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Fostering female founders
Only 4.94 percent of venture capital deals inked in 2016 included a woman serving in a startup leadership role.
Motivated by that shockingly low percentage, a group of female students at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have launched a new initiative, aptly named Four94, to inspire, support, and mentor budding women entrepreneurs.
The initiative is the brainchild of computer science concentrator Risham Dhillon, A.B. ’18, who experienced her share of startup growing pains while co-launching the entrepreneurial venture Chirp as a student in the SEAS course Startup R&D (ES 95r), taught by Paul Bottino, Lecturer on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. For Dhillon, getting the chance to experiment, test, and build alongside her co-founder Phoebe Stoye, A.B. ’18, a neurobiology concentrator, was an energizing experience, and she started wondering if there were ways to provide similar opportunities to other students within the Boston community.
“I've had the amazing opportunity to experiment and build in ES 95r with Chirp,” she said. “We want to give Four94 members access to mentors and role models because we've seen that it really makes a difference. Entrepreneurial thinking is a mindset, willingness, and execution that really helps build confidence and Four94 is focused on supporting it.”
To officially kick-off the grassroots initiative, Four94 will host a gathering for entrepreneurial-minded female students on Sept. 23. The free event will feature keynote remarks by Maya Simon, senior vice president of growth at the wedding registry startup Zola, and a dozen targeted workshops on topics ranging from the basic elements of entrepreneurship, to raising money from venture capitalists, to gaining credibility as a first-time founder. A hands-on design thinking simulation, as well as dedicated time for informal chats and networking with mentors and sponsors, will provide an interactive experience for attendees.
Calling the event a “nonference,” Four94 co-founder Janet Chen said the goal is not merely to inspire attendees with flashy presentations and powerful keynotes, but to provide tangible action items and resources they can immediately put into practice. She and fellow Four94 team members also hope it serves as a launching pad for a long-lasting network in Boston.
Building a larger community of female mentors will be essential to encourage more young women to pursue entrepreneurship, said Chen, A.B. ’19, a computer science concentrator.
“Young women look to the startups that have made it big over the past 10 years, and the executives in C-suite positions at these renowned companies are almost exclusively male,” she said. "Not being able to relate with leaders in any field has a discouraging effect, even if it is at a subconscious level."
Building off momentum from the conference, Four94 is also preparing to host a series of “office hours” throughout the fall, during which students can sign up for 15-minute, one-on-one mentorship/advice sessions with local women working in venture capital and entrepreneurship roles. Four94 is also planning to launch mentorship circles, which will pair students and female founders for longer-term coaching sessions, as well as a “scratchpad fellowship” during Harvard’s winter break to offer female students an opportunity for short-term entrepreneurial experimentation.
“This is about bringing women entrepreneurs together so they can support one another,” said computer science concentrator and co-founder Katherine Binney, A.B. ’19. “As simple as it seems, there’s power in hearing another female entrepreneur say ‘I know, I felt that way, too, but you can make it happen.’ Women need to hear that more than men do, but they are also less likely to hear it than men are. We want to turn that around.”
The free conference will be held on Saturday, Sept. 23 at CIC Boston, located at 50 Milk Street. Applications are being accepted on a rolling basis through Sept. 16. Click here for more information and to apply.