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4 ways to be an ally for female entrepreneurs

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In 2018, Jasmine Edwards founded i-Subz, an online marketplace that matched schools and substitute teachers. She won her first $3,000 that same year during a Black Girl Ventures pitch competition in Atlanta and received her first “real investment with a term sheet” from Camelback Ventures — $40,000 during her fellowship with the firm in 2019.

By February 2020, Edwards was shutting down the startup and ceasing all operations, though the LLC remains active.

“We had to because i-Subz did not get the funding,” Edwards said during a panel discussion presented by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “The substitutes were there; there were plenty of people to hire. And the customers were there, which were the schools. But the funding was not.”

Edwards’ story is a familiar one, specifically for female entrepreneurs. Female founders in the U.S. get less than 3% of venture capital dollars. A study by Digitalundivided, a nonprofit that helps Black and Latin American communities through female entrepreneurship, found that in the U.S., Black and Latina women received 0.64% of venture capital funds between 2018 and 2019.

Despite the inequalities, female-founded startups still perform better in some areas than male-founded startups.

A 2018 study by Boston Consulting Group showed startups founded by women generated 10% more in revenue over five years than male-founded startups. And female founders generated 78 cents in revenue per dollar of investment, compared to 31 cents for men, for that same amount of time.

“Without a doubt, women and gender-expansive entrepreneurs are seeing entrepreneurial success. They’re creating amazing companies that have incredible growth,” said Susanne Althoff, a professor of publishing at Emerson College and author of Launching While Female: Smashing the System That Holds Women Entrepreneurs Back. Edwards was one of the women Althoff interviewed for the book.

The two women discussed various ways to support female entrepreneurs. Here’s a closer look at their advice.

Know the difference between real and performative allyship — and practice the former

Performative allyship means you occasionally post a tweet or add a label to the homepage of your website, but that’s the extent of your efforts to support female entrepreneurs, Althoff said.

Althoff said a true ally will:

  • Constantly ask what is most needed.
  • Do their own work educating themselves on issues facing unrepresented entrepreneurs.
  • Be willing to hear they are wrong about something and correct themselves.

“It’s becoming an investor, it's mentoring a founder with an end in mind, with an introduction in mind, with a tool in mind,” Edwards said.

Take a step beyond mentorship and be a sponsor

Mentors are people who offer ideas or advice when you’re stuck, but sponsors take a more active role, Althoff explained.

“These are the people who pick up the phone, make an introduction for you, bring you into a room you otherwise would not have an invitation to,” Althoff said.

The problem, Althoff said, is that these sponsors are also drawn to mentees who shares their same gender and race.

“So many sponsors tend to be white men because these are people in positions of power and CEOs and others,” Althoff said. “I ask you to ask yourself: Who am I currently mentoring and sponsoring, and can I expand that room?”

Be an active bystander against microaggressions

Insults and dismissals, no matter how small, can have a damaging effect on a woman's entrepreneurial climb, Althoff said. For example, consider a female co-founder who is ignored by investors in favor of her male co-founders during a meeting.

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An ally should act as an active bystander when they see a microaggression and intervene if they see a woman not getting credit for her idea or being talked over or interrupted.

One way to intervene is by using a microaffirmation, Althoff said — “giving someone supportive comments, broadcasting their good work, supporting them in other ways. These are small acts that can be done privately or publicly.”

Use your votes and dollars to push for bigger policy and ecosystem changes

Studies have shown that student debt can cause an entrepreneur to delay the start of their company or minimize its start, Althoff said. And women own two-thirds of American student loan debt.

“As voters and as citizens we can speak up for policies like student debt relief,” Althoff said. “Researchers have also found that policies that provide subsidized childcare, family leave, these also help underrepresented entrepreneurs.”

And as individual consumers, Althoff said, consider being intentional with your shopping choices. That means researching who the owner is, she said, learning about the operator of a company or using an online directory like Buy From A Black Woman and “directing your dollars there.”  

For more info Meredith Somers News Writer (617) 715-4216

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