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Innovating the innovation community: strategies to include women entrepreneurs

Venture Cafe | Kauffman Foundation

This research paper examines emerging practices to include a diverse set of entrepreneurs (e.g. women and minorities) by entrepreneurship support organizations in St. Louis, and at the same time, identified more demands from entrepreneurs for this purpose.

Female business owners are a rapidly growing segment of the entrepreneurial population in the United States and entrepreneurship support organizations across the nation have greatly expanded their efforts to meet this demand. However, many women remain disconnected from valuable resources. The success of gender-focused accelerators, coaching, and networking programs in making entrepreneurial ecosystems more inclusive is yet unknown.

We, four researchers from universities and Kauffman Foundation, help to fill this gap through our research, based on more than 80 interviews of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial community leaders in St. Louis, Missouri, a city with a recently developed yet vibrant startup community.

Entrepreneurial support organizations in St. Louis have made intentional efforts to reach out to female business owners: to develop educational programming and networking opportunities for them, to improve awareness of what the entrepreneurship support community has to offer them, and to strengthen their reputation by being inclusive. Across these organizations, we found a few common strategies.

  • These organizations hosted one-time or occasional events where women entrepreneurs were both featured and invited.
  • Some organizations developed programs specifically targeting female entrepreneurs.
  • Organizations were working collaboratively to develop and launch both the events and the programs targeted to women.

These are valiant and important first steps for reaching the female business owners who aim to grow and expand their businesses, and should be applauded. We found even more opportunities, however, to take these approaches to the next level.

Specifically, we found a lack of awareness and hence effort toward integrating women into the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem — that is, the parts that aren’t exclusively gender-focused. Female entrepreneurs interviewed sometimes felt as though the programming probably didn’t apply to them or worse, they were completely unaware of it. Other entrepreneurs felt the programming further marginalized women into a separate category.

Even others noticed that usually when women entrepreneurs, speakers, financiers and mentors were substantively featured, it was at the women-targeted events. Additionally, even when the target of a service was female entrepreneurs, we saw room for improvement in recruiting women for the leadership and mentorship roles at these support organizations.

Surprisingly, female interviewees generally did not identify with the term “entrepreneur,” but instead called themselves small business owners. This is not a marginal vocabulary issue, but reflects larger social and cultural differences between expectations of men and women. Though their reasoning varied, most women expressed some variation on believing ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘support for entrepreneurs’ to be (for) young, male entrepreneurs in the tech sector who are looking for venture capital money.

Because of this, the past (and successful) method by support organizations to recruit entrepreneurs, the open-door policy, functioned as an invisible barrier for female entrepreneurs. The open-door advertisement tactic often functions through word-of-mouth communication, not explicitly excluding anyone but not specifically reaching out either. If the predominant population served is male entrepreneurs, their word-of-mouth communication will not reach different kinds of entrepreneurs or distant groups of people, such as female business owners.

Based on these findings, we propose the following set of recommendations for all entrepreneurs, support organizations, and policymakers in any city that aims to be inclusive of different kinds of entrepreneurs.

  • Consider redesigning programs rather than extending specialized ones to include women. What has worked to recruit your current clients may not necessarily work for a different demographic.
  • Similarly, engage in a proactive communication strategy targeted to female entrepreneurs. Talk to the female entrepreneurs that do come to your programs and events, and identify the common language, schedules, and needs of them.
  • Recruit female entrepreneurs to serves as leaders, role models, and mentors.

The public sector can further help, first, by mapping support organizations in a city in terms of their target entrepreneurs and programs offered. Additionally, they can track public expenditures going into support organizations and encourage each organization to track demographic data of the clients. Lastly, they can facilitate the coordination between support organizations to openly share their data and best practices.

Our full paper can be accessed here.