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The Practical Insights and Networking Conversations series is scheduled to resume Feb. 18.

Empowering women entrepreneurs

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Horn’s WE Hatch initiative addresses disadvantages experienced by startup founders and corporate innovators

The #MeToo movement pushed a lot of issues regarding gender inequality to the fore. From the blatantly obvious (unequal pay) to problems that finally became recognizable by many men (microaggressions), society paid attention and worked harder than ever to bring about change.

In many ways, that effort was successful. But for many in the business world, including women entrepreneurs, the change didn’t stick. 

“All the gains that followed the #MeToo movement, the awareness about biases, they’ve been erased,” said Gail Ball, an adjunct professor in the Horn Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware. Ball is a veteran of the venture capital world who has served in several executive positions, including chief operating officer of The Bancorp Bank. “Not just because of COVID. They're erased because the underlying biases have never been addressed effectively. And so when you have an exaggerated event, like the COVID pandemic, you rush to what you know, and you rush to what you did before.”

The numbers bear this out. After slow, but steady growth to reach 7% in the first quarter of 2019, venture capital funding of women founders fell back to just 4% of all deals completed in the first quarter of 2020. A 2018 analysis of data from over 1,000 accelerator programs by MassChallenge reveals that in the review period, female founders were awarded roughly half ($935,000) of the average funding for male founders ($2.1 million).

Unrelated to this slowing, Ball said she found herself at a crossroads heading into 2020. She could continue on in the venture capital world and move with her firm to San Francisco or New York, or stay in Wilmington and try something else.

That’s when Dan Freeman, founding director of Horn Entrepreneurship, called with an opportunity to come on board as an adjunct professor, but the discussion shifted to something bigger. What if Ball could help supplement Horn’s nationally ranked entrepreneurship education with a standalone program targeted to women and female founders?

The result was WE Hatch, a standalone initiative within Horn that aims to empower women in innovation and entrepreneurship through a variety of seminars and workshops, networking and community building, mentorship and venture funding support. Each prong of the initiative addresses disadvantages experienced by women startup founders and corporate innovators.

The first of these events, Practical Insights and Networking Conversations, included a series of chats between female innovators who graduated from UD: One a recent graduate, the other a well-established entrepreneur or intrapreneur (someone who innovates within an established company) with several years of experience. Each entrepreneur shared five lessons learned and/or top tips, then participants and speakers met for small group discussions. 

Advice shared has ranged from “internalize a sense of confidence to combat imposter syndrome” to “have a teachable spirit.”

Jamie Fisher, a 2018 graduate who is director of operations at the marketing and advertising firm Trapica, said she learned a lot during her WE Hatch chat in October with fellow alum Carolyn Groobey, a senior executive, board member, angel investor and executive coach with more than 25 years of leadership experience. 

“Seeing her growth and the trajectory of her career was something that inspired me and probably the others who watched our chat,” Fisher said. “I think the program has a lot of promise for keeping the women who go through the Horn Entrepreneurship, currently or in the future, connected to other women and mentors that are already into their careers. They can learn missteps or successes that they've had.”

Groobey, who graduated from UD in 1984, said she was inspired by the curiosity, optimism and ambition on the part of Fisher and other younger alumni who attended. 

“It was obvious the younger Blue Hens had visions and dreams for their career and were grateful for the lessons and advice that we shared with them,” Groobey said. “Despite the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, they all seemed to be hopeful for the future.”

While the Practical Insights and Networking Conversations series is building a community of UD women innovators — startup founders and corporate innovators — the second series, Professional Development and Skills Building Workshops, focuses on education and preparedness by addressing a particular barrier and providing strategies to overcome and navigate through obstacles. The workshops are ideal for early to mid-career innovators (intrapreneurs) and entrepreneurs. 

The first in this series kicked off on Nov. 13 with a session on Q&A strategy. “Research shows that women are often asked prevention or discouragement-focused questions,” said Ball. “Men are asked promotion or encouragement-focused questions.” Ball instructed participants how to identify preventure questions, provide promotion responses and shift the Q&A in a positive direction. 

Both the chats and workshops will continue in the spring. Ball will lead a professional development workshop on Feb. 11 that covers reframing questions to promote new ideas. The Practical Insights and Networking Conversations series picks back up on Feb. 18 with a conversation between UD alums Holly Flannigan, managing director of Gabriel Investments, and Avery Beer, search content strategy associate at Publicis Health Media.

Anyone interested in programming or resources addressing the women innovators and entrepreneurs can join the community here.

WE Hatch strives to bridge the systemic equity gaps for women innovators and entrepreneurs. It is one of UD’s initiatives that addresses special challenges for women. 

Management Professor Wendy Smith said that adding entrepreneurial initiatives for women within Horn is incredibly valuable and important. Addressing gender inequities has been the focus of The Women’s Leadership Initiative at UD since it was co-founded by Smith in 2015.

“The world has a lot of problems to be solved. We are all better off when we bring a diversity of perspectives to solve those problems. But as with other areas, the data continually show how women have a much harder time trying to secure funding from venture capitalists and start a new venture,” Smith said. “The work that WeHatch is doing will continue to help women start new ventures, which will ultimately help to solve some of these problems in the world. This work aligns with our vision of the Women's Leadership Initiative to advance gender equity from the classroom to the boardroom and we support their work.”

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