Washington, D.C. Roundtable – August 17, 2023
The National Women’s Business Council held a roundtable on August 17th from 2:00 – 3:30 PM EST at Howard University’s Blackburn University Center in Washington, D.C.
This roundtable was in support of the Council’s Women in STEM subcommittee and allowed our Council Members to learn how women entrepreneurs can connect to the opportunities of today and the industries of tomorrow.
According to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the White House, their working definition of “industries of the future” is as follows: advanced industrial sectors that support innovative, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable growth; have profound connection with technology R&D and STEM workforce; require R&D investments to support growth that will lead to transformative impact; and will significantly benefit future economic prosperity and national security. The phrase “inclusive, equitable, and sustainable growth” especially stands out to NWBC because our Council is interested in what responsible advancement and a just economic transition might look like for women entrepreneurs.
When it comes to getting women entrepreneurs connected to the industries of the future, Council Members continue to emphasize the importance of bolstering efforts to support women who are actively engaged in the industries of today, and who are looking to pursue opportunities or new lines of business in the industries of tomorrow. This might include, but is not limited to, improved entrepreneurial education, investment, and outreach from K-12, to academia, to women already in the workforce.
While keeping one eye on the future, Council Members are not losing sight of the present. The Council Members that comprise NWBC’s “Women in STEM” policy subcommittee continue to consider the importance of ensuring there be a “for communities, by communities” strategy in place which leverages the historic levels of federal investment and new opportunities in environmental remediation, manufacturing, data, infrastructure, automation, AI, computing, and other high growth industries. It will be critical to better connect traditionally underserved women entrepreneurs to these emerging opportunities. This local-first approach should begin within impacted communities so that change can be implemented on the ground floor, establishing onramps to STEM entrepreneurship so that women no longer get left behind.
As we work to further refine our approach to this topic and solidify policy recommendations in support of women entrepreneurs in STEM, we convened experts from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to learn more. Tomorrow, we hope that women entrepreneurs will be able to tell their children the story of “how mommy saved the world.” Now, we want to understand how to make that happen.
- NWBC Council Member and Women in STEM Subcommittee Chair Selena Rodgers Dickerson, Founder of SARCOR, LLC and Selene, LLC
- NWBC Council Member Jenny Poon, CEO/Founder of CO+HOOTS and HUUB
- Dr. Kimberly L. Jones, Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Howard University
- Carrie Sheffield, Senior Policy Analyst, Independent Women’s Forum (IWF)
- Harrison Jumper, Senior Legislative Assistant for Representative Chrissy Houlahan, U.S. Congress
- Rikki O’Reilly Jones, Investment Analyst for the Office of Investment and Innovation (OII), U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA)
- Dede Zecher, Chief Advisor to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)
- Dr. Raven Baxter, President and Founder of The Science Haven
- Dipanwita Das, CEO and Co-founder of Sorcero
- LaKisha Greenwade, Founder of Wearable Tech Ventures
Questions and Summarized Responses
For All: Can you please share your name, title, and organization as well as a woman in STEM who inspires you?
- Dipanwita Das: Serves as the CEO and Co-Founder of Sorcero. She grew up around two inspiring women in STEM and is still trying to measure up to them.
- LaKisha Greenwade: Serves as CEO and Founder of Wearable Tech Ventures. In terms of STEM role models, her grandmother was one of the first medical assistants in the state of Ohio. She is also inspired by Dr. Ruby Lile (?), one of the top black women patent holders.
- Rikki O’Reilly Jones: Serves as an Investment Analyst in OII in SBA. She explained the Small Business Investment Company (SBIC) program and the role of OII in investing in women business owners. Rikki is inspired by the small shareholder farmers in Ghana and Tanzania working on issues related to agriculture and water purification, as well as the women in STEM working on solving the sonic boom issue.
- Dede Zecher: Serves as the Chief Advisor to the Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and the Director of USPTO. She is inspired by Hedy Lamarr, who not only was a famous actress but also created ways of protecting our codes during World War Two that laid the foundation for things like Wi-Fi and GPS today.
- Carrie Sheffield: Serves as Senior Policy Analyst at IWF. She was a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs and because of this background in finance, she is inspired by Catherine Woods, founder of ARK Invest.
- Harrison Jumper: Serves as Senior Legislative Assistant for Representative Chrissy Houlahan. She is the woman in STEM who he admires. With her engineering background and work in Congress, she striving to make real change in the field of STEM.
- Dr. Raven Baxter: Serves as the Founder of the Science Haven, is a molecular biologist and is known as Dr. Raven the Science Maven online. A woman in STEM who inspires her is Mae Jemison, who was not only the first Black woman in space but is working to ensure others like her have the same opportunity.
- Dr. Kimberly L. Jones: Serves as Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs and Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Howard University. Having first heard her speak when she was a student, Kim is inspired by Dr. Lilia Abron, President and Chief Executive Officer of PEER Consultants.
For All: Between academia, the private sector, the public sector, and nonprofits, where have you seen best practices for connecting women in STEM to entrepreneurship? Where in these spaces have you seen gaps or missed opportunities?
- Dr. Kimberly L. Jones: Having served on an advisory board for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she often thinks about how policy connects to her work. In academia, she sees a gap in connecting students studying STEM to the real world and opportunities outside of academia. Students want to understand how to make a difference and find ways of taking their learnings to other arenas. As she sees it, the curriculum is really strained and there has not been enough space in the curriculum for considering topics like STEM entrepreneurship.
- LaKisha Greenwade: What she has seen in Maryland is a strong emphasis on universities coming together to ensure students not only apply what they are learning, but also receiving some funding and coaching so they can leave school with some intellectual property (IP). She serves as coach in the i-Corps program and has seen how things are evolving in the STEM field. To her, there is an opportunity to tailor the messaging that the next generation of STEM receives and in the messaging that entrepreneurs take into the field.
- Dipanwita Das: As the CEO of a company backed by venture capital (VC), things look a little bit different to her. She has been talking a lot about the impact of accelerators because they combine funding opportunities with invaluable mentorship. She has seen a lot of women mentors in her own field of pharmaceuticals, but she knows its not the same across STEM.
- Dede Zecher: In terms of gaps, gaps in awareness around IP can hurt those who are just starting their businesses. When people think of IP, they think of big players like Google and Coca Cola, and they also think of IP as being expensive. People need to be in a position to make informed choices about IP when they are starting out rather than being left unaware and having to pay the price later. She also noted that USPTO has launched an IP Identifier tool that helps people determine what their needs are when it comes to IP.
- Carrie Sheffield: She shared her own tricky experiences with IP around trademarking the name of her business, mentioning her appearance on Entrepreneur’s Problem Solvers podcast.
- Rikki O’Reilly Jones: Mentioned more information about the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. The SBIR program specifically has a $3.2 billion spend and the STTR program has a $450 million spend. All that is needed to get into the program is an idea (as opposed to a patent), and they fund prototypes all the way to commercialization and beyond. She also mentioned accelerators as a resource for issues around funding and noted the women’s business center (WBC) program as another resource for entrepreneurial development.
- LaKisha Greenwade: The i-Corps program is also for entrepreneurs on the idea and ownership side of their innovation, where innovators can get connected to additional opportunities.
For Carrie Sheffield and Harrison Jumper: We discuss the leaky pipeline of women in STEM quite often. How can entrepreneurship be leveraged to plug some of those leaks and where do you see opportunities to get and keep women in STEM entrepreneurship?
- Harrison Jumper: Thanks to the passage of bills like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other major investments enacted in the 117th Congress, more funding is flowing into STEM fields and STEM professionals will play a major role in filling in the gaps related to that and other laws. Some notable statistics, the Brookings Institute found that women only account for 18% of infrastructure jobs for many reasons. He also took the opportunity to highlight a focus of his office, which includes the issue of access to capital for women entrepreneurs. In 2023, 62.3% of women sought funding to cover operating costs for their businesses, while only 54% of men sought funding for this purpose. Meanwhile, men were more likely than women to seek funding for expanding their businesses. There are also disparities in contracting opportunities. For example, despite there being a goal for five percent of contracting dollars awarded to go to women each year through the women-owned small business (WOSB) federal contracting program, this goal has only been met twice. His office also often hears from constituents about workforce development and retention issues. According to the Center for American Progress, one in four women take a break in their career and four times as many women as men dropped out of the workforce during the pandemic. Lack of access to childcare and paid family medical leave also contribute to workforce participation disruptions. As he sees it, there are a number of complex solutions at the federal level to meet the moment and numerous investments have been made over the years in working to solve these problems.
- Carrie Sheffield: Being on a university campus for this conversation, she wanted to highlight the need to go even younger when it comes to connecting women to STEM, as inspiring young women is important. One of her old roommates is a founder of Hello World CS in Texas. They surveyed 1000 students in their programs, and 88% of their students signed up for computer science in middle school while only 33% of students outside of the program did the same. Her friend’s program is opt-in, but she believes that to change the needle at the policy level, participation in STEM programs should be a default for young women and that this should start at a younger age. She also uplifted issues relating to learning loss due to COVID-19 and potential solutions like school choice, as she believes someone’s zip code should not be a determinant of their educational success. When it comes to entrepreneurship, she sees huge access to capital issues at play. Between her mom’s generation and women today, she has witnessed major generational shifts, but access to capital is still a tricky topic. The Harvard Business Review did a study asking VC investors questions relating to risk and reward. In a blind test, for women and men innovators, men were more likely to be asked about the upside of their product and work (the reward) while women were more likely to be asked about the downside (risk). To her, understanding why we see that type of bias is really important.
For Rikki O’Reilly Jones and Dede Zecher: How do you see current and potential women business owners connecting with new and existing opportunities offered at the federal, state, and local level when it comes to STEM, such as patenting, SBIR/STTR, and initiatives driven by the CHIPS and Science Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure law, and the Justice40 Initiative?
- Dede Zecher: To touch back on what was previously shared, Dede mentioned that only two percent of VC funding is going to women while only 18% is going to co-led firms. Under the leadership of Kathi Vidal, Director of USPTO, the office started the Empowering Women Entrepreneurship (WE) initiative. The office does a “WE Wednesday” event every month which are open to the public. One of the good pieces of advice she wanted to share with audience members is that when they are declined a funding opportunity, they should ask “you’re not interested, but who might be?” Another point she shared was that the Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE) is currently developing recommendations for a national entrepreneurship strategy. Additionally, EDA is implementing the funding and expansion of the Tech Hubs program, which is designed to support innovators across the country.
- Rikki O’Reilly Jones: The percentage gaps are real for women business owners, and the SBIC program, the SBIR/STTR program and SBA at large are trying to bridge these gaps through billions of dollars’ worth of investments and in developing innovative policies. With the new SBIC rule to create accrual debenture SBICs now active, this will put more money into communities so that more investment managers actually look like the people in whom they are investing. Changes such as these have been built on years of best practices and lessons learned and have led to the creation of policies to help our sons and daughters in the future.
For LaKisha Greenwade and Dipanwita Das: Have you witnessed any industry-specific barriers to entry for women entrepreneurs, what advice would you give to women facing barriers, and what would you tell any policymakers listening when it comes to lowering them?
- LaKisha Greenwade: Thinking about her own experience going from ideation to commercialization, LaKisha shared that she wants people of color to be seen as geniuses. Having spent her whole career in marketing for engineering firms and companies, she decided to make the switch herself to entrepreneurship. She had the idea, but what she did not have was the funding. Through her work, she has seen a gap in awareness and exposure to STEM, and a lack of understanding that even though not everyone is going to be an engineer, anyone can be a STEM innovator. But for that to happen, there need to be a lot more angel investors because VC is not always the first step or one that works for everyone. She believes it should be easier for people to serve as angel investors, and she is trying to pay this forward by being an ecosystem builder herself by creating bootcamps and assisting others in navigating through the application process for programs like SBIR/STTR.
- Dipanwita Das: Going back to VC, she believed it is worth discussing scale. If you want women to build businesses, you must give them millions of dollars of funding, rather than small dollar investments. Women in business have to give investors confidence, but women need the capital and time to make mistakes and close contracts. The small dollars being thrown at female entrepreneurs are not giving them enough opportunity to work out the kinks. Women are often put in the category of building things for the consumer market or for other women, likely because women represent a lot of buying power. The association of what women stereotypically bring to market can really work against women business owners. On the other hand, the data shows that women owned business have 33% higher return on investment than men for every dollar invested. The other thing that is a real barrier is ageism, which can cut both ways for those who are considered too young or too old. Research has found that best time to go for venture funding is when business owners are in their mid-40’s, but even that does not factor in isms like racism and sexism. Her advice is for business owners to stick to the numbers, because the only way to breakthrough a financial mind is with the data, no matter how unfair the situation. She also suggested that when business owners are pitching, it is better to let the audience ask questions for themselves rather than overexplaining. It is better in her eyes to build in really big markets and make the potential impact of the contribution being provided undeniable. She continued by suggesting that women find men who are going to walk in the room with them, even if the women have all the answers and insights. Moving back to VC, she noted that VC has switched away from pushing for firms to raise as much money as possible because a lot of companies are now on the hook for valuations. From what she has seen, private equity and growth capital are favoring bootstrapped self-funded businesses. As growth capital is moving downstream, investors are looking at small dollar-funded companies who are more likely to grow and break even, which favors women-owned businesses. To her, VC is in a moody space, but they are still chasing after AI. Growth capital might be better.
For Dr. Raven Baxter: If the future is female, what should we learn from the past when it comes to women’s engagement in STEM and entrepreneurship?
- Dr. Raven Baxter: When it comes to access to education, Raven notes that a number of advancements to leveling the playing field for women and people of color have occurred only recently. From her own point of view, science culture is really antiquated. Another issue is that researchers are not taught to think in the entrepreneurial space. Those pursuing STEM are often put in an academic pipeline where there were no opportunities to think as entrepreneurs. When she was in school, she was under the impression that she needed to be a business student to leverage the business development resources and there were not many opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. She would like to see more embracing of non-traditional pathways and allowing people to share more of who they are. Researchers and innovators to her are not just scientists but often people who want to have community impact and run non-profits. Overall, she believes there is tons of work to be done.
For Carrie Sheffield and Harrison Jumper: Is women’s entrepreneurial and workforce participation in STEM an issue that can transcend political divides? Where do you all see opportunities for common ground?
- Carrie Sheffield: She sees a number of opportunities for bipartisanship in advancing women’s entrepreneurship. Some of the examples she noted included that regulation should be smart, empowering and beneficial as opposed to restrictive and controlling, especially around independent contracting and occupational licensing, that there is alignment around the tax code and topics like the earned income tax credit and the research and development tax credit, and that there is also agreement around the reauthorization of SBA, the need to improve childcare accessibility and the funding of historically Black colleges and universities. As she sees it, there is a bipartisan sense that the system is rigged and that together we can find areas of agreement to derig the system.
- Harrison Jumper: He agreed that these issues can transcend political divides, and shared examples from his own work. The WOSB Contracting Transparency Act passed the House in the 117th Congress by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. The bill has not yet passed the House in the 118th Congress, but it was included as part of Representative Houlahan’s Small Business Contracting Transparency Act, which passed unanimously through the Small Business Committee in July. Another example he shared was the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which included provisions to reauthorize the Women in Aviation Advisory Committee. He also uplifted Representative Houlahan’s role as a co-chair of the bipartisan Women in STEM Congressional Caucus. From the constituent services perspective, he noted that business owners call their office regularly, often about COVID-19 related issues previously but also concerning access to capital as well. The political party of the person reaching out does not matter, Representative Houlahan’s office will work to connect them with the appropriate resource from small business development centers (SBDCs) to SCORE to WBCs. He believes there is an opportunity to raise awareness around those types of programs as well.
For LaKisha Greenwade and Dipanwita Das: Women have often been hidden figures in technological advancement. How can we ensure that women lead in advancing industries of the present (infrastructure/manufacturing) and the industries of the future, rather than remain stuck in the shadows?
- LaKisha Greenwade: To LaKisha, it is incredibly important that all understand that there is more than one way to be a leader in STEM. If that mindset is supported and cultivated, that will be a key driver in creating a prosperous future. Uplifting the collective insights shared, she noted that there was a lot of power in the room. By coming together and amplifying programs like WE Wednesdays and more, all can serve as leaders in STEM. As business owners face sustainability issues, there are opportunities to ensure that these programs can be built using design thinking and reverse engineered to bring others to the table to guarantee all can take advantage of them. Together, all can use their own power to create change.
- Dipanwita Das: She elevated the need for responsible innovation. Women have often been left out of opportunity and been pushed out for being the reasonable voice in the room, so when given the chance, she would like to see women give that success back. She believes women have the power to innovate responsibly and work to minimize harm.
For Dr. Raven Baxter: How are women engaging with STEM at the community-level, be that in schools or in the workforce? Where do you see opportunities to strengthen that connection?
- Dr. Raven Baxter: Women only occupy 28% of STEM careers. At the start of her journey, although she is a molecular biologist, her initial content on social media was around hair and beauty and aimed at Black women. When she pivoted to posting about science, all of her followers stayed. She found that they were extremely excited to engage with her science content, with her followers sharing that they had never been able to engage in science in this way. She hopes that science continues to engage people’s interest so that less people say that science is not for them. To her, this should be a process that parents and children participate in so that bridges are created to connect people to STEM in non-traditional ways. By the time she became a professor, she decided that she wanted to share how STEM can be used to help people. To create this change, STEM needs to be accessible to people at a younger age and expand the way people think about the roles could have in STEM. The center of everything she does is aimed at increasing public engagement in science.
(Question Omitted Due to Time) For Rikki O’Reilly Jones and Dede Zecher: Any woman can be a STEM entrepreneur or innovator. Please share your thoughts on that statement and how programs available today relate to it.
For All: When we talk about the industries of the future and how women connect with them, does the future look bright to you? What should we be doing today to ensure an even brighter tomorrow?
- Dipanwita Das: To her, the future looks extremely bright, and there are three things that make it really exciting. First is access to information, as people never had this much access to information. Second is that more stories have been uplifted about women in a diverse set of fields and from unique backgrounds. The final thing that makes the future bright is mentoring, because even thirty minutes of time can mean the world to someone who is working to follow in the footsteps of those ahead of them.
- LaKisha Greenwade: Discussing her own industry, she is incredibly energized by the future of wearable technology and how it is being designed to solve problems across a number of fields.
- Rikki O’Reilly Jones: She wanted to consider what individuals can do from the get-go. Because small businesses are apolitical and everyone wants women business owners to win, she believes it is important to stay plugged into resources offered by SBA. For example, the SBIC directory lists each investment firm that has been licensed. These SBICs share the industries they are supporting, what they are interested in and their contact information. In her eyes, there is a solution to every problem, and it all comes down to being intentional.
- Dede Zecher: Discussed USPTO’s Camp Invention program and how the program engages the next generation of innovators in work that crosses fields and disciplines. This work inspires her, and she noted that because of programs like this, she believes the future is bright. She also reiterated the importance of mentorship and networking building and how USPTO provides resources to help everyone find a mentor.
- Carrie Sheffield: On the topic of disruption, she shared that although the concept of disruption and the future can be scary, change has become the norm. For example, as a journalist, she shared that the media has been ever evolving, always in a phase of creative destruction. Embracing change is essential. Discussing AI, she noted that in spite of fears around jobs being lost, innovation will also create jobs, as has been witnessed through the rise of computers and the internet. She closed by connecting back to faith, whether in yourself or in God, because it is important to know that at the end of the day, you are not alone. On this topic, she referenced her work in the faith-based investment community through Faith Driven Entrepreneur.
- Harrison Jumper: He mentioned how inspired he was to participate in this panel full of very smart women, and noted how Congress and the White House are passing bills that create more opportunity that women need to be connected with. That being said, according to the National Partnership for Women in Families, if occupational segregation were eliminated (i.e. women participated in industries at a rate proportional to the total population of women), women would gain another 145,070 jobs per year. To him, this just shows that across the federal landscape, more needs to be done to ensure that these investments are opening up opportunities for women specifically.
- Dr. Raven Baxter: She shared that she believes that this break away from the elitism and exclusivity of entrepreneurship is a positive thing. On the topic of mentorship, she is working on trying to figure out how to see herself as a mentor in spite of the feeling she is not in a position to do so as she works on her own self-improvement and betterment. To her, it is about moving forward on faith and purpose and she noted that she looks forward to passing along the tools shared today. In her mind, she knows that this work will have a lasting impact on our country.