Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Cornell program offers on-ramp for women entrepreneurs


By Jesse Schwartz
Published: March 25th, 2020

The number of women and minorities pursuing STEM fields at Cornell University has surpassed the national average and is still growing. That good news is muted somewhat, however, by the fact that the number of Cornell women in STEM who hold patents and participate in entrepreneurial programs lags well behind Cornell men. Only 23% of patent-holders at the university are female faculty, and the number of STEM women participating in entrepreneurship programs tends to be dwarfed by their male counterparts. The unfortunate truth is that at Cornell and throughout the U.S., the increasing number of women in STEM fields is not leading to the formation of high-growth start-ups founded by STEM women.

Women need a better on-ramp to entrepreneurship, and Andrea Ippolito, lecturer in the Engineering Management Program and College of Business at Cornell, is doing something about it. Eighteen months ago she launched Women Entrepreneurs Cornell (W.E. Cornell) at the university’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement.

W.E. Cornell is one of many entrepreneurship programs at Cornell: the university’s “Entrepreneurship Program Map” lists a total of 41 programs. These programs include the PhD Commercialization Fellowship, the eLab, Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences, and the BioVenture Lab. Ippolito knew that the number of women participating in these programs was disproportionately low, so she asked likely candidates why they weren’t enrolling. She found that it wasn’t due to a lack of business-worthy ideas, but that they didn’t think they were ready to move forward to commercialization. Some women told her that entrepreneurship was something people in the business school might do, but as engineers, they did not feel qualified to enter that career path.

When women do decide to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, they face many gender-based barriers. Ippolito gave expert testimony on these barriers before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business on January 15, 2020. She outlined three main reasons why women own fewer patents and launch fewer start-ups than their male counterparts:

  • They are fighting an uphill battle against gender bias;
  • There are fewer women than men in patent-intensive fields; and
  • They have less access to mentors and institutional resources.

Ippolito describes an MIT study illustrating one type of gender bias that budding women entrepreneurs face. The researchers compared the success of women vs. men pitching the same content to investors. First, both groups pitched orally without being seen by the investors. They also did a round where the investors could both hear them and see them. In both scenarios, the investors thought that the investment the males were pitching was a better opportunity, even though both men and women used the same content.

“The women going into STEM fields might be interested in tech transfer, but they’re still interacting with cultural norms within academic departments and labs and also within companies,” notes Dr. Susan Fleming, entrepreneur in residence at the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell and a W.E. Cornell mentor.

The second barrier — having fewer women than men in patent-intensive fields — may not be immediately apparent. After all, there are growing numbers of women entering academia in STEM fields. Many of these STEM fields, however, do not generate a large number of patents.

Ippolito highlighted this issue in her testimony to Congress, stating that “at Cornell University, where I teach, 50% of all undergraduate engineering students are women. But getting more women into STEM fields is not enough. [Rutgers University Economics Professor] Jennifer Hunt and her team found that women’s lower probability of having a STEM degree accounted for only seven percent of the gender gap in commercialized patents. The real gap comes from the rate of women involved in patent-intensive fields, such as electrical and mechanical engineering.”

Ippolito hopes to address the shortage of women in patent-intensive fields through the W.E. Cornell program. “For next year’s program, we’re going to be a lot more laser-focused on attracting some of those deeper tech fields where we see these large gaps between males and female participation,” she says.

The lack of mentors and role models hinders women from pursuing all STEM fields and may be a more significant barrier than gender bias. “Not to say that there aren’t women that are starting companies — there are many,” Ippolito emphasizes. “But there’s not that exposure. You can’t be what you can’t see. If we can better expose women and minorities to these role models, then we believe that this can help us more efficiently use the incredible brainpower and talent pool that is starting to pour into the system.”

A detailed article on the W.E. Cornell program appears in the March issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, click here.

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