STARTUPS: Aim Is to Build Confidence, Culture For Women Entrepreneurs (SDBJ Article)


Source: San Diego Business Journal 17 Aug 2015 By MICHAEL LIPKIN

It took a screening of “The Social Network” to help launch the University of California, San Diego’s startup accelerator for women.

Lada Rasochova, the head of an entrepreneurship program at UCSD’s Rady School of Management, and Rosibel Ochoa, her counterpart at the university’s Jacobs School of Engineering, were blearyeyed after a day of grant writing and decided to watch the fictionalized account of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Coming out of the theater, the two academics talked about the lack of women coders involved with Facebook and decided to tally up how many women their own programs had helped. The results were not encouraging.

“We realized we just had guys,” said Rasochova, who spent a decade working for Dow Chemical Co. before getting a degree from the Rady School and joining its administration. “Less than 10 percent of participants were women.”

The gender imbalance extends far beyond UCSD. Less than 3 percent of companies that receive venture funding have women CEOs, though 18 percent have women on their executive team, according to a report last year from professors at Babson College. About 6 percent of partners at venture firms are women.

The Push

Soon after the movie, Rasochova and Ochoa proposed starting a program to give women students an extra push to realize their ideas for technology-focused startups.

With a two-year, $28,000 grant from college-focused nonprofit VentureWell in 2012, Rasochova and Ochoa launched their accelerator, mystartupXX, named after the female chromosome.

The program accepts women, or teams with women in leadership positions, and awards them $3,000 to help prototype their ideas or incorporate their company. There are also a series of workshops led by the accelerator’s third co-founder, Kimberly Davis King, a former venture capitalist and current member of the oversight committee for incubator EvoNexus. King is also a lecturer at UCSD.

With that modest budget, the first two cohorts of students had three teams each; most instructors and staff volunteered their time. But mystartupXX won a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration last year in the inaugural Growth Accelerator Fund competition.

The SBA contest sought to reward groups in geographic areas that lack the accelerator density of Silicon Valley, as well as those who work with women and other underrepresented groups.

Encouraging Growth

The money allowed mystartupXX to accept 10 teams last year, and the accelerators second SBA win earlier this month will let it expand to 20 teams in the fall. The funding will also let the program accept alumni who have graduated in the past five years.

Most teams entering mystartupXX are not even companies yet, just students with an idea for a product. They learn how to divide up equity, how to commercialize their ideas and the best time to incorporate. Other accelerators provide similar resources, but by targeting women entrepreneurs, UCSD hopes to overcome the social pressures that convince some to not apply to technology programs.

Five companies have launched from mystartupXX so far, attracting more than $8 million in funding and creating 130 jobs. Ashley Van Zeeland, a former postdoc at the Scripps Translational Science Institute, co-founded genome infomatics company Cypher Genomics while getting her MBA at the Rady School and was part of mystartupXX’s first cohort. With its help, her team was accepted into EvoNexus and has teamed up with major players, including Illumina and Sequenom.

“It has a snowball effect,” Van Zeeland said. “We had this little kernel and we were rolling down a hill. They helped us keep the momentum going and rolled us into the incubator, which kept it going further. The further up the hill you are, the more help they can give.”

UCSD senior Sneha Jayaprakash joined the accelerator last year, seeking to workshop her idea for a social volunteering platform that would allow users to search for volunteer opportunities, track what their friends were doing and generate reports for their employers. The company, Giventure, is winding its way through the incorporation process.

Jayaprakash said that while she hasn’t

encountered overt sexism that scuttled possible investments, she was disappointed that most participants at local startup events were middle-aged white men. UCSD’s accelerator provided not only a diverse group of entrepreneurs, but also a place to seek advice for dealing with more subtle gender prejudices.

Not a Cutthroat Culture

While mystartupXX has so far depended

on grants and SBA awards for the bulk of its shoestring budget, the directors have received some donations from women entrepreneurs eager to support the accelerator. Rasochova is also proposing to set up a sub-fund within the Rady School’s venture fund, which she also manages, earmarked for a mystartupXX competition. Potential profits would be reinvested back into the accelerator.

But Rasochova said the plan is to avoid a cutthroat culture that could overwhelm the program’s greater goal of fostering confident women entrepreneurs.

“A successful exit may be creating a company, or it could be a student who has an idea, tests it through the program and decides it won’t work,” she said. “It’s a very safe environment to fail and we want to keep it that way.”

Source: San Diego Business Journal 17 Aug 2015 By MICHAEL LIPKIN


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