At Wharton, female entrepreneurs require a particular brand of courage and resilience to pursue independent ventures. While entrepreneurship is risky overall, women face particular challenges.
This begins in the classroom, with professors who inadvertently use male pronouns when referring to hypothetical situations involving successful founders and investors: “The only time you’ll see a VC wear a tie is when he is meeting with his LPs.” Studying cases with only male protagonists has a subtle but important psychological impact. While Wharton’s entrepreneurship professors are excellent, only four of 31 are female — less than 15 percent. In our opinion, Wharton can do better.
The challenges for female entrepreneurs extend well beyond the classroom, and importantly, to funding opportunities. Last year, I pitched my company, MBA Mama, to an all-white, all-male panel for entry to Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program. After my pitch, one man on the panel began the Q&A segment by saying, “I don’t even know how to ask you questions about this MBA Mama idea without sounding like a jerk.” I was startled, but tried to mask my discomfort.
The lack of diversity within the VC investment community, compounded with low awareness, can create a hostile environment for aspiring female entrepreneurs. Last year, I read a case that spoke to the funding challenges faced by the founders of Rent The Runway (RTR). These women had to convince male VCs an entire generation removed that they had a viable business aimed at college women. While the women of RTR have been successful, their struggles, and those of Wharton women spotlighted in the Entrepreneur’s section of this issue, reflect a reality that can be very challenging. Outside of anecdotal evidence, research indicates that investors have a strong bias towards funding and supporting male founders.
We would all like to believe that entrepreneurship is a meritocracy where people are judged solely on the viability of their ideas. However, for female entrepreneurs, it is especially important to overcome biases, develop resilience, and gain a pragmatic understanding of the challenges in this space.
The dialogue on gender in entrepreneurship should continue on both sides of the table. Our hope is that this issue sparks this conversation, bringing us closer to a world where all can benefit from more female-led ventures that are scalable, sustainable, and value additive.