The Future Is Girl-Led Startups; Are You Joining Us?

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Anne-Marie Imafidon, founder of the Stemettes, champions the need for more women spearheading startups

With only 17 percent of those in the UK’s technology workforce being female, the lack of participation of women in the wider science, technology, engineering and mathematics related ‘STEM’ industries is often bemoaned.

Anne-Marie ImafidonA lack of diversity in such a powerful, ubiquitous industry is something that we should all worry about, no matter gender, background or technical proficiency.

Report ‘Why Diversity Matters’ by workplace think tank Catalyst outlines why all diversity is essential.  An expanded talent pool, better business decisions and better knowledge of your customer is good for business. Greater earning power is good for the individual.

The assumption and excuse that girls aren’t interested in STEM is a dangerous one. The adage “You can’t be what you can’t see” rings particularly true.

Examples are abound of women doing cool things that we don’t hear of. The 22-year-old NASA engineer; the first patent for an e-book; the material that makes bulletproof vests; the technology underpinning Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Some stories have purposely been obscured or written out of history: look up the story Marie Sophie Germain, or Sarah Guppy. Women are enterprising and create wealth all over the world, in all sorts of economies. The connection between enterprise and STEM is less well known and so not celebrated.

According to a longitudinal ASPIRES study done at King’s College London, business is the most popular aspiration among secondary school aged students, with almost 60 percent of young people agreeing that they would like a career in business.

Maybe due to the success of shows like The Apprentice or seeing local businesses flourish. Maybe even the lifestyle that business leaders like Richard Branson and Natalie Massenet enjoy. These links between STEM and entrepreneurship are seldom exploited when having career discussions or trying to raise aspirations.

To make things worse, investors are more than happy to fund ‘boy wonders’. The leap to funding a ‘girl wonder’ seems to be one too far. This is mirrored in adulthood: 90 percent of venture investment across the world in the last 5 years went to male-led businesses, according to TechCrunch.

The Kaufmann Foundation have found that female led-startups achieve 35 percent higher return on investment, and, when venture-backed, bringing in 12 percent higher revenue than male-owned tech companies; these numbers look good to me.

In 2015 Salesforce took a bet on social enterprise Stemettes and 115 young women aged 11-22 from across Europe. Outbox Incubator saw a large house in south London turned into a ‘hothouse of STEM entrepreneurship’.

Industry heavyweights came to teach and network with them. As well as visits to Bloomberg, Etsy and Goldman Sachs, they heard from the likes of Dame Steve Shirley, Dame Wendy Hall and Sue Black OBE (as well as a handful of men). 29 startups pitched to funders and VCs on a Demo Day for funding. Previews for a documentary of the project – Eat. Sleep. STEM. Repeat. – began recently and are continuing until 31 March.

Described as heart-warming, it’s a powerful look at an alternate universe that will nudge the ‘women in STEM norm’ for the thousands of school pupils and network of corporates already signed up to screen it, including Salesforce.

In the words of Charlotte Finn, EMEA vice president at Salesforce: “One of the amazing takeaways was that businesses, mentors and networks understood that there was huge hunger and a huge need from young females for this type of support.”

An all-encompassing viewership of the documentary could make a dent on our collective perceptions of STEMpreneurship and who does it. It may even inspire more of us to do something about it, perhaps sprouting a network of Outbox Incubators.

The next steps are wide ranging and part of the change that we so desperately need in this space. The future is girl-led startups. It’s up to us to keep our businesses, associates and families ahead of the curve. We may not have nurtured enough women of the past. It’s not too late to nurture women of the present and those of the future. Perhaps take a bet on Stemettes. 

Written for Silicon by Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, founder of the Stemettes. 

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