New strides for female entrepreneurs

This week, MassChallenge proudly announced that 39% of startups participating in MassChallenge Boston and MassChallenge UK have at least one female founder. By industry standards, this number is exceptionally high – according to the latest reports on the industry as a whole, in 2014 only 18% of all U.S. startups that received funding had at least one female founder
 
Standing on its own, this 18% seems alarmingly low as an industry-wide standard for female-founded startups. However, this figure is up from an even more troubling 9.5% in 2009, and thus has nearly doubled in the past five years.
 
Although it has historically supported a higher-than-average rate of female entrepreneurs, MassChallenge is also on an upward trajectory. In MassChallenge Boston alone, an impressive 44% of the 2015 finalists are female-founded, up from 31% in 2012. 
 
MassChallenge has several initiatives to support women entrepreneurs, and these have likely helped it achieve such a high number of female-founded startup applicants. In 2013, MassChallenge alumni organized a women’s network, Women in MassChallenge (WiMC). WiMC is now part of both the Boston and UK accelerators and hosts regular meetings and an annual event. Hundreds of partners encourage applications to the accelerators each year. In February, Women’s i-lab partnered with MassChallenge to provide more support to women entrepreneurs and to encourage female founders to apply.
 
Elsewhere in the industry, other companies are taking similar steps to increase diversity and solve the problem of gender inequality. In December, The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) announced the formation of a task force that helps women and minorities and aims to fix the pattern of “frat-boy behavior” often associated with VC. Intel has just launched a $125 million fund to invest specifically in startups founded by female and minority entrepreneurs. 
 
Such trends are certainly positive, and these statistics should be heartening for women in entrepreneurship. However, the progress is far from complete. Studies have shown that investors of both sexes prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs as opposed to female, even when the content of the pitch is identical. 
 
Data collected by the Harvard Business Review shows that “in the US and Developed Europe, women are 18% less likely to perceive they have the capability to start a business.” This demonstrates the “enormous opportunity for an enabling environment which would boost entrepreneurial activity rates” (source: HBR). Clearly, there is a lot to be gained (socially and economically) in the startup industry by fostering a more female-friendly atmosphere. 
 
At BostInno’s third annual State of Innovation forum on June 16th, Diane Hessan, CEO at StartUp Institute and Chariman of Communispace, reinforced the idea that huge potential exists behind engaging women in the startup industry. In her keynote speech, this accomplished entrepreneur touched on the issue of diversity and its critical importance in the future of business. “Diverse perspectives matter,” she said, referring to both women and minorities, “and we all need to do better.” 
 
We still have a long way to go before the playing field is equal for women and minorities. Nevertheless, in the traditionally male-dominated tech and startup industry, women do seem to be making some headway; perhaps it is not naïve to be optimistic about the future of women in entrepreneurship.