Not a single female founder is listed on the Fortune 500 – a fact Lizz Whitacre, ’17, plans to change. As a CEO and founder of Pawlytics, she inspires the next wave of women innovators in business.
“There's not a lot of other female founders like me, and I don't think that it’s simply restricted to Lincoln, Nebraska,” she said.
Whitacre initially never intended to be an entrepreneur. Instead, she spent her time at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln pursuing pre-law and pre-vet studies.
“I thought I was going to open up a humane society, so I really wanted to learn the skills necessary before I hired other veterinarians,” Whitacre explained.
A strong pull and love for animals, however, took Whitacre into the world of entrepreneurship. She soon changed her major to management in the entrepreneurship and innovation track at the College of Business. While at Nebraska, she attempted to start two businesses – both of which failed to take off.
Those experiences didn’t keep Whitacre down though. Instead, she took initiative to hone her craft and paid frequent visits to the Center for Entrepreneurship. She came to know the center and its people well, including Dr. Sam Nelson, center director and associate professor of practice in management.
“Lizz came in and had a business plan and thought she had potential funding. She had floor plans, a building picked and the numbers worked out. I was impressed,” said Nelson, thinking back to his early encounters with Whitacre.
While early impressions of her business plans seemed plausible, Whitacre’s true spark of genius came after those failed business attempts. When her experiences melded together, she founded Pawlytics.
“Caffeline, a cat café was my catalyst into entrepreneurship and startups. It’s also what piqued my interest in doing something innovative and something that was different from the norm,” she said.
Different indeed – as something like Pawlytics did not exist before. A software company, Pawlytics uses data to help reduce busy work for foster-based rescue organizations. This helps the organizations in allotting more time and attention toward the animals, something Whitacre cares deeply about in making a difference.
The road to becoming a CEO of a startup tested Whitacre’s willpower, and she felt the immense pressure many times. Nelson’s support kept her moving forward on her entrepreneurial path.
“Sam has been incredibly important for my mental health. Entrepreneurship is hard and lonely. There were definitely days I felt the urge to quit. I would go into his office pretty much in tears and he would always talk me through it, be incredibly encouraging, and let me know that I have what it takes and to keep going,” she said.
Nelson knows the struggle of the process well. He wants students to be aware there will be times of difficulty, but with love and dedication to the entrepreneurial process, they should continue to pursue their future dreams.
“It's easy for students to get discouraged if their business idea doesn't work out. I’m here to remind them that's pretty common, and it’s how you respond to that which is going to be a much better indicator of where you're going to be 20 to 30 years from now,” Nelson said. “What always impressed me with Lizz is she just never would give up, but she also was willing to respond to the market.”
The same advice she received from Nelson is what Whitacre hopes to pass onto young women business leaders in hopes to inspire them that they can do the same.
“What I continue to hear from women or young girl programs is that they don't have examples of young women or women at all who become incredibly successful business leaders, so it's very important to me to take every opportunity possible to share my story with young girls and women,” she said.
She’s found one of those opportunities in serving as an ambassador for the College of Business in its partnership with the Girl Scouts of America in the Girls Shine Brighter Challenge. As part of a year of curriculum featuring entrepreneurship, Nebraska Girl Scouts set individual Girl Scout Cookie Program sales goals. Those who met their goals this year received the opportunity to be part of a webinar with Whitacre.
“It's important to me to be able to take advantage of any sort of platform I have to encourage other young people to go out there and be incredibly persistent. That’s why the Girl Scouts’ challenge holds a special place in my heart. I want to be some sort of example of how you can fail and fail again, but if you are persistent and work hard, you could make something out of it,” she said.
To learn more about the New Venture Competition or the Center for Entrepreneurship, visit: https://business.unl.edu/entrepreneurship.