Bobbie Carlton has been called the den mother of start-ups, and the fairy godmother of entrepreneurs. The Lexington-based marketing maven has spent years fostering the local innovation community. A serial business builder herself, Carlton’s latest venture is Innovation Women, an online database of female speakers to create more gender-balanced panels at events. Before that, she was founder of Mass Innovation Nights, a product-launch showcase that allows companies to exhibit Massachusetts-based products.
Carlton, 53, a tireless marketer, started with Carlton PR & Marketing, and spun off the other incarnations as a way of promoting her chops. Carlton began experimenting with online platforms and connecting businesses when social media was fairly new. At the time, she was on the board of a museum that celebrated the accomplishments of the industrial revolution. During meet-and-greet evenings, it would display printing presses and typewriters as one-time modernizations. It was in this setting that the first Mass Innovation Night took place as a networking affair, and Carlton purchased the Innovation Nights domain. “I buy domain names like most women buy shoes,” she says.
That was 10 years ago. Since then, Carlton says, more than a thousand products have been launched at her events. “My advice rarely wavers: Get visible, get yourself out there and stand in front of the crowd,” says Carlton, whose latest soapbox for more female public speakers is based on the “all-male, all-pale, all-stale panels that perpetuate the same voices and the same themes that run through the industry.”
Carlton is the breadwinner in her family, and started her multiple careers during the height of the recession, when she was unemployed with two teenage boys. “I had to get creative to encourage others to get out there and help themselves – and it helped me, too,” she says.
She recently did a purge of her antiquated tech relics, which included posters from the Computer Bowl, educational materials from the early days of “internetworking,” hundreds of name tags and lanyards, and multiple Rolodexes. “After so many years in the industry, some things never change,” she says, “and that is that the human connection is always needed, even in the digital age.”
The Globe spoke with Carlton about the Boston start-up community.
“I talk about the concept of crowd promoting. When you’re in the room, speaking to an audience, you’re not just talking to those people, but every person they’re connected with. Because of social media, we all have incredible reach and the power to reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I’ve been geek-friendly and happy to listen as people talk about their products and their plans to change the world. Being a marketing person in the tech world gives me an insider’s view of technology and often I can see more clearly where we will end up.
“Boston has had a long history as a great place to start a company. As a new product comes to market, it can follow a well-traveled path that includes concept clinics and pitch events, seminars and meet-ups, incubators and accelerators, and a showcase event like Mass Innovation Nights. While there are several showcase-style events in Boston, we move around, often traveling far outside the Red Line’s vicinity in search of new community members.
“Creating a community around a common goal helps you do big things in a way that one person – or one company – can’t. One of my favorite stories is that of Noteflight, a product that launched with our very first Mass Innovation Nights. At the event, Noteflight connected with key advisers who helped guide them to more than three million users today, and eventually sell the bootstrapped company. One of the founders of Noteflight was a speaker at our 50th event, talking about his experience, growing the company from a kitchen table startup to a company with 11 employees.
“I love how supportive Boston is, what an incredible network and safety net exists for entrepreneurs. So many free events. So many mature entrepreneurs who take the time to share their time and knowledge. But we can’t keep turning to the same people, especially if it’s men, over and more. We need to hear from new voices to learn new things and move forward. There needs to be a path to business and career success, funding for startups, and board seats for women to change the persistent gender inequities in the business world.
“Speaking engagements pave that path, which is why my third company is Innovation Women. I particularly love when a new speaker takes the stage and knocks it out of the park. I myself am at heart very uncomfortable with public speaking but I force myself to do it. In the meantime, I’m still cleaning out my attic of its tech treasures.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misconstrued the name of Bobbie Carlton’s company, Innovation Women.
Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.