Massachusetts female entrepreneurs defy the gender gap in technology

change: WATER's team holding their waterless toilet prototype, in Cambridge, Mass. From left to right: Andrew Ollerhead, Yunteng Cao, Huda Elasaad, Diana Yousef, Yashik Gabbaladka, Yonji Wang and Ricci La Centra. Photo courtesy of change: WATER

By Xia Xue and Diego Marcano
BU News Service

Diana Yousef, Erin Keaney and Dr. YiDing Yu were among 18 finalists selected for the global entrepreneurship competition sponsored by Cartier, with a $100,000 final prize to fund the winner’s startup.

Yousef’s enterprise, change:WATER, is making a waterless toilet that requires no energy to operate, aimed to help vulnerable populations in refugee camps. At the heart of this startup’s mission is Yousef’s concern about the lack of adequate sanitation facilities and the health risks this issue presents for women and girls in many places around the world.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “inaccessible toilets and bathrooms make them more vulnerable to rape and other forms of gender-based violence.”

Yu is developing a system to track ambulances during emergencies, so that the ambulance can communicate with the hospital they are heading to and send pertinent information in order to guarantee that supplies and the appropriate resources are ready upon the patients’ arrival.

Keaney is creating low-cost prosthetics that can be adjustable to fit any person who needs a prosthetic limb. Nonspec, her startup, was founded five years ago when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. In the market, a prosthetic can go anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, but Nonspec expects to keep their final costs down by reducing the total number of parts in the prosthetics they produce. A prosthetics with Nonspec could cost between $100 and $300.

Yellamma 25, amputee single mother, stands with her 6 year old daughter in SDM Artificial Limb Clinic, wearing a Nonspec prosthetic in Hubli, India. January 2015. Photo courtesy of Nonspec.

Every startup faces many obstacles before it can go from an idea to a reality, but the situation is even more dramatic for these business ventures which, even though celebrated and recognized, have to deal with the gender gap in the technology business as one of the biggest challenges for female entrepreneurs.

According to MIT’s research, female entrepreneurs in a high-growth start-up economy are less likely to have access to external capital than male-led startups. Moreover, research published by the Harvard Business Review shows that in high-tech startups that were funded by venture capital, only 9 percent of entrepreneurs are women. This number is too low, considering that only 36 percent of businesses in the U.S. are owned by women.

When Yousef decided to become a full-time entrepreneur, she had recently become a mother. However, she quit her job anyway. Once the project was ready to seek funding, she encountered that there were implicit biases against women-funded startups; her credibility and capability would be consistently questioned.

“I just had this experience where I was pitching in a competition and the questions that I got where clearly translated as ‘we don’t believe that you have the legitimacy on what you’re talking about.’ That is not acceptable,” Yousef says.

The Harvard Business Review research also shows that female-led high-tech startups receiving money from an all-male venture-capital firm are less likely to succeed than those financed by female venture capitalists. About 27 percent of male-led startups successfully exit venture capital financing and enter the stage of acquisition or Initial Public Offering. For female-led startups, that number is lower, only 17 percent.

“The startup world gives a lot of credit to young men that sell ideas in a very charismatic way. But women are always being asked, ‘how is it that you are not going to fail?’” Yousef said.

According to Keaney, when women are making a pitch about their business, they get a lot more questions about the balance between their personal life and their work.

“They ask us if we are going to have time to invest on the project and we get a lot more questions than men do. That needs to change. People need to not make assumptions,” Keaney said.

Yousef has noticed several times that she is the only woman at pitch events.

“I know when someone is even listening to me or not. If they start asking about what our value proposition is when I’ve been talking about it for the last 10 minutes, they are not listening,” she said.

The 2017 Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum that measures gender gap in areas of economic participation and opportunity, education, health and political empowerment, shows that the gender gap is becoming larger and it will take about two centuries to close.

The gender gap is also pronounced in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) field. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s data shows that throughout the past decade, women account for less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. Compared to her male counterparts, women with STEM degrees are less likely to work in the field.

“It would be better if people didn’t come with a pre-conceived idea, but the fact that people are talking more about these challenges is already making positive changes,” Keaney said.

Lindiwe Matlali, founder and CEO of Africa Teen Geeks, a non-profit organization that teaches children how to code, was listed amongst Innov8tive Magazine’s “Top 50 Visionary Women in #Tech to Watch in 2017.” In her view, tech’s gender gap still has a long way to go.

“According to the study of the Association of American Medical Colleges, in 2017 more women were enrolled in medical schools than men. I hope we can see that in tech, and hopefully it will lead to more women getting more capital investment in women-led organizations,” Matlali said.

According to a study published in 2016 by Accenture and the non-profit organization Girls Who Code, the proportion of female students majoring in computing in college has fallen dramatically in recent years. It has gone from 37 percent in 1984 to only 18 percent in 2016.

The innovation competition will be decided the last week of April. For every contestant, winning would mean to accelerate their products and reach their audiences faster, but there is also a symbolic message for women working in technology.

“It’s really cool and inspiring watching other people around the world doing amazing innovations, and I really hope that this gets to other women and shows them that they can start something new. They can do whatever they want to,” Keaney said.

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