Xconomy Awards San Diego Diversity Finalists Are Scaling Up Empowerment

Xconomy San Diego — 

In an awards program, it can seem like a competition, but in the Commitment to Diversity category, many of the finalists are in fact collaborating with each other or share common roots. For example, finalist Silvia Mah is also a co-founder of one of the other finalists in the category, Ad Astra Ventures. And Ad Astra, an accelerator for women-founded tech and life science companies, has also partnered with another finalist, Athena, a networking organization for women in STEM, to help guide female entrepreneurs. These individuals and groups are coming together because they have a common goal: not just to promote diversity, but to scale up those efforts and reach a larger number of people in a variety of ways. Here’s a brief look at the finalists.

Ad Astra Ventures
Ad Astra Ventures was born out of frustration. The co-founders of the accelerator program, Silvia Mah, Allison Long Pettine and Vidya Dinamani, kept seeing only a handful of women founders at startup incubators and pitch nights. So the entrepreneurs and investors launched Ad Astra (“to the stars” in Latin) in January 2018. Its curriculum is targeted at female startup founders: several weeks of coursework that covers a range of topics from fundraising to team-building and IP strategies. Founders also receive a $20,000 investment and access to a network of advisors, while Ad Astra takes a 3 to 5 percent equity stake in each company.

What makes Ad Astra unique, Pettine and Dinamani say, is that its curriculum tackles implicit gender bias, teaching women how to recognize and neutralize bias that can make it harder for them to raise money and launch companies. For example, Pettine says research has shown that investors, both men and women, tend to ask female founders more about the risks and downsides of their business than they do with male founders. “The business doesn’t look as exciting or attractive when you’re spending less time talking about the upsides,” she adds. So the curriculum teaches female entrepreneurs, through simulated meetings with mentors, how to reframe their answers if they find themselves talking about the risks of their business a lot.

The response from the community has been overwhelming. For Ad Astra’s first cohort of companies, 70 companies applied for just three spots. Forty life science companies sought to be part of the second cohort, which recently graduated. Dinamani says Ad Astra’s six alumni firms have collectively raised more than $2 million since graduating from the accelerator.

One of those recent graduates, Vivid Genomics, is a finalist in the Startup category of the Xconomy Awards San Diego. Vivid is developing blood-based genetic tests for neurodegenerative disease that could be used to select patients for clinical trials.
The third group of startups—one life science, one tech and one consumer company, just started the Ad Astra program last week.

Now the accelerator aims to expand its reach beyond just its small cohorts of female founders. It’s been putting on workshops at conferences and hopes to deliver its curriculum in new formats, to reach female entrepreneurs at different stages, including those who haven’t yet started a company and those who have already raised capital for their growing business.

Last year, to mark Athena’s 20th anniversary, the organization, which promotes women’s leadership development in the STEM economy, announced an ambitious goal of empowering one million women by 2030. Holly Smithson, Athena’s CEO, says she hopes to achieve this by broadening Athena’s impact beyond the 2,000 women who participate each year in Athena’s 50 leadership programs. Smithson says it’s time to work with big tech and life science companies with footprints in San Diego to help them achieve better gender diversity in their workforces.

To start that process, Athena—which Smithson says is the largest networking organization for women in STEM in San Diego and California—last year signed on to the United Nations’s Global Compact and Sustainable Development Goals, which include one focused on achieving gender equality. Nearly 10,000 companies around the world have signed on. Smithson’s vision is for Athena to convene executives from 15 STEM companies in San Diego, including those that have signed the UN compact and those that haven’t, in what Smithson is calling an assembly. The three-year initiative would examine published data on diversity and ultimately come up with tools and best practices (in hiring and retention, for example) that companies could then use to increase the percentage of women in their workforce from the low 20s to 45 or 50 percent, Smithson says.

The project is still at an early stage, but Smithson says it is key to scaling up Athena’s efforts to boost gender equality. “In the next three to five years, we’ll see a profound acceleration in innovation in companies that modernize their workforce,” Smithson says.

Silvia Mah, Connect
For as long as Silvia Mah has been an angel investor, she’s focused solely on mentoring women and people of color and investing in their businesses and ideas. She founded Hera Labs in 2012 as an entrepreneurship education program, which has since morphed into an accelerator for product and service businesses from a wide range of sectors and industries. The nonprofit Hera Labs is designed to be inclusive, accepting about 80 percent of applicants, including people living in lower income areas. Through its 12-week training program, Hera Labs works with people, a third of whom are people of color, who have just an idea for a new business and those who have already made some early headway and are looking to grow. “Any idea, any person of color or sexual orientation, if you are a female founder or have a woman on your leadership team, we are here for you,” Mah says.

In 2014, Mah founded Hera Angels, a women-only angel group that invests in female founders and businesses focused on women. And in early 2018, she cofounded Ad Astra Ventures (see profile above) to focus on a specific type of female founder: one who is building a venture-bound startup.

The next step for Mah is to bring the various parts of the Hera world under one umbrella—a new foundation that will be formed this year called the To the Stars Foundation. Mah’s goal with this is to create a more streamlined pipeline for business founders and to reach more people: both founders and wealthy individuals who are looking for a single place, like the foundation, to donate funds. The new foundation will also work closely with Ad Astra and incorporate some elements of its curriculum.

Mah’s latest career step is to join Connect as the business accelerator’s president, which she started full-time this month. The 35-year-old organization originated out of UCSD to create a thriving startup community, but hasn’t historically focused on diverse founders. Connect recently launched a program, called Connect All, at the Jacobs Center, to change that. Mah says she’s looking forward to growing Connect’s presence in lower-middle income neighborhoods. “If you have the right heart and are an advocate and are implanted in that community, that’s when magic happens,” Mah says.

Robin Toft, Toft Group Executive Search
In an interview with Xconomy at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in January, Robin Toft said 2019 will be “the year of the female executive.” She has played a major role in making that happen in San Diego and California.

The executive search firm that she founded and leads, Toft Group, recruited women into 47 percent of the executive positions it filled—at the intersection of biotech and high tech—in 2018. Toft says the keys to her group’s success has been the strong network of women candidates her team has built, and doing specialized diversity research for every assignment. “Executive search is— – and always has been— – a relationship business,” Toft says. “This means we need to research, engage, and be sure we know all executive women and millennial talent before we even have a role for them.”

Toft has written op-eds and spoken at conferences about how to bridge the gender gap; in her article for Xconomy on this topic, she gave concrete tips to both recruiters—“When seeking out diverse candidates, don’t pretend that unconscious bias doesn’t exist. It does.”—and female job-seekers: “Apply, even if you don’t meet all the qualifications.”

She has taken this a step further, writing a recently published book, “WE CAN: The Executive Woman’s Guide to Career Advancement” that uses her personal story, along with what she’s learned from interviewing thousands of executives over the years, to help others forge ahead in their careers. Her main message in the book to women: “You are in demand and in control of your own career, so plan your career carefully and show up with confidence.”

Helen Torley, Halozyme
Helen Torley knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. In 2016, she had the dubious distinction of being the only woman CEO of a publicly traded biotech in San Diego. While that’s not the case anymore, she’s working to continue to increase the number of women and minorities in leadership roles.

As chair of BIO’s diversity, inclusion and workforce development committee for the last two years, Helen Torley has spearheaded the industry group’s efforts to boost diversity across the ranks of biotech workers at BIO’s more than 1,000 member companies. Not long after becoming chair, Torley led the committee in taking a big step at the end of 2017—coming up with two clear goals for the biotech industry:

“Achieve significant increase in racial diversity, increase LGBTQ representation and achieve 50 percent representation of women at functional leader and C-Suite by 2025”

“Achieve improved racial diversity, LGBTQ representation and achieve 30 percent female Board membership in Biotech by 2025”

Women currently make up only 25 percent of leadership roles and 10 percent of board seats in biotech, despite comprising half of the industry’s rank and file workers.

Torley says BIO is working on two main tools to help CEOs reach those goals: the BIO Boardlist, an online portal of diverse candidates for board positions; and a set of guidelines and best practices for company leaders aimed at helping them build a diverse workforce and leadership team. Torley adds BIO will soon launch a survey for BIO members on gender, racial and LGBTQ diversity in the industry. She anticipates the new toolkit will become available this month.

Torley says these diversity goals are not quotas. The aim is to raise awareness about “how to develop a more diverse set of candidates for the top of the house and how to access the already large pool of diverse candidates who aren’t being called,” she told Xconomy in October. “If you have the philosophy of always bringing forward diverse candidate slates, you will achieve the goals.”