 years. After a number of experiences – running a non-profit foundation, being the CEO of a motorcycle company – she joined Ollie at the venture capital firm he started in China in 2005, meant to pull capital from both sides and invest in technologies in the clean tech sector. Noa has been traveling extensively to China since then and speaks conversational Mandarin. “The reality of cross-border technology transfer in China is very challenging,” she says.
After working in China for nearly a decade, she decided to return to Upstate NY. She co-founded Community Compost Company (CCC) and got actively involved in Hudson Valley Startup Fund. CCC collects food waste in the Hudson Valley and northern New Jersey and produces finished compost, which is eventually sold to farmers, nurseries, gardeners and landscapers. The Hudson Valley StartUp Fund, a member-managed seed capital fund with 44 members and over $1M, has a mission of developing seed capital in the Hudson Valley, to invest locally in companies that have high growth potential.
Noa Simons was recently asked to serve as Executive Director of Upstate Venture Association of NY (UVANY), taking over from Sam Ticknor. “I think that UVANY plays a unique role in the Upstate NY business environment. Historically, it has facilitated access to capital for companies by providing a solid platform of valuable networking opportunities.” Her new challenge will be to keep on developing those opportunities for building meaningful relationships.
“I feel excited about continuing this work and finding ways to make UVANY even more valuable in the ecosystem,” she says.
As an investor, she is interested in building great companies in Upstate NY. One of the ingredients for success is relationships with experienced people, she explains. “Mentorship has been extremely valuable to me and I have a desire to share what I can.”
Noa is a strong supporter of gender equality and believes that “visibility is part of what breaks down traditional stereotypes.”
A year ago, Nikita Hardy joined Empire State Development (ESD) as a New York State Excelsior Service Fellow, a program established in 2013 by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, with the purpose of bringing highly talented graduate school and law graduates into professional office.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Nikita previously worked as a congressional intern and program administrator for a non-profit organization. She also was an investigator for a public defender’s office for two years. She then graduated from Baruch College, School of Public and International Affairs where she obtained a Master’s Degree in Public Administration.
Her role at ESD’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) has grown rapidly since she joined the team. Nikita began managing research and policy work, and strategic initiatives for ESD, and in January 2016, she was asked to oversee the Digital Gaming Hubs program. This past May, she was asked to lead the NYS Business Incubator and Innovative Hot Spot programs as well. Nikita is enthusiastic about her work: “It has been a great opportunity. I learn something new every day.”
When asked about the importance of investments in the ecosystem, she stated, “I have seen first-hand how resources (financial and otherwise) can benefit all aspects of business and technology, through business incubation, research centers, and commercialization funds. ESD is committed to growing the industry in a holistic and collaborative way by making a number of funded programs and other financial opportunities available through the Division of Science, Technology and Innovation.” To her, filling in such key positions is important in that it shows young women that the possibilities are endless for their future paths. “It becomes more reachable for them.”
She knows the importance of advocacy, as she has worked a lot with organizations when she was living in Brooklyn. But to Nikita, advocacy starts in her everyday life, in her role as a mother, a daughter, a sister and a wife. “I spread a lot of my passion in these roles, I am pro-voice. I believe we all have the ability to advocate for the women’s cause in our everyday life.”
She is currently volunteering for a local professional association in Albany, NY.
Theresa Mazzullo has lived in Rochester, NY for over 20 years and has been the CEO of Excell Partners, a state supported seed venture fund, since 2006. Realizing that Upstate receives less than 1% of the venture capital invested in New York, Theresa began a five-year journey to advocate for a state supported seed fund. In 2012, New York passed legislation which resulted in the establishment of Innovate NY Fund, a $35 million seed fund.
In 2012, Excell was chosen to manage the Minority and Women Owned Business Fund (MWBE). Much like the Innovate NY Fund, the MWBE Fund also invests in high tech high growth companies. Unlike the Innovate NY Fund, the minority or woman founder must own at least 51% of the business and must be a Certified MWBE company in the state of New York. To date, this $2M statewide fund has made investments in 3 high tech companies representing a range of industries such as e-sports, industrial design and optics.
When asked about supporting women in the workplace, Theresa says that she supports excellence, aptitude and talent and believes diversity of thought is critical to the success of any business venture. In looking back over her 10 years at Excell, she remembers the early days of upstate when there was no seed funding available, one incubator and very few educational programs. Today, “we have venture funds, an organized angel network, plethora of educational programs, and six incubators in our Finger Lakes Region. I am very optimistic about the future,” she says.
Theresa talks with passion about her work with entrepreneurs. “In our portfolio, we have invested in a wide variety of industry segments, from medical device, to bio tech, to advanced materials, to energy, to agricultural technology.” To her, this is one of the most exciting parts of working at Excell: “the ability to learn something new every single day is extremely energizing to me,” she says.