By Nicole Zhu
Every two or three Wednesdays, twenty students gather in Collegetown’s eHub. Among these are a computer scientist specializing in computer vision and artificial intelligence, a Ph.D. student researching animal science, a fashion-minded materials science student pursuing a master’s degree, and an electrical and computer engineer. The youngest are Cornell undergraduate students, while others are seasoned Ph.D. students well into their 20s.
What do these individuals have in common? They are all women and burgeoning entrepreneurs, each with their own individual project seeking to change the world: an AI-powered crop irrigation system to maximize water conservation, a mentorship program for underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and software to identify biases against women in STEM, to name a few. Together, these twenty women, under the guidance of director and entrepreneurship faculty member Andrea Ippolito ’06, M.A. ’07, make up the inaugural class of Women Entrepreneurs (W.E.) Cornell, the university’s first-ever entrepreneurship program for women in STEM.
Launched this year, the semester-long program is a primer on the basics of starting a business, teaching participants—most without any prior entrepreneurship experience—“building blocks” like networking, locating funding opportunities, navigating the investment world, and finding mentorship. It is the newest addition to Cornell’s plethora of entrepreneurship programs, and the only one with a female focus.
Despite record-high enrollment of women in Cornell’s STEM programs—Cornell’s School of Engineering famously achieved gender parity this academic year—Ippolito, who already taught entrepreneurship in some of Cornell’s existing offerings such as eLab, quickly recognized the need for a women-focused program.
According to a report released by the think tank Third Way, women are pursuing higher education at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels in greater numbers than ever. But despite such gains in education, the gender disparity in business ownership remains daunting. There are approximately two male entrepreneurs for every female entrepreneur, with female-led companies comprising only 36% of all businesses in the United States.
“Despite the fact that we have incredible percentages of women in our STEM programs at Cornell, there weren't that many STEM women in our entrepreneurship programs,” Ippolito said. As an eLab instructor, Ippolito decided to practice what she taught in her classes, which involved going out and talking to “customers”—in this case, her prospective female students.
“We interviewed a number of women across our university, and we heard a lot of this sentiment of, ‘Oh, I've always been interested in entrepreneurship, but my idea isn't fully fledged out yet,’ or ‘I have this idea, and I feel very passionate about it, but I don't think I'm the right fit for it. I think I need to work on it a little bit more,’” Ippolito explained. “You see this a lot in women, this “imposter syndrome” that they feel the need to be perfect before they apply for something.”
In a roundtable discussion with three W.E. Cornell participants, Brianna Tate, Wanlin Li, and Sharon Deng, each of the women present largely agreed that entrepreneurship had not always seemed like an open career path.
Tate, a doctoral student, said, “I never thought I’d take an entrepreneurship class, nor ever identified as an entrepreneur because I didn’t even know how to begin to start my own business. The idea I’m working on now is something that I’ve had for years now. I never knew how to go about making it an actual product.”
A 2008 report by the Tinbergen Institute found that women are simply less likely to start their own businesses. Another report by the Kauffman Foundation discovered three factors to be the worst contributors to this problem: the short supply of female mentors, implicit biases against female entrepreneurs, and a lack of access to venture capital (VC). Entrepreneurship is widely seen as a technology-based field, as many of the most prominent startups rely on technological innovation, and is thus a “masculine” activity. The masculine-coded nature of the field, the study said, discourages women from pursuing entrepreneurship and prevents those who do pursue it from receiving the same support as male counterparts. Motherhood is also an important factor, as women still bear the brunt of the caregiver role when raising children.
“I think a lot of [the problem] with women in entrepreneurship is not like explicitly men targeting women. It’s more implicit stuff, like maybe I don’t see a lot of women in entrepreneurship, so growing up, I don’t feel like it’s a path that I should pursue even if my characteristics align with that path,” said Deng, an undergraduate junior and W.E. Cornell participant.
The gender imbalance is particularly acute for female entrepreneurs in STEM fields. Even as computing industries have flourished, fueled by technological innovations and digital startups from Silicon Valley, powered by new waves of college students who code, female representation has fallen short.
According to a report by the American Association of University Women, women make up just 12% of all engineers and 26% of computer scientists, a shocking decrease of 9 percentage points from 1990. The numbers are even more drastic for women from underrepresented minority groups, who make up just 2% and 4% of the engineering and computer science workforces respectively.
The disparity is striking, even in higher education. Although Cornell may have achieved gender parity, in 2016 only 18% of computer science majors across all American universities were women—a paltry figure when compared to 1984, when women made up an astounding 37% of computer science students.
Gendered perceptions are rooted in the history of computers themselves. When personal computers first become household items, they were largely marketed as toys for boys, said journalist Steve Henn.
“This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative,” Henn said. “It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution. It helped define who geeks were, and it created techie culture.”
Indeed, the imbalance has led to industry-wide issues regarding the treatment of women in mostly majority-men STEM workplaces: a 2018 Pew Research Center survey reported that 36% of women in STEM agreed that sexual harassment was a “problem” at their workplace, while half of all women in STEM had experienced gender discrimination at work at least once—behaviors that include being treated as if they were not competent, getting paid less than male counterparts, and receiving less support from superiors. The issue is especially pressing in “computer jobs”—including the tech industry—where a whopping 74% of women said they had experienced discrimination based on their gender.
Not even industry leaders are immune. Google, the search engine behemoth and Silicon Valley fixture, currently faces a class-action lawsuit alleging systemic compensation discrimination against some 8,000 past and present female employees.
A vital source of funding for startup companies, venture capitalists, directed just 2.2% of total investment to female-founded businesses in 2017, Fortune Magazine reported. Although the figure represents an increase from the 1.9% of all VC investments given to women in 2016, the wild and often unpredictable frontier of startup VC remains remarkably skewed toward male-founded firms.
“The percentage of women that have venture capital funding, STEM women or not, is extremely low,” said Ippolito.
Venture capitalists rely heavily on their pre-existing networks of contacts to make connections and introductions to the most promising entrepreneurs, dramatically limiting who gets funding. So when few women are already venture capitalists or business owners, the effect “snowballs,” according to Ippolito. “It’s all done by networks and introductions.”
One of the most essential aspects of W.E. Cornell, its community and network-building component, aims to address exactly that by creating a system that pairs female entrepreneurs with mentees and mentors to encourage continued growth, even after participants graduate from W.E. Cornell.
“What we wanted to do was create an on-ramp to our other entrepreneurship programs to get STEM women energized, excited, amped up for pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, whether that's starting their own company, joining a startup, whether that's licensing their graduate research to a company,” said Ippolito.
When Tate, Li and Deng were asked if they saw themselves as entrepreneurs even after finishing the program, the women were unsure. Tate was mainly occupied with her doctoral research, while Deng still had another year of college ahead of her. But one thing was for sure: now that they had the tools, entrepreneurship felt like a definite possibility—and for Ippolito, that was more than enough. The whole point of W.E. Cornell, she said, was not to create entrepreneurs with full-fledged business models, but to foster confidence and provide support for her students.
“I always knew that I was interested in entrepreneurship growing up, but I was scared to take the risk,” Deng said. “I’m still shaping my idea, but now, I want to see it through.”