It’s time to unlock more entrepreneurship and job creation in the United States. In a new book, Emerson College professor Susanne Althoff argues that one way to do that is to knock down some of the obstacles and biases that stand in the way of female and nonbinary people starting and building successful companies.
Data from the Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard show "that if women launched high-growth companies at the same rate as men, we’d have 15 million additional jobs in the US in two years,” says Althoff, the author of “Launching While Female.” “That’s really important right now.”
But Althoff, a former Boston Globe Magazine editor, says that even in recent years, she has advised young women founders at Emerson who were "mistaken for a secretary, because they were a 20-year-old woman, when the 20-year old-men are assumed to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.”
There’s evidence that in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, things might actually be getting worse for female founders: In the third quarter of this year, venture capital funding for women-led companies dropped to its lowest rate in three years, even as overall venture capital investment was booming.
Althoff’s book, which she finished editing later this year, presents data and stories from more than 100 female founders. I wanted to understand what women running and funding companies would say about the climate right now, post-election, in the thick of the pandemic. So I reached out to a dozen women, asking what constructive change they’d suggest making to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Most of what they said maps to what Althoff recommends in “Launching While Female.”
Child care has become a front-burner issue in 2020 as work, home, and school have collided in one location for many.
“High-quality, affordable childcare and services to support working parents would be massively impactful in supporting women entrepreneurs,” Sabrina Manville writes via e-mail. She cofounded Edmit, a Boston startup that helps families navigate financial decisions related to college. “We simply don’t have universal supports in place that help women manage ambitious career and family goals. We don’t have publicly-funded services for new mothers, [and] our childcare system is expensive, oversubscribed, and provides relatively limited coverage.”
Natalya Bailey agrees that subsidized or free day care would make a big difference for moms trying to build companies; Bailey is the CEO of Boston-based Accion Systems, which makes propulsion systems for satellites. She has three kids under the age of 3. “All I ever heard was that college is expensive,” Bailey writes. “Well, these five years before public school are so hard and expensive! I think many of our headwinds stem from this burden.”
Sarah Downey, an operating partner at Accomplice, a Boston venture capital firm, says that solving the “pipeline problem” — the number of women getting degrees in fields such as mechanical engineering and data science — would top her list of things to change. “That would level the playing field more, as technical founders and operators are more in demand, more likely to have the skills needed to found companies, and more attractive to investors,” Downey says.
“The media tends to highlight and cover young male founders as tech leaders,” says Barbara Clarke, a Boston investor and founder of the Impact Seat, a consulting firm that focuses on diversity and inclusion. “Women founders, if they get any coverage, tend to get the ‘Look at that woman starting her own company against the odds’ coverage, rather than focusing on her as a tech/business leader. I’ve seen lots of examples of that.” An approach like that can “underscore her position as an outsider,” Clarke says.
When women entrepreneurs go to conferences and events, they often encounter a parade of men on stage. Bobbie Carlton started a speaker’s bureau called Innovation Women because that situation, she says, affects “so many other things,” including media coverage, credibility, and “our perception of what a leader looks like.”
Even in 2020, with conferences taking place online, “we’re still seeing all-male, all-pale, and all-stale (the same people over and over again) panels and speaker slates,” she says.
Ever try pitching feminine hygiene products, made with sustainable fibers rather than plastic, to a boardroom full of male investors? Katie Diasti, founder of Viv for Your V, has.
“It took some time to learn how to get older male investors, and even older female investors, to see you as the perfect person for this job,” she says. “There tend to be these `unwritten rules’ when dealing with investors that are even more complex to navigate in a virtual setting.”
As part of those conversations with potential funders, Diasti wishes she could “normalize candid conversations about bias,” she says.
The majority of angel investors and venture capitalists who put money into fledgling companies are male, and several women said that creating more diversity among investors would help a broader range of companies get funded.
Rajia Abdelaziz, cofounder of the startup InvisaWear, says she “would make it mandatory for venture capital and angel groups to have an equal balance of genders. I cannot tell you the number of times we’ve pitched for funding and there wasn’t one woman present during the pitch. At first, I used to be shocked by this, but after so many pitches, I’m now shocked if there is more than one woman at the pitch.”
Her startup makes safety alert systems for women, hidden in decorative items like bracelets or necklaces.
Several women I reached out to mentioned the importance of mentoring and of making advice and support more accessible.
Julia Austin, a former tech executive at Digital Ocean and Akamai, is running a mentorship program called Good for Her, which accepts eight women in each “cohort.” It originally took place in person but has now shifted to digital. “It’s a pay-it-forward thing for me,” says Austin, who is also a fellow at Harvard Business School.
But surfacing more diverse mentors with diverse experience remains a challenge, says Kesiah Bascom, founder of Offbeat Compost, a compost service in the Merrimack Valley. “I am very fortunate to have formed a network of intelligent and inspiring mentors who have contributed to my growth, which I’m very thankful for,” Bascom writes. “That being said, I would love to find a Black woman in my field who could support me as a mentor or a friend.”
In 2018, California passed a law requiring public companies to include at least one woman on their boards of directors by the end of last year. Jules Pieri, a cofounder of the Grommet, a Somerville e-commerce site, says that something similar “should be a federal requirement. I mean, one woman? It’s such a teeny start, and is long overdue."
“I am on a very accomplished and active nonprofit board with 23 members — over half are female, and half are BIPOC [Black, indigenous, or people of color] and can attest that this range of experience and perspectives has meaningful positive impact on strategy and results. Every time I go to a board of directors meeting I think, `If only American business could work like this.' ”
There are plenty of things pulling at our attention in 2020. But helping women, nonbinary people, and other underrepresented founders build their businesses is something that can help our economy bounce back from the COVID-19 slump.
And yes, it needs your involvement, even if you are (like me) pale and male.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.