MIT Sloan Lecturer in Entrepreneurship Trish Cotter
I have recently been catching up with colleagues from companies past, and when I let them know what I am doing now, I often get the reaction, “Wow! That’s such a cool job.” And it is … I’m fortunate to be the director of delta v, MIT’s student venture accelerator. Each year, we guide a new group of startups through “entrepreneurship boot camp” and help them to launch their startup ventures into the real world. This past summer, I worked with 21 startup teams as they were striving to either gain traction or make the tough decision to regroup. It was an amazing group of students with ideas that address real world problems.
But, I also thought I had a cool job at age 12 when I cleaned up after dogs at a kennel. I had a sense of purpose, got to fulfill a passion of mine by working with animals, and met some great people as well.
The organization I worked at most recently, prior to MIT, was IBM – a company that is trying to bring data analytics insights to companies, so they can address real world problems. The complexity of what both our MIT startups and IBM are doing, albeit in different ways, struck me. Are they so different? I have deep respect for IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, who is moving a company the size of a small nation. However, the leaders of the MIT three-person startups are also scaling difficult challenges and placing bets with tremendous odds of failure.
Gender bias is sneaky. It’s often subtle, yet pervasive – and the effects are far reaching.
We’ve heard a lot this summer about outright sexual harassment and discrimination against women in the tech industry. This is certainly disgraceful and I applaud the actions taken to remove the offenders from their positions. Yet, beyond these blatant examples, there is an implicit gender bias that has a cumulative effect in everyday decisions that stacks the deck against women and minorities.
This blog post will look at how we can help budding entrepreneurs to think differently – and how Educational Accelerator programs, like MIT’s delta v, are making changes to identify and root out these implicit biases.
Gender Bias in the Tech Industry
First, let’s look at some examples of gender bias in established tech industry companies. Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube, wrote an exclusive feature for Vanity Fair on “How to Break up the Silicon Valley Boys’ Club.” She says she was “frustrated that an industry so quick to embrace change and the future can’t break free of its regrettable past.”
Wojcicki brings up sometimes subtle forms of bias that even well-intentioned male colleagues or managers may overlook. These include:
being frequently interrupted or talked over;
having decision-makers primarily addressing your male colleagues, even if they’re junior to you;
working harder to receive the same recognition as your male peers;
having your ideas ignored unless they’re rephrased by your male colleagues;
worrying so much about being either “too nice” or “sharp elbowed” that it hurts your ability to be effective;
frequently being asked how you manage your work-life balance; and
not having peers who have been through similar situations to support you during tough times.
Wojcicki states that by employing more women at all levels of a company, it creates a virtuous cycle that has proven to address both explicit and implicit gender discrimination.
So, how can we work with startups to take these biases out of the picture from the very start of a company’s formation?
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.