MassChallenge Touts Gender Diversity Stats As Wider Dialogue Builds

Lalita Booth is the CEO of a six-person startup, Navitome, which includes two women and four men.

But such is the state of the tech industry that sometimes when she walks into a room for a business meeting, she said, people on the other side of the table look at her male colleagues and ask them, “Which one of you is the CEO?”

Those frustrating experiences are a reminder of the biases and stereotypes in an industry infamously dominated by men. But Booth thinks there is progress (albeit slow) being made in the push to diversify the tech world. “I do think things are moving in the right direction,” she said.

One group that’s making a concerted effort on that front is MassChallenge, the Boston-based startup accelerator whose summer crop of 128 companies in Boston includes Booth’s Navitome.

The nonprofit accelerator said that since 2012, nearly 37 percent of the startups selected for its Boston programs have had at least one female founder. In this summer’s Boston class, 44 percent have a female founder—the highest percentage since the accelerator began tracking the statistic in 2012, when 31 percent of the companies had female founders. (MassChallenge, founded in 2009, also has a program in London and an initiative that brings Israeli startups to Boston.)

There’s still room for improvement, but MassChallenge seems to be performing better than the national trends in this area. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but one study this year of CrunchBase data found that more than 15 percent of the startups that got funded between 2009 and 2014 had at least one female founder. And the rate of female-founded companies increased during that period, from 9.5 percent in 2009 to 18 percent in 2014, according to an analysis published by TechCrunch.

How has MassChallenge boosted the rate of women-led companies in its accelerator? Marketing director Robby Bitting attributes the trend in part to referrals, both from partner organizations interested in promoting female entrepreneurship and from the accelerator’s female alumni. “Those women are really key to promoting MassChallenge, in part through their successes, but also directly referring their friends and other women to apply,” he said.

MassChallenge supports women entrepreneurs through its Women in MassChallenge (WiMC) program, a peer-run group started in 2013 by women alumni. The goal is to “provide better access, education, and support for the unique challenges that face female founders,” MassChallenge said. WiMC tries to accomplish this primarily through meetings held every other week during the accelerator program, in which women entrepreneurs in the current accelerator session have informal discussions on different topics with mentors and female MassChallenge alumni.

MassChallenge's Boston office was packed for an event highlighting the accelerator's gender diversity statistics. Photo by Jeff Engel.

MassChallenge’s Boston office was packed for an event highlighting the accelerator’s gender diversity statistics. Photo by Jeff Engel.

WiMC also holds events, including one Wednesday night that showcased many of the summer session’s companies that have at least one female founder. The event featured startups that hail from the Boston area, around the U.S., and other countries. The types of businesses included companies in biotech, childcare, cyber security, edtech, food, and more.

That diversity was encouraging to Donna Brezinski, CEO of Little Sparrows Technologies, who went through the MassChallenge program in Boston in 2013 and was one of the first to participate in WiMC.

“Name the sector, we have women disrupting their fields,” Brezinski said.

But there’s still a disconnect with venture capitalists, she said. Despite various studies that found having women in leadership roles can positively impact company productivity and financial performance, women-led companies receive just a small fraction of the total amount of VC invested in the U.S.

“People are not recognizing these are companies that are highly likely to succeed and they deserve your investment,” Brezinski said. “We’re just trying to change that conversation.”

The national discussion around making the tech industry more inclusive of women and people of color has grown louder in recent months, through high-profile events like the White House’s first tech demo day, as well as projects like the documentary “CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap.”

And MassChallenge isn’t the only accelerator emphasizing diversity. As part of the White House demo day, Techstars announced plans to double over the next four years its number of female and other underrepresented minority applicants, as well as double its number of female mentors.

MassChallenge leaders are proud of their accelerator’s gender statistics, Bitting said, but there’s still work to be done. “We’re still constantly looking to improve and find more solutions to help these entrepreneurs succeed,” he said.

Navitome’s Booth said MassChallenge has done a good job of encouraging and supporting women entrepreneurs, and not in a patronizing way. The accelerator’s leaders look at Booth and her peers as entrepreneurs who happen to be female, rather than women who are also entrepreneurs, she said.

“That’s an important context shift,” Booth said. “Seeing that sea change is encouraging, but I think it could go more quickly.”

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