By any measure, Judee von Seldeneck has had an incredible career.
She started in politics, working as an executive assistant to then-Sen. Walter Mondale after graduating college. When her husband’s job required the family to relocate from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia in the 1970s, she joined a small talent search firm in the city, eventually buying out her partners. Now, her company, Diversified Search Group, is the largest woman-founded search firm in the world. [Editor’s note: Judee von Seledeneck and Diversified Search are supporters of The Philadelphia Citizen.]
That path, from executive assistant to founder, CEO and chair of her own company wasn’t easy, however. Women had only gained the right to open bank accounts in the 1960s, and von Seldeneck suspected financial institutions wouldn’t be eager to loan money to a woman with a fledging small business. So, she never borrowed money to build her company, instead using a portion of its profits to invest in growth.
In 2022, women-led startups received only 1.9 percent of venture capital funds, TechCrunch reported, a drop from 2021, when they received 2.4 percent.
“I feel like I got a lot of breaks, but if I had a little money or access to capital sooner, maybe things could’ve happened faster,” von Seldeneck says.
A lack of investment in women-owned and led businesses is a problem von Seldeneck still sees today. In 2022, women-led startups received only 1.9 percent of venture capital funds, TechCrunch reported, a drop from 2021, when they received 2.4 percent.
Since traditional financing sources weren’t investing in women and their businesses, von Seldeneck thought she could. In 2021, she created the JVS Philadelphia Fund for Women, a collection of capital that provides investments and grants for women-led businesses in the greater Philadelphia area.
Now in its third grant cycle, the fund has invested in nine companies and given out grants to six different businesses through a partnership with Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Beginning April 1, entrepreneurs will be eligible to apply for the latest round of grants, which can be as much as $50,000.
Building the fund
Von Seldeneck began working on the fund in 2020, but she has a long history of supporting women professionally. Growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s and 50s, she was acutely aware of how sexism impacted opportunities for women. She recalls that when her brother was born, her father began paying more attention to his education and career prospects than her own.
When she started at the small talent firm that would become Diversified Search Group in the 1970s, it specialized in finding women “job sharing” opportunities. Two women would find part-time work by sharing a full-time job, one working in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Von Seldeneck wanted the firm to focus on helping women build careers as executives, so she bought out her partners and began to pressure more firms to consider women for jobs.
Even as working women became commonplace, von Seldeneck was frustrated that female entrepreneurs seldom had the same opportunities as men. She spent years talking to friends and colleagues about her desire to support women-led businesses and toying with an idea for a fund. She finally pulled the trigger after close friend RoseAnn Rosenthal, the long-time CEO of Ben Franklin Technology Partners, told her, “‘Why don’t you just do it and quit talking about it all the time?’” von Seldeneck recalls.
“The goal really is to help businesses that have been in business for a couple of years, that are based here, and that are controlled by women,” von Seldeneck says.
With support from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the JVS fund officially launched in August 2021. “The goal really is to help businesses that have been in business for a couple of years, that are based here, and that are controlled by women,” von Seldeneck says.
The fund uses two methods to deploy capital to businesses: grants and investments. Grants don’t have to be paid back. An advisory committee that includes von Seldeneck and other area business leaders selects the grantees from a pool of applicants, who can receive up to $50,000. Of the six businesses that have received grants so far, most received that maximum amount.
Companies from any sector are welcome to apply, so long as they are women-led, have been in business for two years or more and are headquartered in Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, Chester, or Montgomery County.
Investments are made using a $500,000 equity donation von Seldeneck made to Ben Franklin Technology Partners and can go to businesses in the Greater Philadelphia area working in the technology, science or healthcare sectors. To date, JVS Fund money has gone to nine different businesses. Any returns on the investments that Ben Franklin Technology Partners makes are distributed back into the fund.
Margaret Berger Bradley, the vice president of strategic initiatives at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, says she sees both the investments and the grants as an opportunity for businesses led by women to hasten their growth opportunities.
“It is a most incredible move for a business leader to look forward and look back and think about what it took her to get where she’s going and where she is and to think it is not acceptable, that it’s still as slow as it is,” Bradley says of von Seldeneck and the JVS fund. “Judee wants to speed it up.”
Advising the next generation of women entrepreneurs
Von Seldeneck’s support doesn’t end with providing capital, however. She is steering the fund and its advisory committee to function as a network of mentors for female business leaders so that they don’t feel as alone as she did early on in her career. When she first started working, she remembers being the only woman surrounded by White men in suits on the train to her jobs in Washington and Philly.
“When I started in business, I realized that, Oh dear, the White men are in charge here, and I’ve got to figure out how to get along with them,” she says.
“Now, a lot of us [the advisory committee] have been together for 30 or 40 years here in this business community, and we’ve had our own network to help each other build relationships and live a balanced, fun life.”
Mumbi Dunjwa says that the business advice she received after becoming a JVS grantee was critical to growing her natural hair care line Naturaz. Her Montgomery County-based business was the only startup to receive a grant during the fund’s second round. (Businesses must now show two years of net profits to be eligible for the grants).
Dunjwa says, “If you want to succeed in life, you have to surround yourself with successful people, and so other women would really benefit from tapping into this network of influential and successful women.
Dunjwa launched Naturaz in 2018 after years of being passionate about hair and how to care for it properly. Growing up in Kenya, she loved to observe the different hair colors, textures and styles of women walking down the street or sitting in cafes. She spent hours helping care for her younger sisters’ hair, and was frustrated with how few products there were to help care for her own hair, which needed additional moisture to remain healthy.
After studying chemistry and nuclear medicine technology in college and working for pharmaceutical companies, she began developing what would become the formula for Naturaz, a line of shampoos, conditioners and treatments for curly hair. She spent years testing the products and getting feedback from some of the brand’s earliest customers.
In 2023, she applied for and received a JVS fund grant as she was deciding whether to try to pursue retail opportunities or grow the business’s online operations. The fund matched her with Leslie Pickus Mazza, senior vice president of corporate development with Diversified Search Group. Together, they discussed how consumers often like to smell and physically interact with their hair care products. They decided to use the funds to attend trade shows, where they met with executives from TJX, the parent company of Marshalls and T.J. Maxx, and ended up with a contract to sell to their U.S. and Canadian stores. Dunjwa is now in the process of raising another million-dollar seed round to support that growth.
“The TJX deal is a direct result of JVS Philadelphia Fund for Women stepping in and having faith in us,” Dunjwa says. “If you want to succeed in life, you have to surround yourself with successful people, and so other women would really benefit from tapping into this network of influential and successful women … They are a strong support system.”
Check out these women owned and led businesses supported by the JVS Philadelphia Fund for Women:
- Addison Bay
- AmorSui (Covered in The Philadelphia Citizen!)
- Eliksa Therapeutics
- Envara Health
- Friends LifeCare Consultants
- GoWell Benefits
- Lluna (Covered in The Philadelphia Citizen!)
- Nexteon Technologies
- PolyCore Therapeutics
- Roofscapes dba Studio Sustena
MORE ON WOMEN IN BUSINESS FROM THE CITIZENMumbi Dunjwa, founder of Naturaz, a Montgomery County-based natural haircare line supported by the JVS Fund for Women.