About Astia

Monday, August 9, 2010

Gender, Technology and Entrepreneurship


The following is a guest post by Jennifer Hill, Chair, Astia NYC Advisory Board

In late July, I joined an esteemed group of students, professors, entrepreneurs, technologists, lawyers and media voices from the New York City and Boston technology communities for a day of provocative thought and discussion, courtesy of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. The day’s events were hosted by the eloquent Vivek Wadhwa, Senior Research Associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and an executive-in-residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. Mr. Wadhwa’s opening presentation, “Entrepreneurship: where are all the women and minorities?” focused on the dearth of women and minorities in high-growth entrepreneurship (i.e. characterized by Silicon Valley-like success), the rise of the Indian community within Silicon Valley and the importance of early science, math and technology-focused education. (For an inspiring view on how even small amounts of entrepreneurial mentorship, education and path-building can positively impact young women, please visit the Roshni Academy.)

The statistics Mr. Wadhwa presented on minority participation in the Silicon Valley workforce were staggering: African-Americans account for only 1.4%; Hispanic-Americas: 4.7%. Yet within the time period of 1995-2010 Southeast Asians rose to account for nearly 15.5% of tech companies founded within Silicon Valley. The reason? They funded themselves. Mr. Wadhwa’s central thesis is similar to that which many communities have quietly advocated and practiced for generations: support your own. Look to your own communities - those more likely to understand your moral/cultural/ethnic values - as the first port of call for capital investment. Use your personal and local networks as a launchpad. Indeed, angel investor groups such as Golden Seeds already institute this belief by means of its practice of investing capital into predominantly women-led companies.

Yet perhaps more interesting than the topic of different gender and minority communities underwriting forays into entrepreneurship was the roundtable discussion in the afternoon led by Mr. Wadhwa and Professor Oliver R. Goodenough, a professor of law at Berkman and the Vermont Law School. Chief among the topics, which ranged from investment, mentorship and the entrepreneur’s perspective of capital raising, was the issue of “gender and entrepreneurship” versus “female entrepreneurship”. Does substituting a neutral term for a feminine one change the tone of the discussion? Does it enable both sexes to view the notion of entrepreneurship as a natural path instead of a separate, distinct, and sometimes stigmatized undertaking? (Responses to this last point were perhaps more comfortably discussed within an academic setting.)

The notion of “female entrepreneurship” seemed to unleash a set of gender-associated “caricaturistics”?!, such as differing risk tolerances, false senses of fear in not attaining perfection – which affected entry into entrepreneurship, use of organic versus outside capital resources, time and speed of company growth rates, concern over declaring themselves as experts without a track record, the notion of sharing - the prevalence of feeling more comfortable launching a company with a co-founder, and entitlements to success. The roundtable audience included both genders and a span of generations. The term “gender” versus “feminine” somehow caused the conversation to seem more meritorious instead of polarizing.

Out of the conversation about “why” came the wellspring of ideas of “what next”. Four key themes emerged:

(1) Mentors. Mentors. Mentors. Find them early in your career as possible. Change them along the way as you evolve. Identify role models; the media can help wit this as new ones are emerging at faster rates.

(2) Teach innovation, computer science skills and the power of entrepreneurship earlier in school – especially to young girls.

(3) Keep lists of talented women across generations, industries, and professions as recommendations for panels, speaking engagements, and the like.

(4) Ask women to step up to the plate and start a company. The White House Project encourages people to invite women to run for political office. Why not apply the same vision to entrepreneurship? Ask a talented woman you know whether she has considered starting a company? Keep asking. Within every one of us is the opportunity to launch something outstanding.

Astia is doing its part to accelerate companies within the vein of these recommendations, especially in the area of mentors, or – as Astia refers to them – “Advisors.” Companies selected to join the Astia community are introduced to four key advisors to accelerate their companies faster. Aside from providing engaged advice and guidance in a variety of areas from financing, law, technology, marketing, CEO leadership development and the like, they also open up their personal networks to the benefit of the companies. For more information about Astia’s advisor program or to learn about becoming an advisor, please check out the Astia website. Serving as an Astia advisor is an outstanding way to quickly make a positive impact with an entrepreneur and her high-growth company.

If you have not explored Astia’s website, then I encourage you to do so. Get to know the outstanding community of entrepreneurs, investors, advisors, technologists, marketing experts, strategists, lawyers, business development professionals and more across a variety of industries. Astia is a growing ecosystem of global professionals who are now and will become the leaders of tomorrow.

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Jennifer Hill is an attorney. She serves as Chair of the Astia Board of Advisors in New York City as well as on the Board of Directors at AOL Small Business.

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