Personal View: Entrepreneurship paths for all
I’ve reflected on this subject recently, having been a part of conversations about this crucial topic as it plays out on college campuses. In June, I attended the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for the Deshpande Symposium on Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education. Named for an entrepreneur who also created the Deshpande Foundation, it encourages the use of entrepreneurship and innovation as catalysts for sustainable change in the United States and abroad. The symposium brings together leaders working on the front lines of collegiate entrepreneurship, and I served on a panel that explored the challenges that keep women in the minority of entrepreneurs in the U.S.
The panelists included Corey Drushal, executive director of Cincinnati- and Cleveland-based Bad Girl Ventures, who observed that the program resonates with female entrepreneurs because it provides an initial safe space where women can explore their entrepreneurial potential with other women, before spreading their wings in the larger community.
Dr. Mitzi Montoya, University Dean for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Arizona State University, said that while ASU tries many approaches to engaging more females through entrepreneurship, the numbers unfortunately remain fixed. She believes our country faces cultural issues that suppress the entrepreneurship bug among females.
In other nations the story is different. In Ghana, Ecuador, Nigeria, Mexico and Uganda the ratio of female to male entrepreneurs is roughly equal. And in Panama and Thailand, female entrepreneurs slightly outnumber their male counterparts. In these nations, it may be a matter of basic survival that encourages women to more aggressively pursue their entrepreneurial potential.
Closer to home, the JumpStart Higher Education Collaboration Council recently explored the same topic. Panelist Jackie Acho, a consultant who works at the intersection of innovation and inclusion, argued that entrepreneurship represents the best hope for completing the feminist revolution, allowing women to write their own stories and contribute to the multiplicity of voices that breeds the most fertile environment for innovation.
Participants at both events challenged panelists, questioning whether female-focused startup support leaves females stranded in some sort of “female ghetto” that ultimately doesn’t advance their cause. But this very point may begin to address the essence of the problem — an acculturation issue that special programs can begin to address.
The Blackstone LaunchPad program — now in effect at four area colleges — is a perfect example of the kind of atmosphere that can guide aspiring entrepreneurs of both genders through entrepreneurial exploration. That begins with a nurturing, confidence-building environment, followed by the increasingly challenging, less-safe real world environment of competitions, pitches and negotiations.
So where does all this debate on female entrepreneurs leave us?
Women entrepreneurs mainly just want to be entrepreneurs. But the path to success can take many routes — through long hours and hard work, failures and pivots, and possibly ventures bolstered by targeted programs that help women build the networks they need to succeed. Experts at Kauffman observe that more female mentors, role models and female-centered networks are critical for changing these dynamics. Our fertile Northeast Ohio entrepreneurial ecosystem already boasts Bad Girl Ventures, Ladies Who Launch, the Burning River Coffee Community and many programs on college campuses, such as All the CEO Ladies at Kent State University Blackstone LaunchPad.
My conclusion from these recent spirited discussions is that to really move the needle, it will take mutually supportive efforts, including female-focused programs that inspire and guide women through the startup process. Some women will navigate that process well on their own; others will thrive on the energy generated through a community of like-minded women.
In the end, it’s about options. Starting early with our girls is a fundamental ingredient in helping young women gain confidence and understand they have the power, skills and courage to embark on their own entrepreneurial journey, wherever it may ultimately take them.
Because after all, in America, we should all have the ability to write our own stories.
(Deborah Hoover serves as president and CEO of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and is chair of the Fund for Our Economic Future.)