(Talk) Vivek Wadhwa: “Entrepreneurship: where are all the women and minorities?”

Today’s Berkman luncheon hosted Vivek Wadhwa, a “a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, an executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, and a visiting scholar at the School of Information at University of California at Berkeley.”

Wadhwa’s talk centered around entrepreneurship, and the general dearth of women and minorities across a variety of industries, particularly tech (in fact, he cited a stat that Blacks constitute only 1.4 percent and Latinos only 4.7 percent of Silicon Valley workforce).  Providing various statistics and tidbits (90% of successful entrepreneurs did NOT raise venture capital; entrepreneurs are not necessarily ivy league; tech entrepreneurs are typically not young; average is age 40, married, with kids), Wadhwa demonstrates that women and men entrepreneurs exhibit more similarities than differences, but that women still lag far behind in the area of entrepreneurship in general. Wadhwa also asks what’s stopping people from becoming entrepreneurs?  The strongest factor in survey, for both genders, is fear of failure or an unwillingness to take risks.

Wadhwa used a variety of examples from the Indian community, sharing a personal story in which he, looking to start up a company, approached various venture capitalists, all to no avail.  Finally, frustrated, he approached an Indian venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, who in turn advised him then introduced him to several others, who, as he said, were “fighting with each other to invest in his idea.”  When Wadhwa finally got the chance to ask one why he hadn’t returned his calls in the first place, he was told, “Because your people don’t make good CEOs.”  The moral of the story?  Racism, as well as sexism is alive and well in the field.

Wadhwa also focused on the issue of women as entrepreneurs more specifically, stating that women entrepreneurs are generally slightly older than men, are similarly likely to be married, but tend to be more educated and have better credentials.  If that is true, does that mean that it takes women more effort and education to succeed?  I was live-tweeting the discussion, which resulted in the question being asked by another Twitter user: “At my all women’s university, our dean warned us we’d have to be twice as good to be considered half as good. Still true?”

Looking at solutions to the problem, various ideas were discussed; starting at the early level.  He then introduced Roshni Academy as an example; the academy, based in New Delhi, works with young, rural, poor girls to help teach them skills in entrepreneurship.  It was clear from the interviews Wadhwa conducted with some of the students that the academy is doing incredible things for some of these girls, but is short-term intervention enough?  Will these girls succeed in the long run?

Bringing the discussion back to the US, Wadhwa pointed out that in many cases, women entrepreneurs are unlikely to help other women.  This point caused several women attendees to speak up; some spoke of women playing so many roles that they’re often too busy to play mentor as well.  Others raised the point that once women achieve a certain level of success, they’re often afraid to lose it and thus shy from helping other women.

Another attendee, seated next to me, pointed out that young women (let’s say, Gen Y) are less likely to identify as feminists and likely to criticize the approach of earlier generations of women in breaking down barriers, claiming that they were “too brash” or “too confrontational.”

Discussing the talk later with two female colleagues, this particular point presented itself again: Why are women of my generation so likely to renounce feminism?  One hypothesis is that (in the US, anyway) our landscape is just so different from that of our mothers: We grew up with women in leadership roles, and for many of us, college was encouraged, if not expected.  Thus, the barriers seem lesser now; we are less likely to fight loudly because the types of barriers with which we are presented are less institutional, more personal or local.

Here’s my thought on that: While it’s true that many of us have had many “elite” opportunities (college, an urban job landscape), the more successful we become, the more likely it is (especially in certain fields) that we’ll hit a gender ceiling.  While it may not be true of our micro-environment (our office, our company), even at higher levels, it could very well be true of our field or our area of focus.

One final point discussed amongst my colleagues was the idea of recognizing privilege: We may have access to certain things our mothers didn’t, but who’s to say that’s true for all American women, or beyond?

Finally, one thing I’m interested in is how to address this issue globally without being patronizing or neo-colonialist.  How can we realize and recognize the needs of women worldwide, and support those women, without talking down to them or imposing a Western ideal of feminism?

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