Image: Harvard Innovation Lab.
No doubt you know how little venture capital funding goes to female founders, in part because so few VCs are women. And that women are less likely to start companies, less likely to scale their companies or have successful exits. So it is encouraging to find bright spots in the landscape such as this: at the five-year old Harvard Innovation Lab, a program open to students from any of the university’s schools, about half of the accepted founders are women.
And that’s not because the program actively seeks out women or has any kind of quota.
“We don’t take gender into consideration,” says Jodi Goldstein, the i-lab’s Managing Director. “We want to support great companies and it has ended up that about half had women founders. It was organic.”
The number is also interesting in light of new research from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor that men between the ages of 18 and 24 are twice as likely to start a new business than women of the same age. And while three of five new female entrepreneurs started consumer businesses compared to two in five for men, according to the GEM, Goldstein says the i-lab ventures are equally distributed across industries, with women launching as many in tech or health as fashion and consumer.
To be sure, a university offers the kind of resources and support that can make launching a business easier. And having a woman at the i-lab’s helm might also send an encouraging message to women. But the numbers are a nice counterpoint to the go-to excuses of many VCs that women’s ideas are not as worthy of funding, or that women are less interested in being entrepreneurs in the first place. “The system is broken,” says Goldstein, “but it is not happening at this level.”
Goldstein takes it as evidence that the i-lab has managed to create the welcoming, inclusive program that was her goal. Goldstein is a Harvard Business School grad who had stints at GE and TA Associates, the private equity firm, before co-founding Drync, a startup creating a wine marketplace app. She became the i-lab’s Director when it opened in 2011 and Managing Director last year.
Harvard is admired for many things, but at the time, entrepreneurship wasn’t among them. “I wanted to prove those folks wrong,” says Goldstein. She liked the notion of a starting with a blank slate, and thinks of the i-lab as a startup within a large, complex institution—and a very siloed one. The years she spent guiding portfolio companies and working in a startup taught her that innovation feeds on diversity, and from the beginning she was committed to drawing in participants from across the university. “I was adamant that a cross-disciplinary approach was crucial for entrepreneurship and innovation,” she says.
The i-lab launched with the “broad mission of putting ideas to use and not necessarily spinning out companies,” she says. Teams apply each semester to the Venture Incubation Program, a 12-week session that combines mentoring, workshops and community. Those teams and other applicants can move onto the Launch Lab, a prototype co-working space. The programs, as well as events and workshops, are free and open to students enrolled in any of Harvard’s schools, though students don’t get class credits. About 30% of applicants are accepted.
Participants come from all of Harvard’s schools. About 25% of founders have come from each of the largest schools–Harvard College and HBS. Businesses also range across industries, with social impact, health and science, and tech ventures each making up about 30% of the total, with the remaining businesses focused on consumer products and services. Over the years, Goldstein says the diversity of ventures has increased, and more students are thinking big. “We see more and more big ideas, with people who want to make a big change in the world,” she says. “There is an internal motivation to have an impact.”
Going forward, the i-lab is exploring launching in other cities, as well as finding more ways to work with the Boston community. Goldstein hopes to bring more women on board as mentors—but not just to mentor female founders. “I am always looking for more women, but I want women to mentor male teams, too,” she says. “I think both men and women need women mentors.”
Goldstein, who says her own career was spent mostly in male-dominated environments, has noted that women founders are more likely than men to “underpromise and overdeliver.” And women often don’t think as big as they should. “Men do the opposite, pulling numbers out of thin air,” she says.
The program’s networking opportunities help women fight a common tendency to do everything themselves and to meet investors who might otherwise overlook their ideas. While some university programs take stakes in companies, the i-lab does not invest or match companies with investors. Instead it offers opportunities for founders to meet with investors in a variety of ways. “I think of it as a marketplace, giving people exposure and accessibility to a wide array of people,” she says.
Informal networking is essential for women founders who are less likely to get the attention of VCs. While early-stage ventures, for men and women, have more options for funding than ever before, at later stages women still face obstacles getting investment. “There is bias,” Goldstein says. “In 20 years I haven’t seen that the needle has moved at all. The VC landscape hasn’t changed. Men need to be evaluating ventures solely on their merit, not if they have male or female founders.”
The VC model may need fixing, but “when I see what is happening here,” says Goldstein, “I am optimistic for the future.”