By Kesia Hudson – During a time when many tech companies have vowed to achieve gender parity by 2020 as part of the 50/50 pledge, my organization, the Zahn Innovation Center, a startup incubator at the City College of New York, already has. Our 2018 Venture Competition Cohort is not only made up of 50% women, but it boasts diversity from every angle–ethnicity, religion, and field of study. And of the twenty-one startups in its current program, twelve are founded or co-founded by women. How did we get here? With a lot of forethought and planning.
Just three years ago, our membership looked very different. It was mostly male engineers. This didn’t reflect the diversity of our CCNY community, nor society at large. A change was necessary, and it started with leadership being more inclusive. The Zahn Center’s management team transformed from all male to 57% women, and has multiple ethnic groups represented. When shown how we govern ourselves, and how we value each other’s uniqueness, students tend to model the same behavior.
While we promote diversity in its many forms across the Zahn Center, my focus since 2015 has been on the aspiring women entrepreneurs on campus. Programmatically I strive to achieve gender parity, with initiatives like a venture competition track in which qualified entries must have women founders, and a high school bridge program to introduce young women to entrepreneurship at the intersection of STEM.
I’ve kept in mind what programming would have been helpful to me, an African American woman, when I was starting out. You see, I took a stab at launching a business while completing my MBA in Entrepreneurship. Unlike CCNY, the University of Texas at Austin has an Entrepreneurial Program. At the time, it was case study based, and focused on writing a 50+ page business plan. The environment was heavily male from its professors, to students and presenters.
Together with a friend (also an African American woman) I entered the school’s Moot Corp competition and pitched an idea which utilized 3D scanners to make customized clothing for women. We didn’t win. The judging panel didn’t resemble us. They were all white males. They didn’t understand why sizing was an issue for women, nor could they imagine technology being used this way. I’m not saying that our business plan was perfect, but I wonder if we had access to women mentors or if the judging panel was diverse, would we have been taken more seriously? Would we have stuck with it? By the way, a year later Levi Strauss launched a custom made jeans service using a 3D scanner.
I need to know that after completing my program, my female founders will find doors open, capital within reach, and a support network available.
Having experiences like this makes me empathize with the women on campus. Full of ideas and promise, all they need are opportunity, resources, and mentoring. As director of the Standard Chartered Women’s Tech Incubator, it’s my job to prepare these up-and-coming founders for Silicon Alley and beyond, particularly environments that aren’t as inclusive as ours.
My colleagues and I have created a culture where young women feel at home and can thrive. I meet students where they are, and allow them to see where they could be. This means starting with very early ideas in our incubator, and training them to think well beyond that initial concept to a 10-year-old company, fully thriving under their leadership. We hold up successful women founders like Zahn alumna Y-Lan Nguyen, and others like Kathryn Finney, Amanda Signorelli, Lisa Wang, Natalia Oberti Noguera, Angel Rich, and Arlan Hamilton, as proof of what is possible. For our young women, often the first in their family to go to college, this allows them to envision themselves outside of their current circumstances.
As part of our unique program we celebrate failure (and understand failure leads to learnings), we establish a strong culture of accountability (and ingrain professional development skills into all of our touch points with students), and we never underestimate anyone’s abilities, holding everyone to the highest level. On top of this, we give our founders access to a tremendous amount of early capital ($155,000 in prizes at the incubator level), for their friends and family network does not typically have the resources to underwrite their entrepreneurial journey. But most of all, we believe in them.
None of the changes we made to our program to achieve gender parity are impossible. They’re not even difficult to implement at other organizations, schools, and companies. And yet, they seem to be an anomaly. The world isn’t like the Zahn Center. We’ve created an unparalleled environment of equality, and we’ll send young women and their young startups out into an unbalanced, harsh, biased reality: a reality where 2.2% of venture capital dollars flow to women, and less than 1% go to women of color. A reality where an overwhelming amount, 89%, of venture capitalists are male. And although women-owned businesses have grown 114% over the past two decades (compared to 44% for all businesses) and now account for an estimated 39% of U.S. businesses, they employ just 8% of the workforce and make up just 4.2% of total business revenues, according to a study.
While I celebrate our 50/50 achievement, there is no time to rest on our laurels. We are just the beginning of the startup pipeline. I need to know that after completing my program, my female founders will find doors open, capital within reach, and a support network available. It is important that the rest of the ecosystem shares a similar mission and aligns forces to ensure these tech startups and their female founders don’t fall through the cracks. Become an ally in this movement. Don’t let our efforts go to waste.
About The Author
Kesia Hudson plays an integral role in Silicon Alley’s emerging startup scene. After developing innovative solutions for large corporations, she started her own entrepreneurial endeavors in the fields of fashion, consulting, and event planning. Today, she manages the Standard Chartered Women Technology Incubator at the Zahn Innovation Center. There she inspires young women at the City College of New York to unlock their entrepreneurial potential and turn their visions into sustainable business ventures.
Ms. Hudson received her BBA degree in Computer and Information Systems Analysis from Baruch College and her MBA in Entrepreneurship from The University of Texas at Austin. She is a Consortium for Graduate Study in Management Fellow. Ms. Hudson resides in Queens with her husband.