by Nichole Mercier, Kristen Otto, and Kirsten Leute
It’s been a few weeks since our Equalize 2020 event. All of those involved are still reflecting on the impact of the event, while excited to take the next steps in this journey. With this article, we wanted to articulate the need and history of Equalize 2020, the experiences of those involved, and our thoughts on where to take this effort next.
The why and what of Equalize
Equalize is the result of many conversations about how we can affect real change in the area of women researcher engagement in commercialization and entrepreneurship. Nichole Mercier had the vision for the event based on her experiences at Washington University in St. Louis, and she brought in supporters from around the United States to help with the effort. From discussions with those supporters, Equalize 2020 evolved into a 6-month mentorship program for 12 women-led startups from U.S. academic institutions, culminating in a pitch competition on June 25, 2020.
The statistics around actual participation in tech transfer and entrepreneurship highlight the obvious need for opportunities such as Equalize — those that actively invite women to the table, support their efforts throughout the entrepreneurship process, and carefully help to navigate the common barriers on the road to entrepreneurship. Women are 40% less likely to communicate their ideas to the tech transfer office. And, according to data from the USPTO, women only make up 12% of the inventor population. Further data from Osage University Partners (OUP) assessed their university startup portfolio to find that only 11% had a female founder.
At Washington University in St. Louis, that number is only 3–4%. But this is a staggering increase from zero in 2014– when the university started programming for women inventors. Early on, leaders recognized that to evoke real change, a national endeavor was the only option.
Leaders questioned whether researchers would be interested or even willing to participate, whether they’d invest their valuable and highly limited spare time on this extracurricular activity that brings no contribution toward tenure and promotion like another grant or publication would. Yet, Equalize 2020 received close to 60 applications from enthusiastic women across the country who submitted their early stage pitch decks. From those 60, 12 were chosen for this inaugural event to be mentored and pitch to an audience of investors, fellow entrepreneurs, business executives, university new ventures staff, and other stakeholders in the startup ecosystem.
Leading up to the pitch event, our presenters had exceptional mentorship for 6 months. These mentors truly understood the barriers women face to engaging in entrepreneurship, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the adversity these teams faced in this acute moment — they managed through fully shutting down their research activities to then working on a full reopening. They managed through caring for children as daycares shut down, administering digital learning when schools closed, learning to treat patients under new regulations, and helping their own institutions define COVID responses. Despite these challenges, both mentors and participants formed trusted bonds with one another. Mentors selflessly opened their networks, individuals empathetically rescheduled meetings, and each team member put in more hours with one another than was expected. Equalize has been a game changer for participants who described having their first female mentor as someone who could challenge them to a higher business capacity or feeling starstruck by the incredible background yet totally down to earth nature of their “rock star” mentor.
As for the event itself, we shifted quickly from an in-person combination of workshops, panels, and pitching program to a completely virtual event comprised of an online keynote from Elizabeth Dougherty of the USPTO followed by 10-minute pitches from all 12 entrepreneurs. Instead of pitching before a live audience, as all of our applicants had originally intended, they had to be their own IT department, learning the ins and outs of the Zoom webinar platform prior to the event. From experience with prior Zoom events, we knew this would not go off without some hitches, but whenever those hit during our 5-hour event, the presenters, judges, and audience handled them with patience and grace.
Some of the feedback we received on the event:
“It was amazing to see so many women and have them not be a novelty.”
“This was very a positive experience and really caused me to look deeply on where I need to make impact in my career.”
“All of the pitches were incredible. What a wonderful experience to hear from these awesome women academic entrepreneurs!”
One part of the event that stood out for many audience members was the useful feedback from the judges in each of the cohorts. We were honored to have judges who are business and startup leaders in their respective disciplines:
The proudest moment of the event for us was each and every presentation that was given. Seeing how much these presenters had accomplished during a time of upheaval in all of their lives was impressive and heart-warming. We also know how difficult it was for both our audience and judges to choose winners — the results were very close!
One of the benefits of going virtual was the broader impact of the event. People who perhaps could not have attended in person could join the event. Since the Equalize 2020 was conducted online, we were able to inexpensively record it and post the event on YouTube.
A special shoutout to all of our sponsors who support efforts like Equalize that seek to diversify the innovation pool and increase the number of women entrepreneurs in America.
The journey doesn’t end here
Equalize 2020’s journey began with the acknowledgement there was a missing piece in the university entrepreneurship system — a cross-university mentorship program and pitch platform for women academic entrepreneurs. The result of this missing piece: lost opportunities in translating science to products and transforming leading academics into leading company founders. We were truly blown away by the incredible number of applications we received for Equalize 2020, which were mostly scientific ideas. In addition, the feedback from our mentor-mentee pairings has been extremely positive. This is a scalable solution.
We know that the journey can’t stop after this one program. The need is real, as are the benefits of these programs and the connections they help make.
With Equalize 2020, we concentrated on startups in the life sciences arena. However, the disparities are even greater in other scientific fields, so next steps include programming for all STEM areas. Our initial concept was not just a mentoring and pitching program, but also workshops and networking possibilities for all people attending the in-person event. With the world in a virtual stance for now, we’re shifting to remote possibilities for these areas.
During the program, we asked those attending to let us know if they want to be involved going forward. We have been overwhelmed by the positive responses. If you are interested in joining us on the next part of our journey — as a mentor, a mentee, a brainstormer, a thought leader, a funder, an organizer — please contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we started Equalize, we made a commitment to empower academic women entrepreneurs. It is important to recognize that many other underrepresented populations have felt the barriers to engaging in the space of innovation and entrepreneurship. As we look to our next steps on Equalize, one of our biggest considerations will be how we continue and expand this impact.
We plan to put out a call for our applications to our next round of cohorts in October of 2020. Keep an eye out for our announcements at equalize.wustl.edu. This isn’t just Equalize 2020 anymore — it’s Equalize.
To find out more about Equalize, click here.
To get involved with Equalize, please contact us at email@example.com