“To the young women in the room here. Do everything you can to be the best in science and math and engineering … it is our actions that will determine this new stereotype around women … that our little girls will see when they start to think about who do they want to be when they grow up.”
Who wouldn’t agree with this statement? The fact that it was said by Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, recently convicted on four counts of defrauding investors and wire fraud, should not change how we feel about it.
The demonisation of Elizabeth Holmes and the sensationalism surrounding her trial threatens to overshadow many of the lessons and opportunities that should be taken from the case. It may be reasonable to say that Holmes is a demon, but it is also true that investors are not always as angelic as they might seem.
What would be disastrous would be if the trial is used as an excuse for the huge bias against women entrepreneurs, whether college dropouts or not.
Indeed, much has been made of Holmes dropping out of college, but when we look at some of the most successful entrepreneurs, particularly those in the tech space, this is not an unusual occurrence. Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jack Dorsey (Twitter) and Daniel Ek (Spotify) all dropped out of college, in the case of Dorsey twice. They are, of course, all men, which reinforces the need to redouble efforts to support young women entrepreneurs.
The role of universities
The more pressing problem is whether universities are doing enough to keep young entrepreneurs engaged and ensuring they have the tools to navigate the sea of sharks they are about to enter with their fledgling start-up.
It is a failing of higher education that more has not been done to cultivate entrepreneurs by helping them create products and showing how to bring them successfully to market. Even less has been done to build and strengthen the network of women role models who could help empower the next generation of female business leaders.
Some universities are waking up to their responsibility. The University of Winchester’s Women in Digital Enterprise programme aims to support women-led businesses to achieve double-digit business growth in less than a year through targeted workshops. The University of Suffolk and University College London are recognising the importance of role models, hosting special events and conferences to highlight the achievements of women entrepreneurs.
At Imperial, the WE Innovate programme is targeted specifically at female entrepreneurs, providing access to funding, mentoring and exposure to investor networks to help women support their fledgling businesses.
This opportunity has led to female student entrepreneurs developing “zero waste menstrual products”, intuitive drone control software and an early detection tool for crop diseases.
These are all great examples, but they remain exceptions. Far from dropping out of university being a ‘rite of passage’ for successful tech entrepreneurs it should be the opposite, with universities supporting them and ensuring they start their businesses on the right footing for future success.
Whatever course you study, all graduates should be equipped with the tools to become an entrepreneur because this is a viable, credible and, in some cases, the best career choice when an estimated 50% of jobs are on the verge of automation, the gig economy is growing and employers regularly complain of graduates not having the right skills.
This is not purely the job of a university careers service, although they should play a prominent role; it should be the product of a holistic careers curriculum embedded within any course of study, where cross-faculty collaboration is encouraged and rewarded.
The careers curriculum should be totally reformed so that it is no longer so focused on CV writing and interview technique but on creative thinking, problem solving and the enterprise skills necessary to launch a business and-or sell yourself as an individual and-or an idea.
A cautionary tale
Theranos is a cautionary tale, not unlike that of Icarus flying too close to the sun, because as the ‘darling of MedTech’, Holmes had a long way to fall. That should not, however, prevent or discourage any entrepreneur from pursuing their vision and future success because, while there are lessons to learn for Holmes, the failure was not hers alone.
Universities should help by stepping up to the plate and supporting founders, whatever their gender and providing them with the economic, ethical and moral compasses to guide them in their entrepreneurial endeavours.
It may be that unpacking the media hysteria and legal posturing inherent in the case from the realities can offer particular lessons to future women entrepreneurs.
One significant area of concern was the way Elizabeth Holmes painted herself as the victim of her former business partner and long-term boyfriend. It was a jarring counterpoint to the image of a capable, commanding woman founder of a unicorn who had stepped over the line in the Silicon Valley world of fake it, till you make it.
Whatever the failings of Elizabeth Holmes’ company, this depiction of a weak, incapable woman at the helm of a multimillion-dollar company does existing and future female founders a huge disservice.
As details of the trial emerged, drawing on my own experience as a female founder and reflecting on the advice I have been given, it is easy to see that, in large part, Holmes did what she was advised to do.
To secure venture capital, one needs to project vastly exaggerated revenue predictions to get people excited. Lakshmi Balachandra’s research on venture capital pitches sums it up with phrases like “trust beats competence”, “driven by ego” and “biased against femininity”.
One study from 2014 used identical slides and scripts, voiced by men and women, with and without photos of the ‘presenter’, and then asked study participants to rate the investment.
Pitches voiced by men significantly outperformed those with a woman narrator and pitches where the narrator’s picture was a good-looking man performed best of all.
Outcomes were the same whether the participants (‘judges’) were male or female, with researchers concluding: “Investors prefer pitches presented by male entrepreneurs compared with pitches made by female entrepreneurs, even when the content of the pitch is the same.”
Research from 2017 found that women are also asked different questions by venture capitalists [VCs]. Across 180 entrepreneurs and 140 VCs at the TechCrunch competition, men were consistently asked more ‘promotion’ questions (highlighting upside and potential gains), while women were asked more ‘preventive’ questions (highlighting potential losses and risk mitigation). Entrepreneurs who addressed promotion questions raised at least six times more money than those asked the prevention questions.
However unjust the world of venture capital may be, universities have an important part to play in the development of entrepreneurs past, present and future.
Even those who dropped out of university started off there and, in many cases, university was the start of their entrepreneurial journey.
Perhaps the answer could be university T-Groups, training based on innovative, experimental and transformative learning methodology, like that developed at Stanford University, or cross-city/college or faculty entrepreneurial ecosystems set up between universities and industry to develop and exchange ideas.
Whatever the answer, there is much to do and no time to waste!
Louise Nicol is the founder and director of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD, an edtech company that tracks the graduate outcomes and career progression of international students globally.