Entrepreneur Spotlight: Anna Palmer

PEORIA -- One of the things that Anna Palmer remembers about growing up in Pekin was a fondness for garage sales. Finding something nice to wear at a reduced price is a concept that not only led to a flourishing startup but started Palmer on the road to entrepreneurial success.

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After graduating from Pekin Community High School and Eureka College, Palmer went on to Harvard Law School. "I planned on being a lawyer but, while there, got interested  in entrepreneurship," she said.

Hearing in tax law class that $13 billion in clothing, shoes and accessories gets donated each year in the United States got Palmer to thinking.

"I got the idea to use fashion as a force for good," she said, figuring that it might be easier to have people donate clothing and handbags rather than cash for charity.

That led to Palmer and Christine Rizk , a fellow Harvard Law School alum, founding the Fashion Project in 2012.

Setting up an online fashion store with donated goods allowed the project to allocate 60 percent of the money received from the sale of items to charity, she said.

The Fashion Project has supported some 2,000 charities since 2012. But providing a way to raise money for needy causes wasn't the only thing that came out of the project.

As with any startup, Palmer found herself involved with the raising of funds to keep the operation growing. While raising $13 million to launch and expand the Fashion Project, Palmer said she had to take part in a lot of meetings with venture capitalists.

"I noticed how few women were involved on the venture capital side," she said. This, despite the fact that the chief donors and principal customers of the Fashion Project were all women. 

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Here was a business plan based on high-end women's clothing and accessories having to be understood by men, said Palmer. 

"There just wasn't the expertise in the room," she said. "Sometimes the men we'd be talking with would have to consult with their wives or bring in a secretary for an opinion on some aspect of the business. It struck me that this was something that needed to be fixed," said Palmer.

After four successful years, Palmer sold the Fashion Project and, in 2017, going about the business of fixing the problem of funding women-run startups. She started X Factor Ventures, a Boston firm dedicated to investing in companies led by women.

Palmer had plenty of evidence of an imbalance when it came to investments made in female-run firms. In 2016, venture capitalists invested $58 billion with companies with all-men founders. Businesses with women founders received just $1.5 billion, according to venture capital database PitchBook. "Let's change the stats," suggests the X-Factor website. 

"Venture Capital's Funding Gender Gap is Actually Getting Worse," read a headline of an article in Fortune magazine in 2017.

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"X-Factor is looking for tenacious female founders and mixed-gender teams attacking billion-dollar market opportunities. If you're a female founder working on a big idea,let's connect," suggested Palmer on the firm's website.

While her business is based in Boston, Palmer looks to set up offices around the country. Last year, she started another venture, this one called Dough, a company that will go public in May, she said.

"We're on a mission to drive purchase power and awareness towards women-owned businesses in order to create economic equality," said Palmer, noting that Dough relates to woman's so-called place in the kitchen as well as being another word for money.

With 100 women-owned businesses already as partners, this Dough looks to rise.

At 34, Palmer recently joined the board of trustees at her alma mater, Eureka College, a school she regards as "a special place."

She's been cited by Complex magazine as one of "10 tech CEOs changing the face of philanthropy" while InStyle magazine included her on its list of "17 women you need to know."

It may have started with garage sales in Pekin but Palmer is making her mark on the high-tech world while helping other women find their own startup success.