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Looking Back at SSTI's 9th Annual Conference Encouraging Women Entrepreneurship

December 19, 2005

While women are making strides in entrepreneurship, they still have a ways to go, particularly in science and technology (S&T) fields. This was the theme during the session, Encouraging Women Entrepreneurship, conducted during SSTI's 9th Annual Conference on Oct. 19-21, 2005.

Maggie Kenefake, manager of women's entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, said there are encouraging signs that women are stepping up to the plate, so to speak, when it comes to owning their own businesses. For example, the rate of increase for starting new firms among women is three times the rate for men, and women-owned businesses currently account for 40 percent of all start-ups.

Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented in most S&T fields, with the exception of life and behavioral sciences, Kenefake said. Fewer than 10 percent of engineers are women, and less than half of all Ph.D.'s are women. Americans cannot compete globally if they continue to underutilize half the population, she added.

Kenefake stressed that the focus should not be why women lag behind men in entrepreneurship, but what can be done to encourage women. Kenefake pointed to mid- and late-career women as a target group. Entrepreneurship can be an exciting alternative to women in private firms and federal labs who are likely to experience glass-ceiling issues.

In addition to Kenefake, who served as moderator, the session featured three presenters involved in organizations dedicated to increasing awareness, exposing youth to the opportunities of entrepreneurship, encouraging supportive policy environments, and promoting access to capital among women entrepreneurs.

Robbie Melton, program manager for entrepreneurial development of the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, provided an overview of the Women in Bio (WIB) program. Founded in 2001, WIB consists of executives, entrepreneurs, scientists, students and professionals that support the bioscience and biotech industry.

The major challenges facing women, Melton said, are gender differences in conducting business, the funding gap, and an inability for women to network. There is a great need for women to network and to know that they have support, but many women do not make this a priority, she said. In 2002, for example, WIB launched a dinner event to honor women entrepreneurs and provide an opportunity for networking. Women also need business and non-business training, access to funding, and mentors, Melton added.

Melton also highlighted Achieving the Commercialization of Technology in Ventures through Applied Training for Entrepreneurs (ACTiVATE), a program funded by the National Science Foundation. The program strives to increase commercial applications of university-related technology by training women entrepreneurs.

Nancy Sullivan, director of the Center for Women Entrepreneurs in Technology (CWET), pointed out that her organization focuses on biotech- and nanotech-led companies at very early stages. Sullivan said the goal is to take a company and enable it to crawl, and then pass it along to where it can walk and run. CWET's portfolio currently consists of 11 early-stage companies, she said.

Jiahong Juda, founder and former chief executive officer and president of Women Entrepreneurs in Science and Technology, Inc. (WEST), said the mission of WEST is to make entrepreneurship relevant to more people, reach a critical mass, and target women in science and engineering. WEST offers exposure through newsletters, conferences and networking opportunities.