Embracing Equity: Female Founders Forum held at UNF

Mallory Pace, News Editor

To kick off Women’s History Month, the University of North Florida hosted the eighth annual PS27 Female Founders Forum on Friday in a sold-out event that welcomed inspiring guest speakers and the chance to build meaningful connections between fellow women founders in the community.

The event was centered around “embracing equity” and the value of supporting women founders through a sense of community and other resources needed to succeed in the workforce.  

Addressing a room filled with waves of women wearing red, Jaclynn “Jax” Brennan was the first speaker to motivate the crowd with her story and experiences. Brennan is the founder of Fylí, which stands for ‘tribe’ in Greek and ‘family’ in Latin. Fylí is a Network as a Service (NaaS) business for early-stage female founders, offering education, accountability, mentorships and funding opportunities. 

When Brennan left the corporate fashion world a few years ago to begin a brand-new technology company for the fashion industry, she was met with failure. But the failure of the tech company showed Brennan the needs of women founders like herself and inspired her to start her own company dedicated to helping women in business to find resources, guidance and accountability throughout their journey. 

Her story exemplified the process of turning failure into inspiration and the importance of building a tribe and community that will constantly support you along the way. 

 “I was going to women’s networking events, but they weren’t talking about raising capital. I just felt like there was a need, there was a lack and that’s why I created Fylí,” Brennan said.

Taking the stage next was Sarah Kauss, the original sole founder of S’well water bottles—a brand that started with just one 17-ounce bottle and a pure desire to reduce single-use plastics, turned into a multi-million-dollar company with now a wide variety of products dedicated to displacing plastic bottles and pledging millions of dollars to organizations that help communities across the world. 

While attending the University of Colorado Boulder, Kauss learned about the global water crisis that prevents millions of people from access to clean, drinking water. Trying to find a reusable water bottle that was also stylish proved difficult for Kauss, so she developed the idea of a bottle that could also be an accessory, thus ‘Can’t Live Without It’ was born—the original name of S’well. 

After being advised to shorten the name to something catchier, Kauss said that when she heard “swell,” it reminded her of old, innocent values and was an “oh shucks, kind of a word.” The original bottle design was inspired by a traditional glass milk carton, which captured the desired essence of her company—simple, practical and eco-friendly. 

During the building of her company, Kauss quickly found that things don’t always go as planned. She said a career is more like a jungle gym rather than a ladder—it’s not always a linear path to success, but you should enjoy the sideways nature of dabbling in different things and learning as you go. 

She offered a piece of advice to UNF students stepping into the workforce:

“In school, it’s very linear… but in your career, it’s more that you’re picking up a lifetime basket of skills,” Kauss said. “So, I would say in that first job, take the pressure away from yourself and just make sure you’re learning one or two things you think will be valuable, and sometimes the learning in learning what you don’t like… but that’s a really good lesson too.”

She suggested that when you learn you don’t like a particular job or area, try to deconstruct that feeling and determine what specifically you don’t like instead of dismissing the entire job.

“Ask yourself questions about what’s working, what’s not working, what’re the best and worst things, and how do I continue to refine what it is I’m looking for in the next part of my journey,” Kauss said. 

The last keynote speaker was Kawanza Humphrey, Chief Human Resources Officer for VyStar Credit Union, who also sits on the UNF Foundation Board. She shared her moving story about the sometimes harsh, unexpected changes in life that happen while working toward a successful career and how to come out on the other side. 

Humphrey reminded the audience to share their stories so that others can see themselves in a part of it because you never truly know the impact you might make. She also emphasized the importance of being intentional in every opportunity to get the most out of each experience and relationship because they all hold value. 

The event ended with a Shark Tank competition where six women founders pitched their company concept for the chance to win $250,000 to invest in their company. The winner was Manuela Zoninsein, the founder of Kadeya, a company that offers sustainable solutions to drinking water through a ‘forever glass bottle’ with the future vision of an all-in-one water-filling and sterilizing machine.


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