An Inside Look at the Inaugural Ladies First Founders Cohort


From left: Audrey Awasom, Yinyin Lao, Megha Guggari, Maria Chen, Natalie Urban, Breonna Massey, Sydney Parker, Jess Rosenthal, Jasmine Snead, Fiona Whitefield, Sara Herald

by: Megan McPherson

This semester, something truly remarkable is happening on Monday afternoons in the Smith School’s executive board room. Sitting around the room’s imposing conference table are the inaugural Ladies First Founders cohort, ten young women united by their experiences as female entrepreneurs. At the head of the table sits adjunct professor Sara Herald, the Dingman Center’s Associate Director for Social Entrepreneurship and founder of the Ladies First initiative to get more women involved in entrepreneurship at UMD. Yesterday, I was offered the privilege to sit in on the class and discover what Ladies First Founders is all about. What started out as an observational study for a blog post became an empowering exercise in what can happen when women are given a platform to learn from and support one another.

Yesterday’s class featured executive communication coach Tricia Homer, who gave a presentation on the art of presenting itself. She taught the founders how to stand in a way that projects confidence and credibility, how to move across a stage or pause to convey a point, and how to maintain positive eye contact. Throughout her presentation, the young women felt empowered to speak up and ask pointed questions about methods to overcome awkwardness, discomfort and the fear of being misinterpreted or disliked. The founders practiced power poses and engaged in conversational role play where they embodied the body language and cadence of a confident speaker. The class was punctuated by frequent bouts of laughter, and the founders regularly offered advice or encouragement to one another. Being myself a woman who struggles with confidence issues in public speaking situations, I couldn’t help wishing that such an empowering course was freely available to all women.

TAP_0805.jpgThe course’s thesis, laid out by Sara Herald, is that while women are equally if not more capable of becoming successful entrepreneurs than men, they must develop soft-skills to counteract societal gender biases and disadvantages. Other class topics include the how to’s of networking and mentorship, finding balance as a founder/student/human, startup pitching and body language, overcoming imposter syndrome, funding and how to get it, and more. According to Herald, “This course is different from any other I’ve been a part of.  The small size and the level of commitment from the students lead to candid, collaborative discussions about what it’s really like to be a female founder and college student.”

From a founder perspective, the empowering community that Ladies First Founders has created has been transformative. “Ladies First creates a space where it’s accepted or even encouraged to lower your barriers, show vulnerabilities, applaud each other’s strengths, and grow with like-minded women,” says Jasmine Snead, founder of Aurora Tights. Megha Guggari, co-founder of Synapto, reflects, “Ladies First Founders has helped me connect with inspiring women who can relate to the challenges and setbacks I face daily—whether the challenges are work related, academic related, or life related. It is a group that is welcoming, supportive, and empowering.”


Read on to learn more about the diverse group of female founders and businesses that make up the inaugural Ladies First Founders cohort:

Audrey Awasom: Noble Uprising

Noble Uprising is a non-profit organization that empowers women experiencing homelessness through career readiness seminars, workforce development programs, and sustainable job opportunities. Learn more at

Maria Chen: Symbiont Health (Grand Prize Winner – Pitch Dingman Competition)
Symbiont Health is developing both wearable and non-wearable automated fall detection devices to combat the high rate of senior citizen morbidity resulting from syncope.

Megha Guggari: Synapto
Synapto is an early stage biotech venture revolutionizing the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease through portable Electroencephalogram (EEG) and artificial intelligence.

Breonna Massey: Slay Naturals 
Being healthy and taking care of skin shouldn’t cost you your wallet or your style. SLAY Naturals infuses style and nature so you can Stay Lovely And Young (SLAY)

Sydney Parker: Emprology (Finalist- Pitch Dingman Competition)
Emprology LLC is an empowering influencer marketing consultancy that seeks to educate minority female bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters on how to monetize off of their content.

Jess Rosenthal: Good Stuff Good Works
Good Stuff Good Works facilitates the sales of indigenous artisanal goods from the mountainous region of Ecuador to the University of Maryland community and beyond.

Jasmine Snead: Aurora Tights 
Aurora Tights is an athletic brand that designs figure skating gear for an array of tones, complexions, and sizes.

Natalie Urban and Yinyin Liao: Project Girl
PRJ GRL is a coffee venture dedicated to empowering people through coffee. Revenue from our company’s sales goes towards sponsoring impoverished girls’ education in Cambodia. All of our coffee is high-quality, and ethically-sourced from female farmers in Latin America.

Fiona Whitefield: Continuum
Continuum assists the growing elderly population to “age in place” by connecting those who are physically unable to maintain their home with skilled retirees who provide home maintenance services, ultimately building a network of social support and empowering those experiencing physical decline to maintain independence.

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