When Maria Artunduaga won a University of California award in 2017 for her team’s technology to manage pulmonary disease, she noted a critical factor in the victory: contest-organized mentorship from Jocelyn Brown with the Rice 360˚ Institute for Global Health.
“Her experience building health technologies for preterm babies in Africa was key to our success in the Big Ideas student innovation contest,” Artunduaga said. “Jocelyn challenged me to learn more engineering, to think carefully about the right processes to transition medical devices from design to development, to clinical evaluation and distribution in a global health setting, which is completely different from the US.”
Artunduaga turned the technology into the centerpiece of a company she founded in 2018, Respira Labs. Unfortunately, her story is a rarity in the United States. Only 17 percent of startups had a female founder in 2017, the same rate it was five years earlier, according to Crunchbase. When it comes to people of color, it's even worse: Less than 4 percent of women-founded businesses in 2017 had a black female founder, Digital Divide observed. Women are half as likely as men to start a business, the Kauffman Foundation found. And women's startups pull in about $935,000 in venture capital investment versus men's $2.1 million, even though women-led businesses made 10 percent more in cumulative revenue over a five-year period, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reported in 2018.
Accelerators—organizations that encourage, fund, promote, and guide startups—have an important role to play in addressing these inequities. They must not only proactively recruit women entrepreneurs, but also, as BCG noted, assemble deeply experienced women from many industries to “act as role models and mentors” to budding entrepreneurs.
Accelerators within universities—institutes replete with female faculty, researchers, staff, and alumna who are often available to help aspiring entrepreneurs—are particularly well-suited to the challenge. Big Ideas, our innovation contest at the University of California, Berkeley, has seen significant progress: Women founders made up 52 percent of the Big Ideas winners in 2017, up from 36 percent in 2006.
We've identified three key factors behind the uptick that other organizations aiming for equity should take into consideration:
1. Extensive Outreach and Mentoring
Every starting female entrepreneur like Artunduaga should be able to regularly connect with an experienced mentor like Brown. Big Ideas gives plenty of opportunities for mentor connections by running the program over eight months, while providing access to a large number of women mentors. For the 2013-2014 contest, 30 percent of our mentors were female; for the 2018-2019 contest, nearly 55 percent of our mentors are female. We believe this gender parity helps overcome the confidence barrier experienced by some aspiring women entrepreneurs—a barrier documented by decades of research showing men are more likely to be overconfident, and women are more likely to be underconfident in their skills and performance in the workplace.
For example, in our analysis of the Big Ideas application process in 2017, 53 percent of women and 68 percent of men said they were “likely to start a social venture on their own or with others in the next 12 months.” Eight months later, 63 percent of women reported this as their intention, while the percentage of men remained the same. Furthermore, at the start of the Big Ideas process, more male than female entrepreneurs felt confident in developing a strong network to support their social venture. However, by the end of the contest, this flipped—more women founders reported high levels of confidence than men.
2. More Women Judges
Entrepreneurial ideas from women should be assessed by people who are aware of the barriers women entrepreneurs face. A study featured in Harvard Business Review highlighted how investors will generally ask promotion-oriented questions to men and prevention-oriented ones to women, and award nearly seven times more investment to startups that fielded promotion-based questions. To circumvent this trend, Big Ideas has engaged a judging team for 2018 that is 52 percent women, up from 42 percent in 2014. In that same timespan, the percentage of awards going to women went from 40 percent to 52 percent.
3. Bias Correction
Left unchecked, bias might take hold in the stages of the Big Ideas process, from pitching to mentoring to judging. Indeed, one of the biases noted by the BCG study is that women founders are subject to pushback when making presentations. According to the research, investors often assume—or say—that women founders lack technical knowledge. However, men are permitted to overpitch or oversell their ideas with best-case scenario projections. Likewise, a 2014 study from MIT, Harvard, and University of Pennsylvania researchers demonstrated that the same idea pitched by an attractive man is at least 60 percent more likely to get funding than one from a woman. We aim to avoid that by having contest entrants place their names and bios at the end of their applications, and by offering multiple ways students can present their ideas, including written documents, oral presentations, and videos.
Other universities have incorporated many of these concepts in their efforts to support budding women entrepreneurs. The IDEAS contest at MIT offers three opportunities and two pitch dinners for students to apply, receive feedback, and reapply. The Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center, which runs IDEAS, also has a predominantly female staff who work extensively on increasing participation in the contest. Over the last five years, 80 percent of winning IDEAS teams have had at least one female team member. The University of San Diego's Global Social Innovation Challenge has increased female participation by launching a Women Innovators Initiative. It includes seed funding, and female networking and mentoring opportunities for student competitors. In 2018, 73 percent of its competitors were women, up from 46 percent in 2017.
Women Innovators Initiative, IDEAS, and Big Ideas are a small slice of the higher education innovation landscape in the United States. If more university-based programs follow the steps they've taken to support women entrepreneurs, they too can play an important role in addressing the gender disparities so evident in American entrepreneurism. With enough of us working together, stories like Artunduaga's could become the norm, not the exception. It's a future we would like to see.