Female Entrepreneurs: Gaining Ground – Trish Cotter

MIT Sloan’s Trish Cotter

Women now make up nearly 40 percent of new entrepreneurs in the United States — the highest percentage since 1996, according to the 2017 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity. And research reported in HBR.com shows that The Gender Gap in Startup Success Disappears When Women Fund Women; encouraging news indeed.

With MIT’s delta v student venture accelerator, the Martin Trust Center MIT Entrepreneurship  welcomes a new group of students each summer and puts them through “entrepreneurial boot camp.” I want to give you a glimpse at some of the inspiring female entrepreneurs I’ve worked with, and how they are succeeding at what they do, shattering glass ceilings at every level:

 

• Take Natalya Brinker, CEO of Accion Systems, an MIT PhD graduate and a member of the 2014 accelerator cohort. Accion is developing revolutionary propulsion for satellites that will make space more accessible and affordable across industries. The company itself is seeing quite a bit of propulsion receiving funding from the Department of Defense and a Series A round and winning numerous awards.

• Or Katie Taylor, the CEO and co-founder of Khethworks, who earned her Master’s degree from MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2015 and was part of the accelerator program that summer. Khethworks is a company that supports farmers in eastern India, where more than 30 million farmers tend to an acre or less of land. The company has developed a solar-powered irrigation system that lets these farmers affordably cultivate year-round.

• And Steph Speirs, a member of the 2016 delta v group who is co-founder and CEO of The Solstice Initiative, a nonprofit with a goal of providing solar power to underserved Americans by partnering with communities to share solar power. Speirs graduated from MIT with an MBA this June, and was honored as an Echoing Green Fellow and Soros Fellow during her time here as a student.

MIT has invested in female entrepreneurs, and I believe that we have something special here. Our delta v student venture accelerator is a very competitive program and I’m pleased to report that 45% of the students in the 2017 cohort are women. The average team has three members and 75% of the teams have at least one female co-founder.

MIT “walks the walk” with leadership as well. Three of our five Entrepreneurs-in-Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship are women.  We also boast Katie Rae as head of The Engine, a new space at MIT where entrepreneurial ideas can begin to take shape, and Jinane Abounadi as the head of the MIT Sandbox, which provides meaningful seed funding for student-initiated ideas.  Beyond delta v, females are starting ventures across the Institute such as, a startup project called Tactile, started by six women – all who just graduated from MIT – is supported by both The Engine and Sandbox. These women have invented a text-to-braille scanner that they believe they can bring to the market for under $100. Tactile has been selected to be part of Microsoft’s Patent Program for their efforts.

Yet, the statistics are still bleak. Last year we hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary “She Started It” which follows five women in their journeys to launch businesses in the technology industry. The director and co-producer of the film, Nora Poggi, joined in our discussion afterwards, and she cited statistics about being a female entrepreneur in the tech industry that were even lower than the stats across other industries. For example:

• Women create only 3% of tech startups
• In Silicon Valley, women earn only 49 cents to a man’s dollar
• Women receive less than 10% of venture capital funding
• Only 12% of undergrad computer science degrees are earned by women
• 96% of venture capitalists are men

So, yes, there are differences between male and female entrepreneurs, and we acknowledge that. Some good insights come from the research done by MIT’s Associate Dean for Innovation, Fiona Murray. She sees differences in women entrepreneurs patenting and commercializing their innovations. She believes that these differences could be explained, in part, by the fact that women are less connected to industry and have narrower commercial networks. These are the types of real changes we must make when supporting women as entrepreneurs – providing access to industry groups and networks, as well as access to funding.

At MIT, we believe we are part of the solution with programs and initiatives to support entrepreneurship for both men and women. MIT is committed to mentoring, creating opportunity, and profiling women so that female entrepreneurs become the norm, not the exception.

We’ll continue to watch our entrepreneurs who are forging new paths. I know many of these women will be guiding lights and mentors for those who follow in their footsteps.

Trish Cotter is Program Manager and Lecturer at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Director of MIT’s delta v student venture accelerator.

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