Gilt Group. BirchBox. LearnVest. Rent the Runway. Care.com. Angie’s List. Fashionstake. Baublebar.
These are just a few of the high-profile, high-growth startups that have been started by Harvard Business School women.
Despite the widespread belief in today’s tech monoculture that MBAs do not make good entrepreneurs, I’ve heard several investors say “I wouldn’t bet against any HBS women founders,” based on the success of those listed above.
This made me wonder: Are HBS women overrepresented in high-growth entrepreneurship? And if so, why?
Looking at my entrepreneurship-related classes, I calculated that women represent 39% of my Founders’ Dilemmas section, 49% of my Online Economy section, and 44% of the Rock/Lebor fellowship program. With women representing only 36% of our total EC class, that equates to a 9%, 36%, and 23% overrepresentation in these respective groups.
As comparison, according to the Venture Capital Human Capital Report, women overall represent 8% of founders of VC-backed companies. Within Y Combinator, only 3% of all their founders have been women.
I do not believe that HBS is changing incoming women into entrepreneurs, but rather, most women who are considering a career in high-growth entrepreneurship opt to pursue that path through HBS rather than the alternatives that their male counterparts prefer – doing it on their own or through a tech incubator. The male-dominated tech community generally believes that an MBA is worthless, or rather, worth negative $250,000 to be exact (Guy Kawasaki). This widely circulated blog post examining the choice between TechStars and HBS reflects that view, concluding “If you know you want to start a company there is nothing more helpful than TechStars and I would strongly suggest going through the program ahead of an MBA.”
As an HBS student who has participated in a tech incubator, it is clear to me why aspiring female entrepreneurs do not share that view and are choosing the HBS path over tech incubators (disclaimer: major gender generalizations to follow).
First, HBS’s environment and culture is more female-friendly. The facilities in the incubator this summer were disgusting, everything from the bathroom to the kitchen. Social activities were limited to ping pong and Frisbee. Male teams operated from noon to 1am, often preferring to sleep on the office floor or stained futons. The female-led teams (2 to be exact, both from HBS) arrived much earlier and often chose to work remotely from home later at night.
Second, from an industry perspective, the incubator’s network was much more narrowly focused on traditionally male-dominated tech industries. For companies making products for themselves or other “techies”, the incubator’s network proved more valuable. For those of us looking at non-startup partners, retail / HR / finance, etc., HBS’s network served us better.
Ultimately, HBS provides an environment that is more professional and gender-neutral. HBS also provides a wider network that appeals to the increasing breadth female founders are bringing to the startup world as they tend to innovate in areas that have been left behind by their male counterparts in previous years (retail/fashion/beauty, care, etc.). Until the traditional tech culture and ecosystem catches up in these respects, HBS will continue to have the advantage in attracting and incubating high-growth female entrepreneurs.
Jessica Bloomgarden is the Founder of AfterSteps, an online end-of-life planning platform, and a second-year student at Harvard Business School.