At The Harvard Innovation Lab Half Of The Great Ideas Come From Women
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.