EWA, a free programme that promotes women’s entrepreneurship and the potential to develop innovative solutions for the future of agrifood, is returning to Lithuania. It is an EIT Food initiative supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an EU institution. The project will be launched for the third time and will be coordinated by AgriFood Lithuania. The success of last year’s mentees is a testimony to the fact that it is possible to commercialise an idea within six months with mentors’ help and gain valuable experience. So even those with only a vision for the business are invited to apply before 31 May.

Call for early-stage startup founders

The organisers have good news for women who are planning to participate in the programme as owners of existing businesses. This year, you can apply if you have a startup that has been on the market for up to three years (instead of the previous requirements of two years). A startup may also have received double the amount of funding from private or public funds than in previous EWA years – that is, up to €60,000.  

“The expectations for innovative ideas of the participants remain the same: we hope to see ideas that have the potential to positively impact the food system, improve the quality of people’s lives, or contribute to a more sustainable and efficient use of our planet’s resources,” comments Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė, CEO of the AgriFood Lithuania cluster and the digital innovation hub, patron of EWA Lithuania.

AgriFood Lithuania DIH CEO Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė

The top 10 most promising young entrepreneurs selected by EIT Food will work individually with their assigned experienced mentors for six months, taking part in face-to-face and virtual seminars and training sessions. They will also have the opportunity to actively benefit from international networking opportunities within the world’s largest and most dynamic food innovation community.

In autumn, the EWA will hold its final event at the traditional international AgriFood Forum, which annually attracts an audience of nearly 3000 people. Female innovators will take part in a pitch competition, watched by business angels and potential investors from all over Europe. The three best performers will be selected by an expert jury based on their startup idea and the progress they have made over the last six months. The winner will be awarded €10,000, while the second and third-place winners will receive vouchers of €5,000 and €3,000.

Women’s leadership as a way to achieve positive change

K. Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė points out that a lack of determination is one of the main reasons preventing women from pursuing a career in agrifood. According to official EU data, men apply for a senior position by meeting only 30% of the requirements, while women doubt themselves even if they do meet 70%.

“However, they have the potential to make a substantial contribution to strategic goals such as reviving Europe’s depopulated regions. Agriculture and the food industry are the main economic activities of women in many remote areas. Also, females have an instinctive ability to foster the well-being of their communities. But we need to empower them to be entrepreneurs and promote creative, sustainable innovation that responds to the challenges affecting food systems and the planet in general,” says the agrifood industry expert.

Tools for personal and professional development, more self-confidence, professional support and belonging to the EIT Food network – these are the values of the EWA, which K. Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė identifies as the key to success for women innovators in the creation of innovative startups.

All you need is an idea you strongly believe in

The experiences of EWA mentees and the evidence that all women have a chance to shine should encourage others to participate. For example, Giedrė Kesiūnaitė, an innovator taking her first steps, won in 2021. She started the project with an idea and finished with a seitan-based alternative meat product.

A year later, the business launch initiative brought extraordinary success for Paulina Gruodienė, the creator of Fruttberry, who also joined the programme with just the hint of an idea. She says that her dream to create powdered mixtures of vegetables, fruits, and berries, which can be prepared in half a minute and have no alternative in Lithuania, was born out of a personal need to live a healthier lifestyle.

Creator of Fruttberry Paulina Gruodienė

“I did not become a finalist, but I consider my decision to participate in EWA as a fateful one, because today, together with my business partner, we are growing a responsible brand that generates revenue and is of interest not only to local consumers but also to foreign markets. The reason for this is a sincere belief in my own idea, daily nurturing of it during the programme period, and dedication to the goal after it is over,” shares P. Gruodienė and offers not to focus only on the prize fund.

Finance, she says, is definitely very necessary at the start of a business. However, the advice of mentors who are professionals in their field, the practical knowledge and skills that are 100% transferable to a young business every day, as well as the supportive and inspiring community are all invaluable assets.