Stepping Stones to Inclusivity


© Credit: Leigh Vogel

The 2019 International Women's Day Forum: The Equality Opportunity, hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, focused on new research and programs championed by public and private organizations targeting gender inequity in innovation and entrepreneurship. Women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs—often working for themselves to escape discrimination in the workforce.  With a 51% growth rate from 2007 to 2016, DC is currently recognized as one of the top ten fastest growing states for women-owned businesses. And yet, even as more women break into the space, there still remain huge obstacles to success. These include: lack of investment in female-owned startups, unequal resource allocation, discrimination in the workplace, lack of confidence, unconscious bias, lack of social capital, and other barriers to capital and training.

During the panel ‘Inclusive Innovation’, Yanire Braña, Executive Director of MET Community, shared her experiences running an organization that supports female entrepreneurship at the Inclusive Innovation Incubator in Washington, D.C. Not only are resources allocated differently, but male and female entrepreneurs believe they need different things for success. According to a U.S. Senate report, the perception of entrepreneurship as a masculine activity and associated implicit biases can affect young women’s confidence in their entrepreneurial pursuits. Yanire spoke to her research on what entrepreneurs think they need to succeed, saying, “Most men answered money, whereas women considered nonfinancial support, such as mentoring and training, to be more important.” Aside from mentoring and training, money still forms a barrier for these women. Sarah Chen, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the Billion Dollar Fund for Women, highlighted the need to close the funding gap that plagues female entrepreneurs—only 7% of private equity and venture capital is invested in female-led businesses, even though gender balanced leadership is associated with higher revenue and valuation for startups. 

Support from local universities can be a boon for these women. Julia Westfall, Founder and CEO of Hera Hub D.C., recognized the key role academia plays in fostering inclusion and opportunities in innovation. “Anyone will answer a student,” said Julia, noting it’s much harder for female entrepreneurs to get access to key partners and customers after graduation. Though there are limited on-ramps for young adults and teens to learn entrepreneurship skills, Julia highlighted pitch and venture competitions as phenomenal learning experiences. These competitions, such as the George Washington University’s New Venture Competition which gives $800k in cash and in-kind prizes to student entrepreneurs, can provide crucial foundational support for female entrepreneurs.

 An expected additional 12 trillion dollars in global growth would be added to global GDP if women participate in the workforce at the same rates as men. Building supportive and accommodating networks for women entrepreneurs is crucial to this change. For a more gender equitable future, startup ecosystems must intentionally fight for and dedicate resources to women’s equal participation in innovation and entrepreneurship.

[Editor's Note: Couldn't attend the 2019 International Women's Day Forum? View the video archive here.]