My Dream, Our Dream—a World of Empowered Young Women
IMAGINE A GIRL WHO AT FIVE IS AN ENTREPRENEURIAL WONDER. SHE scores at the genius level for thinking outside the box, collaborates beautifully with her friends to solve problems, and spends her time making new toys with whatever resources she has. She’s intrigued by science, math, and technology, and while she may find these subjects challenging at times, she tackles the tough questions persistently until an answer finally emerges. She’s visionary, creative, innovative, resilient, and, most important, unafraid to take risks to get what she wants. This kind of person is in desperate demand across the global economy and in our own society, which is striving to maintain leadership in a hypercompetitive world. The most extraordinary thing is, I’m actually describing nearly every five-year-old girl. At this age, according to one expert, 98 percent of children are naturally brilliant in these remarkable traits.1
But then something terrible happens. The genius takes a precipitous dive. These bold, imaginative powers are conditioned out by societal pressure and educated out by a system designed to create the boundaries valued by the old world, not the new. The girls who dared to dream big—who were empowered to be curious and follow their passions, who dreamed of creating technologies, careers, and businesses with the potential to solve the grand challenges of our society—begin to opt out.
Each year, millions of girls who are vital to our nation’s future abandon their dreams. The social forces that discourage girls from pursuing their full potential begin to affect them before kindergarten, become cruel in middle school, and erode their confidence further as they mature.
It can happen when a girl finds her school’s computer club dominated by boys who subtly or overtly exclude, taunt, or reject her, or when an aspiring female entrepreneur is continually ignored or interrupted in the business classes at her high school. By the time they are eighteen, young women who choose to major in fields like math, engineering, or business find themselves seriously outnumbered.
If young women look at the makeup of the workplaces they might enter, they see that the ratios are often worse. They cannot help noticing that the leadership positions are largely held by men, and they find themselves asking, “Where are the women?” No wonder so many girls quietly give up on the dream of being among the future innovators and change makers of tomorrow.
I want to change this, and I hope you do, too.
What if this didn’t happen to girls? What if there was a window in a girl’s life when just the right dose of learning at the just right time could snap the downward spiral, and produce a girl whose gifts were available for the rest of her life? What could this new kind of girl—an undiminished girl, a VentureGirl—become?
I am an engineer, a nanoscientist, a professor, and an entrepreneur. So I’ve approached the problem in the spirit of a scientist intent on discovery. Why do some women forge ahead in science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM fields—and rise into leadership positions, while others give up? What interventions might change this pattern? What can we do that will really work?
The challenge is to bring STEM to life for girls—to make it relevant to them. We can no longer afford to live in a world where more than one-half of the population is essentially excluded from the cutting edge. We need those brilliant minds at work. Furthermore, we can no longer cheat so many young women out of the pride and joy that come from finding a vocation in innovation. It’s critical for our girls and for our future as a society to attract girls to the STEM fields, and to create a world where both men and women actively participate in building the future.
Through my experiences, I have found that the key to lifting up the next generation of girls is to blend STEM with entrepreneurship. And we can’t just teach girls—we must teach boys at the same time, so that they understand that girls are equally capable of achievement, creativity, and leadership.
I believe in this approach because I’m a product of it. I’ve experienced how empowering and fulfilling technology and entrepreneurship can be.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved building things and taking things apart to figure out how they worked. I remember as a child picking up a screwdriver and taking apart my family’s mustard-yellow rotary telephone to see what made it work. (If you don’t remember what a rotary telephone was, it had lots of gears and moving parts.) I found the dozens of parts inside the phone pretty amazing.
At first, my parents were upset. In those days before cell phones and e-mail, the home phone was a family’s only means of communication. But here’s the extraordinary thing: Rather than scolding me and stifling my excitement, they let me experiment. They tried to explain how the phone worked and then helped me put it back together.
My parents’ approach to life was about curiosity and unfettered expression. More important, they were not focused on what I should and shouldn’t do as a girl.
My father himself had overcome difficult times. He grew up on the streets in Mexico, not knowing where his next meal would come from. His parents both had only elementary school educations, and his dad died when my father was young. When his shoes became torn, he would put cardboard in them to cover the holes. Nonetheless, he had the drive, ambition, and fearlessness he needed to make a better world for himself. Penniless and knowing little English, he came to the United States to study, and that is where I was born.
I was raised to do anything a boy could do. My Sunday dress was just that. The rest of the week, I was free to play in the mud or tinker with broken appliances in the garage. It was a hands-on childhood that included cardboard imaginary castles, GI Joes, and Legos. Back then, girls were more likely to be given pink toys, miniature stoves, irons, and Barbie dolls to play with instead. But my sisters and I were allowed to get messy, dirty, and greasy. If we wanted a tree house or even a dollhouse, we watched our dad build it and helped him. We were highly involved in sports, and our dad taught us everything from electrical wiring to tiling floors to changing brake pads in the car—and we loved it.
We often joked that our dad treated us like boys because he wished he’d had some sons, too. But we shouldn’t have! Today, studies show that by playing with those stereotyped “boy” toys at an early age, we girls were developing the spatial relation skills we’d need for our education and future careers in STEM.
Dad encouraged us in math and science, often bringing home science and electronics kits. If we had trouble with math in school, instead of telling us that maybe it just wasn’t for us, he would get us a tutor. We were lucky to be able to afford these luxuries, but the most important thing he gave us was free: He always told us we could do and be whatever we wanted if we worked hard and followed our passion.
In all these ways, my dad gave me the tools I needed to be comfortable being the only girl in male-dominated classes at school—and, later, in male-dominated workplaces. His curiosity and fearlessness got baked into my personality. It was a natural progression for me to get involved in science projects and contests at school. I was a math-and-science–smitten girl, almost oblivious to the fact that most of my fellow geeks were guys. I thought I could do anything as long as I put my mind to it. And I did, winning science fairs and scholarships.
In college, going into mechanical engineering was a natural choice for me. I enjoyed the thrill of learning about new technologies and creating inventions of my own. After graduating, I became a product development engineer at 3M. In the late 1990s, I read the news reports about genetic engineering and Dolly, the first cloned sheep. In 2003, I decided to transition to biomedical engineering, despite the fact that I’d had little background training in biology or chemistry. While in grad school, I learned the importance of technology commercialization and entrepreneurship. I realized that it was extremely important to apply research to create goods and services that benefit society.
By the age of twenty-seven, I was pursuing a PhD in biomedical engineering focused on drug delivery and nanotechnology, a field in which materials, tools, and devices are measured in nanometers—a unit so tiny that the paper on which these words are printed is about seventy-five thousand nanometers thick. I had developed a new way to manufacture disease-responsive nanoparticles, and I decided to build an enterprise around my research. I launched a new company, NanoTaxi, with the dream of delivering cancer-curing treatments and reducing side effects for chemo patients. I pitched my business concept to prospective investors on both coasts and began participating in “angel investing” programs that provided seed money to startups. I immersed myself in technology-oriented entrepreneurial culture.
I had become one of the few women tech entrepreneurs. During those years of study and startup, I never encountered another Hispanic female technology entrepreneur, and I joyously celebrated whenever I met another woman CEO, inventor, or scientist. So imagine how exciting it was for me to be invited to join Springboard Enterprises, a nonprofit resource hub of entrepreneurs and investors dedicated to building high-growth, technology-oriented companies led by women. In Springboard, I finally found a vibrant network of peers, role models, and advisors who were elevating women entrepreneurs. Experiencing the thrill of a supportive community inspired me to try to close the gender gap for women in technology and entrepreneurship.
Eventually, my career took me back to academia. It was while I was leading the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, that the problem crystallized for me. I observed striking differences between male and female students in class. Young women whom I saw strolling around campus fully engaged and outgoing became, in a predominantly male classroom, somewhat timid. Most of the young men would take a stab at answering any question, seemingly without worrying about embarrassing themselves if they were wrong. Young women who actually knew the answer wouldn’t venture it unless they were entirely certain, and even then they often responded sheepishly.
The pattern was consistent, unmistakable, and aligned with what I’d experienced as an engineering student a decade earlier. The young women lacked confidence and feared failure. One hesitant student confided in me that she was dropping her computer science class because she was earning Cs. To me, making a C in a tough subject was simply an educational rite of passage; it suggested the need for tutoring or other help. But this student considered each C she received as a ruling on her abilities. It might as well have been an F.
Talking to her sparked something within me. In my own life, I’d learned what virtually every entrepreneur knows—that failure is a step on the ladder of success. That insight opened doors for me to a world of achievement and freedom. What if girls could learn such entrepreneurial lessons long before college? Could girls in elementary school, or even earlier, be taught to approach learning and life with an entrepreneurial mind-set? Could they be taught to persevere through failures and setbacks in pursuit of their goals? Might this be the key to unleashing their self-confidence?
In search of answers to these questions, I created VentureLab, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching entrepreneurial skills to children—with a particular focus on teaching girls.
In the entrepreneurial setting of VentureLab, girls are free to take risks and make mistakes without hurting their grades. They learn to work with teams on problems that interest them, tackling projects that they themselves define. We eliminate the scariness so that even girls who think they are “not good at math” can reconfigure how they think of math and numbers, seeing them as useful tools. They learn the steps involved in research and development—analysis, hypothesis, testing, prototypes, and findings. They learn about teamwork, markets, audiences, buyers, sales—and, of course, profits. This empowers girls to discover that people will pay for the products they design and create—that their work has value and meaning.
In dozens of camps and class modules we’ve conducted since then, we’ve found something remarkable. When girls are exposed to entrepreneurial thinking, a profound change takes place. They become more aware of opportunities around them, develop powerful problem-solving skills, and improve their abilities to think critically and creatively. What’s more, the fear and insecurity they may associate with subjects in the STEM fields often disappear as they discover that these tools can be used to solve problems that fascinate them and may ultimately help society.
A magic triangle emerges that connects three sources of power: girls, entrepreneurship, and STEM. As girls learn more about imagining and creating business ventures of their own, they discover the ability of science and technology to help make their dreams possible. And the greater their knowledge about entrepreneurship and STEM, the more imaginative and far-seeing they become. The ultimate effect is that girls become steadily more confident and fearless about their ability to tackle and conquer challenges of all kinds. Like I did.
They become VentureGirls.
As an engineer, a nanoscientist, a professor, and an entrepreneur—but also as a mom of four, including two girls—I want my kids, and especially my daughters, to be confident in their abilities and to follow their passions, even if they are different from those of other girls. I want them to believe they can be astronauts or doctors, auto designers or bridge builders, programmers or chemists or company founders.
The entrepreneurial mind-set was the best gift I ever received from my parents. I want to pay it forward and teach girls to create their own future.
That’s why I’ve written VentureGirls. I believe early entrepreneurial training should be a part of every child’s education, and especially that of girls. My goal is to provide those who love girls—parents and grandparents, teachers and counselors, professionals, mentors and advisors—with the knowledge, insights, techniques, and tools they need to help them become VentureGirls: confident, resilient, creative, and smart, no matter what fields of endeavor they may choose to enter as adults.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One, “The Problem,” explains the three interlocking challenges that girls and women face in today’s world—attitudes that create barriers that discourage them from pursuing their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math; from developing their skills as entrepreneurial problem-solvers and creators of organizations; and from achieving leadership positions in business and in society as a whole.
Part Two, “The Solution,” explains why learning and practicing entrepreneurial skills is an invaluable key to solving the three-part problem and thereby unleashing the creative powers of girls and women for the benefit of all humankind.
Part Three, “How to Raise a VentureGirl”—the longest section—offers specific advice to parents, family members, teachers, community leaders, and anyone else who wants to help a girl develop to her full potential. The chapters in Part Three include inspiring stories, insights from experts and leaders in the worlds of business and STEM, and fun activities you can enjoy with girls of all ages.
Because it’s likely that you may also be the parent or friend of a boy whose future is just as important, the book concludes with some tips about how to raise a VentureBoy, as well as a selection of resources for further learning, including organizations, websites, and tools that offer even more information, activities, and ideas.
Thank you for opening this book and thereby taking your first steps on this exciting journey. Every girl should have a chance to learn the incredible lessons of entrepreneurship—lessons that can help them hold on to their five-year-old genius and confidence, and never let them go.
If you share my dream of a world filled with powerful, creative, and inspiring young women who are using their talents to help create a better future for all of us, then, please, read on!
Luz Cristal Glangchai
Where Are All the Girls?
IT AMAZES ME THAT FOR ALL OF OUR ADVANCES AS A SOCIETY, GENDER BIASES are still a problem in the twenty-first century. If anyone doubts that girls face discouragement because of their gender, consider the experience of Nick Hahn. Nick is a software designer at IBM and what I call a “tech dad.” He’s had a lifelong fascination with all things digital and is deeply committed to sparking his daughter’s interest in computing. He recently shared a story with me that involves Minecraft, the hugely popular video game that has introduced millions of kids to the basics of computer coding through its digital-style game commands:
When my seven-year-old daughter was just getting into Minecraft, she was excited to share her new interest with another seven-year-old girl whose family was visiting us. Her friend’s mom overheard our conversation as I brought my laptop out and turned the game on. She seemed surprised that I’d been showing my daughter Minecraft. Right there in front of us all, she said to her daughter: “Oh, honey, that game is for boys, you don’t need to bother with that.” Then she looked at me and laughed, like I didn’t get this either, and said, “Why do you show this to your daughter? It’s not for her!”
The mom in Nick’s story didn’t intend to limit or hurt her daughter. She probably knew almost nothing about Minecraft and had thought very little about the social or intellectual content of video games. That’s the nature of insidious bias. Its invisible influence permeates our culture so deeply that it can go unrecognized until someone blurts out such a jarring statement. (And yes, as the story illustrates, women, too, can be infected with insidious forms of bias that limit and hurt the opportunities for girls.)
It probably doesn’t come as news to you that girls and women face gender bias that can limit their opportunities and discourage their participation in many activities. But not everyone understands the subtle ways that gender bias holds women back—and the ways that three interrelated forms of bias reinforce one another. I’m referring to the belief that science is for boys, not girls; that entrepreneurship comes naturally to men, not to women; and that leaders in general are male rather than female. All three of these stereotypes are false, despite the fact that they are deeply ingrained in our society—so deeply, in fact, that many of us are influenced by them without even realizing it. And all three are closely intertwined, each bias strengthening and supporting the others, and thereby creating a wall against female achievement that is surprisingly difficult to overcome.
That pattern of interlocking gender barriers is the big problem I’ve devoted my life to solving. It’s a pattern that stands in the way of empowering girls and women in our society . . . which means it not only deprives women of the opportunities to succeed and strive for what they deserve and want, but it also deprives our society as a whole of the talent, creativity, and energy that half our population can contribute.
I learned how these interlocking biases work in the most painful way possible—by experiencing them firsthand.
As I explained in the introduction, I was a very lucky young girl. I grew up with parents who nurtured my curiosity and my interests in science and math. They inspired my confidence and self-esteem by encouraging me to dream big and follow my passion. They encouraged me to fly by refusing to clip my wings; they made it feel safe to explore my ideas and try new things. As a result, I never saw a difference between boys and girls and I was not afraid to ask silly questions or go down the unpaved roads. I had the opportunity to reach my fullest potential and develop the talents that have helped me enjoy a successful career as an engineer, a professor, and an entrepreneur.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the world is as accustomed to seeing girls in STEM, entrepreneurship, and leadership. And like many women, I’ve experienced my own share of gender bias, whether unconscious, explicit, or institutionalized, throughout my journey.
I’ll never forget my years in grad school, working late hours doing research in the lab and handling toxic bone-eating chemicals in order to create a new way to treat cancer patients. I was twenty-seven and weighing the tough choice between starting a family and waiting until I finished my PhD, as many women in academia do. After much deliberation, I decided not to wait, and I got pregnant at age twenty-eight. I worked in the lab until the day my water broke and returned just five weeks after my son was born.
Shortly after I resumed working, I was scheduled to make a presentation at a scientific conference in Europe. I’d been warned that if I missed this opportunity, I might forfeit ownership of my research project. So here I was on a plane to Vienna with my five-week-old son, nervously trying to breastfeed him under the disapproving stare of the male business traveler sitting next to me. Thankfully, the stewardess was a cordial British woman who responded to the businessman’s complaints by explaining that breastfeeding is “very natural,” and allowed him to move to an empty seat in the back of the plane. I spent the conference in Vienna, seeking quiet corners in which to breastfeed my son between sessions spent preparing and presenting my talk.
Things weren’t much better in my own lab. At the time, there was no such thing as a lactation room at the university. I had to use the janitor’s closet, where I would turn on a red light that could be seen from the outside, then jury-rig a chair to jam the door shut for fifteen minutes while I pumped breast milk, surrounded by mops and cleaning supplies.
Not all women in male-dominated fields experience moments like that—but far too many do. And while each incident on its own doesn’t seem like a big deal, they are like small paper cuts that build upon one another. No wonder countless women have chosen to step away from science-oriented or entrepreneurial fields for which they have a natural affinity and talent. It’s our job as parents, educators, and mentors to catch these women while they’re still young, and to give them the confidence and encouragement to push through the paper cuts and follow their passions.
To play this supportive role for the girls in our lives, it helps to understand the three forms of interlocking gender bias and the ways they work together to discourage women from becoming scientists, entrepreneurs, and leaders.
PROBLEM 1: “SCIENCE IS FOR BOYS”
THE FIRST PIECE OF THE PUZZLE IS THE CULTURAL BIAS THAT DISCOURAGES girls and women from pursuing their interests in science, technology, engineering, and math—the all-important STEM fields.
We live in a world that is shaped by scientific technologies. In the last century alone, we’ve had unprecedented innovations, giving us the ability to easily travel and communicate across the globe, to get goods and services delivered almost instantly on demand, and to enjoy fingertip access to the knowledge of all humankind. Advances in agriculture have dramatically reduced the number of people living in poverty, and medical miracles have extended life spans and enabled millions to live more productive and happier lives. All of these innovations are based in STEM.
Furthermore, STEM is still increasing. According to experts at the World Economic Forum, we are at the beginning of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, and big data are all amplifying one another and building upon each other. Breakthroughs like nanobots that can diagnose and cure diseases, nonpolluting and renewable energy sources careers, and driverless cars are all on the horizon.
As a result, careers are changing rapidly. Experts predict that roughly 65 percent of children entering primary schools today will work in jobs that don’t currently exist, with titles like organ designer, virtual reality architect, drone programmer, and genetic administrator. Entrepreneurship and STEM skills are increasingly being recognized as the skills required for success in today’s increasingly challenging, fast-paced, unpredictable world—and not just in business, but in every field imaginable. Whether you are an artist, an attorney, a teacher, or a physician, your future career will be shaped and empowered by technology.
This is all very exciting, but there is a big problem. We are leaving girls behind. Almost half the population is effectively cut off from full participation in the future simply because of insidious gender biases that discourage girls from engaging with science and technology.
As early as preschool, girls in our society begin to absorb unconscious stereotypes. There is an entire industry built around princesses—toys, costumes, posters, decor, and bedroom furniture. Girls are set on a particular, narrow track when they’re given Barbie dolls and quietly discouraged from playing with Lego blocks or other building toys. The funneling can be as subtle and unintentional as the holiday and birthday presents chosen for girls by well-meaning relatives and friends.
The track is reinforced when girls see boys depicted in the media as leaders, science whizzes, and problem-solvers, while they are usually relegated to the role of damsels in distress. It begins as soon as they start watching YouTube, TV shows, or movies with their parents. These early influences are crucial. Studies of the brain show that neural pathways affecting the way girls and boys perceive the world are created at a very young age. That’s why subliminal messages kids begin to absorb as toddlers really matter.
Like a lot of America, I laugh at the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory. It’s nice to see a hit TV show that is about physicists and scientists. But I also wonder: Does it have to focus on four geeky male scientists and Penny, the cute, blond, “babe-alicious” waitress and aspiring actress who lives next door? (Babe-alicious isn’t my word. It’s how the publicists at the CBS television network describe Penny’s character in promoting the show.)
Admittedly, after the initial seasons of The Big Bang Theory, the show’s producers did add some female characters who are involved in science and technology. They include Amy Fowler, a neurobiologist played by actress Mayim Bialik, who actually has a PhD in neuroscience (earned at UCLA in 2007). Unfortunately, though, strong female characters like her have remained relatively rare in media, and don’t give girls the confidence that normal, everyday women can become scientists.
Furthermore, the treatment of science in movies follows the same insidious pattern, as numerous research studies have shown. For example, a 2015 study sponsored by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that in 120 popular films recently produced in countries around the world, the ratio of male to female characters depicted as having STEM careers was greater than seven to one (88.4 percent to 11.6 percent). In case you are wondering, films made in the United States were not noticeably better than those produced in other countries—just 12.5 percent of characters with STEM careers in US-made pictures were female. And this gross imbalance can’t be excused by saying that the filmmakers are merely reflecting an unfortunate social reality. In fact, the gender imbalance in movies is worse than that in real life, since in the United States about 24 percent of STEM jobs are held by women.
Once girls and boys start school, the subliminal messages tend to lead to hardened biases. We know from research that girls begin their education with the same potential as boys to be leaders and innovators in math, science, and technology fields—and with virtually the same level of interest and enthusiasm. Yet, over time, the picture dramatically changes. Girls begin to make determinations about their own math and science aptitude as early as second and third grade. Many are steered away from these subjects by well-meaning but biased and unthinking teachers or counselors. When boys suffer setbacks in mastering tough math and science topics, they’re often provided with encouragement, support, and resources (like tutoring). When girls hit the same roadblocks, they’re often allowed to quit or told that math isn’t for them. As a result, they imbibe the message “I’m just not smart at math and science.”
By their teens, girls may lack the confidence to push forward in math and science. They are often discouraged. They may lack a mentor. Chances are, they’ve never met a woman in science, technology, or math. In STEM classes, they exhibit what I call a “nurtured apprehension” that prevents them from standing up and speaking up. Many have been taught to drop out instead of having the confidence to pursue their interests.
By the time girls reach high school, the damage is done. For example, while roughly half of high school students taking physics are girls, they are taking fewer Advanced Placement (AP) courses and AP tests. And even when they are sitting for AP exams, they are scoring sharply lower than their male classmates, suggesting that they are unlikely to continue with physics. Of US teens polled in a 2013 survey by the Department of Labor, just 16 percent of girls expressed possible interest in STEM careers, compared with 30 percent of boys—and the imbalance has gotten worse rather than better in recent years.
GIRLS AREN’T THE ONLY VICTIMS OF THE STEM GAP
In the United States, females aren’t the only group shortchanged when it comes to opportunities to study and pursue STEM subjects. There are big gaps that also impact various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Research by the National Science Foundation shows that white and Asian/Pacific Islander students and those from higher-income families consistently score higher than their counterparts who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian/Alaska Native, as well as those from lower-income families.
High school students enrolled in beginning-level science courses in 2012 at comparable rates, regardless of sex and race and ethnicity. However, students with less-educated parents or of lower socioeconomic status were less likely to take these courses. Furthermore, black and Hispanic students are much less likely than white students to enroll in advanced science and math courses. Unfortunately, these gaps start in kindergarten and multiply and expand at higher educational levels.
The problem of racial and economic disparities in achievement is beyond the direct scope of this book. But it compounds the challenges faced by female students who may also be members of ethnic minorities or economically disadvantaged—challenges that become more difficult at higher rungs of the achievement ladder. Thus, for example, in 2012, while minority women earned 11.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering, they earned just 4.1 percent of doctorate degrees in the same fields This is a real problem in a world where advanced training is often a ticket to the best jobs and the greatest opportunities.
College brings a new set of challenges for young women. One pervasive problem is so-called gateway classes, designed to weed out less-talented students by breaking them down. They are supertough courses that by design will cause at least one-quarter of the students to feel so incompetent, so ill prepared, so dumb, and so hopeless that they flunk, drop the course, or change to an easier major. You may have glimpsed scenes from gateway courses in popular culture: Think of the movies in which a professor standing before a large classroom tells the nervous freshmen, “Look to the student on your left. Now look to your right. One of the three of you will not be here at graduation.”
Gateway classes are especially prevalent in science and engineering departments and, combined with discouraging social cues and a lack of role models, often serve as a barrier to aspiring young women. Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and the president of Harvey Mudd College, notes that “in many colleges these courses are seen by female students as a way to prove that you belong. Gateway courses capitalize on the fear of failure and nullify love of learning. They are based on the old thinking of a “fixed mind-set,” the belief that intelligence is fixed and you can’t do much to improve it. It’s a self-limiting belief system, and one I’ll discuss further later in this chapter.
Computer science and engineering are tough, rigorous majors for virtually everyone. It’s no different for men than women. But for women, it’s hard to continue fighting their way upstream when there are few other women and few role models, and their own instructors are saying, in essence, “You’re not good enough and never will be.” It’s a lot for a young woman to take on alone, or nearly alone, when other fields are more inviting.
I’ve interviewed many students who’ve experienced the emotional impact of gateway classes. Grace Frye, a bright and motivated undergraduate at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, said:
I got an e-mail from my professor on August 1, a month before school started, saying, “You need to do this pre-work. People who don’t do the pre-work typically withdraw or fail.” The way we talk about computer science classes is a little morbid. People say things like, “That assignment killed me” or “I died.” I had a stone pit in my stomach. Whenever I thought about that class, I felt sick. It doesn’t create an environment where I feel like I can go to my professor to ask questions, or where I can feel comfortable not knowing the right answer.
According to Maria Klawe, many institutions are trying to identify where gateway courses exist and change them. At Harvey Mudd, for example, students collaborate as teams, knowing that each of them has the potential to learn and succeed.
But evidence suggests that gender bias in sciences continues to be a major problem at US universities. A 2012 Yale University study found that science professors at American universities widely regarded women undergraduates as less competent than men with the same skills and accomplishments. As a result, professors were less likely to mentor women students. When presented with two imaginary job applicants of equal education and achievements, one male and one female, the professors were more likely to choose the man, and those job offers that women did receive were for salaries on average four thousand dollars lower than those offered to the imaginary men. The study concluded that the bias was an “outgrowth of subconscious cultural influences.”
As a result of these and other factors, women with interests and talents related to science tend to drift away from the STEM fields during their college years. The consequences have been perverse. While opportunities for technology careers have exploded since 2000, the percentage of young women majoring in engineering has hovered, unchanged, at about 20 percent for a generation. Even more startling, fewer women today are pursuing computer science degrees than in the 1970s and 1980s, when women made up one-quarter of all computer science students in the nation’s colleges and universities. Today, women make up just 18 percent of the computer science majors.
Matters don’t get any better when young women enter the workforce. A study of more than a thousand women in engineering by the Anita Borg Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in technology, shows that the main reasons talented women drop out of technology careers are related to deeply ingrained cultural practices and prejudices against women. They include:
- Poor working conditions: no advancement, too many hours, low salary (30 percent)
- Poor work-life integration: inadequate time with family, conflict with family, or too much travel (27 percent)
- Unattractive work opportunities: uninteresting work or unappealing daily tasks (22 percent)
- Negative organizational climate: unsupportive culture, boss, or coworkers (17 percent)
Sometimes subtle systemic problems make career choices especially difficult for women. Graham Weston, cofounder and former chairman and CEO of Rackspace, says that one of the challenges in hiring women for high-ranking positions in his technology company is the so-called trailing spouse problem. Since most of the female job candidates he interviews are married to men with equally demanding careers, a job offer that requires a woman to make a geographic move—not uncommon in today’s highly mobile business world—is likely to conflict with her husband’s work. In past generations, when men held nearly all of the high-powered jobs, it was assumed that a wife would simply pull up stakes whenever her husband’s job required a move. Now the trailing spouse can be of either gender—and too few men have yet developed the willingness to sacrifice their own career preferences in support of their ambitious wives. “We sometimes end up making offers to five highly qualified women,” Weston says, “only to get turned down by all five because their husbands weren’t willing to move.”
In some cases, old-fashioned male chauvinism is alive and well, even in our supposedly “politically correct” era. The Nobel Prize–winning British biochemist Tim Hunt caused a scandal when he spoke more frankly than most about his “problem” with women in science in a 2015 speech before the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Hunt said. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” He offered this as a justification for his policy of maintaining an all-male environment for his own scientific studies.
Hunt’s statement was quickly disavowed by the British Royal Society, the country’s most prestigious science organization. It also led to a global backlash that included hundreds of Twitter posts using the hashtag #distractinglysexy, in which female scientists posted photos of themselves in lab coats, hard hats, and safety goggles. Still, most women in science will tell you that Hunt probably speaks for many male colleagues who are simply more cautious about expressing what they really think about women in the lab.
If anyone still doubts that young women face discouragement because of their gender, consider the story of Barbara Barres, who was a prominent female neurobiologist at Stanford University.
As a female student at MIT, Barres experienced the usual subtle and not-so-subtle forms of bias most STEM-oriented women have faced. For example, when she solved a particularly tough math problem in an advanced class, her professor remarked, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.”
Barres’s perspective on the problem deepened in a unique way when she got breast cancer in her forties. In the wake of her illness, confronting the fact that being a woman had been a lifelong agony for her, she decided not only to have a double mastectomy, but also to change gender. Today Ben Barres is chairman of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine, a top-drawer scientist by any measure. Thus Barres has had the rare experience of living both as a woman and as a man, and has known life and work in all kinds of scientific circles and situations from both perspectives.
To his surprise, Ben Barres found that living as a man dramatically changed the way people react to him. “Shortly after I changed sexes, I gave a seminar about my research at MIT. One of my friends told me that afterward, as they were leaving, one of his colleagues said, ‘Gee, that Ben Barres’s work is so much better than his sister Barbara’s!’”
Barres can testify from firsthand experience that society treats men and women differently solely based on their gender. His conclusion: “In general, society assumes a man is competent until proven otherwise, and a woman is considered incompetent until proven otherwise. This creates terribly unfair barriers for talented women in science.” Barres now devotes part of his time to helping women get a foothold in science.
The picture is a sadly consistent one, from preschool through adulthood: At every stage in their lives, talented females with an aptitude for math, science, and technology face cultural and psychological barriers that block the road to achievement.
This is a problem that I and many other like-minded leaders are working to solve. And it is compounded by the way it is linked to two other problems.
PROBLEM 2: “A BUSINESS FOUNDER IS A GUY”
THE CULTURAL BARRIERS THAT DISCOURAGE WOMEN FROM COMMITTING TO math and science also send discouraging messages about women and business. This leads to the second problem—the lack of women business founders and the resulting dearth of women-led businesses contributing to economic growth and dynamism.
Cultural stereotypes tell girls that business leaders are men, not women. Here, as with science and technology, media messages reflect the problem and help to perpetuate it. For example, the same study I cited earlier that shows the paucity of female film characters with STEM careers also documents the overwhelming prevalence of men depicted as business leaders in films. In movies from around the world, women constitute less than 14 percent of characters shown as members of corporate “C-suites”—that is, chief executive officers (CEOs), chief financial officers, and other “chiefs.” The same bias applies to the depiction of other high-powered business leaders—investors, financiers, law partners, and the like. In many cases, the percentage of women shown as leaders in specific industries in movies is even lower than the low numbers found in real life.
Unfortunately, the real-life business world is another place where women find it terribly difficult to make headway. One small, shocking illustration: Not only is the number of women who serve as CEOs of big corporations appallingly low, but it is also actually smaller than the number of CEOs who are men named John! (To be precise, of the giant companies listed in the Standard & Poor’s Composite 500 Index, 4.1 percent are headed by women . . . while Johns are in charge at 5.3 percent. By the way, Davids also outnumber women, with 4.5 percent of the top spots.)
Boards of directors are barely better. A study by Ernst & Young found that only 16 percent of the board seats for the fifteen hundred companies in the S&P 500 are held by women. Among smaller companies, it is even worse. Women hold only 15 percent of the board seats at the S&P MidCap 400 companies, and only 12 percent at the S&P SmallCap 600. While smaller than those in the S&P 500, each company in the MidCap group is valued at well over $1 billion, and some are household names.
Once women get a toehold in business, they often find they are judged by unfair and unequal standards. One study of 248 performance reviews shared by 180 people in twenty-eight different companies, from large technology corporations to smaller businesses, found that reviews of women were sharply more critical than of men. For example, 71 percent of women’s reviews included critical feedback, compared with just 2 percent of men’s reviews. Did the women truly merit that much more criticism? How did this affect the future career advancement of the employees involved?
The culture of discouragement is expressed in countless less-formal ways. I don’t know a single woman in the technology industry who hasn’t experienced unconscious gender bias. Sometimes it seems as if combating bias is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Just when you’ve eliminated a bias, another instance pops up where you weren’t looking.
It is particularly troubling when bias masquerades as cultural sensitivity. Business executive Catherine Crago describes her experience of being shut out for fear a woman wouldn’t be accepted. “When I was working for a US-based consulting firm,” she says, “they didn’t let a woman lead the team because they thought their Taiwanese clients couldn’t handle it . . . so men with less experience and knowledge were put in charge.” Yet at the time, women in Taiwan actually headed several leading companies in the same industry, giving the lie to the excuse offered by the American consulting firm.
Women joke about the pervasiveness of gender bias in business with lines like “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” But beneath the humor is raw, painful truth.
PROBLEM 3: “A LEADER LOOKS LIKE A MAN”
THE THIRD, BROADEST PART OF THE PROBLEM IS THE PERVASIVE LACK OF self-confidence among too many girls and women—a hesitance to assert our leadership abilities due to the fact that our society overwhelmingly assumes that leadership positions of all kinds naturally belong to men.
Here, again, media stereotypes play a powerful role. Think for just a moment about the way girls are depicted in literature, children’s movies, and TV. It’s great that there are female heroines in so many of the stories we tell our kids—except that, in too many cases, the princesses are depicted as passive victims reliant on the princes who rescue them.
Many of the most popular and oft-repeated fairy tales would have us believe that girls are delicate and sensitive. In “The Princess and the Pea,” the real princess can be recognized by her ability to sense, and be disturbed by, a pea beneath her mattress. Can you imagine the powerful tennis pro Serena Williams being disturbed by a tiny pea? Or women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai? Or astronaut Sally Ride? Or business leaders and entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg or Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx?
Unfortunately, harmful gender stereotypes are so pervasive in our mass media that avoiding them is almost impossible. I challenge you to try to think of a few female leads in cartoons or shows that children watch. How many can you come up with? Almost none. If you came up with the Powerpuff Girls, congratulations. Unfortunately, they’re portrayed as cute little girls with abnormally large doe eyes, creations of an evil professor who attempted to create perfect little girls using “sugar and spice and everything nice,” until his experiment went awry. Dora the Explorer works for a year or two, but my kids stopped watching the show around age three. Then there is Johnny Test and his genius scientist sisters; however, the premise of the cartoon is that he is the hero, and his sisters’ experiments often cause problems that he must resolve.
Can’t television and movie producers develop a girl character who is as inventive, brave, and adventurous as the boy characters? Or how about as inventive, brave, and adventurous as girls I know? And how about counterbalancing princess stories with a gritty alternative?
One of my favorite children’s books is The Paper Bag Princess. Instead of the princess being rescued by the prince, she fights off a dragon and saves them both. When her finery is scorched and her skin made sooty by the dragon’s fiery breath, the resourceful princess cuts openings in a brown paper bag and wears it. This turns off the prince, who cannot even acknowledge that she saved his life. But by then she sees him for what he is—a nitpicking, entitled, ungrateful coward—and goes off happily on her own.
The 2017 Wonder Woman movie, starring Gal Gadot and directed by the female director Patty Jenkins, is another positive exception. It portrays a strong, curious, and brave female lead who saves the world, defeating an evil female scientist along the way.
Unfortunately, TV shows and films depicting strong women leaders are few and far between. The impact of this pervasive stereotyping becomes apparent in the early grades of school.
You may know Amy Cuddy from her widely viewed TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” Quite by accident, she and her colleagues began studying the role of gender in children’s body language when they launched a social developmental study “to identify the age at which kids start to associate expansive body posture with power and contractive postures with powerlessness.” They showed sixty children—thirty four-year-olds and thirty six-year-olds—images of gender-neutral dolls. What they found was a startling increase in “male-power bias” by age six. “[W]hile both groups showed a strong male-power gender bias, compared to the four-year-olds, the six-year-olds were about three times as likely to see every powerful doll as male and every powerless doll as female. And there were no differences between the scores of girls and boys—they were equally biased,” according to Cuddy.
As girls enter puberty, the effects of stereotyping express themselves in a gradual loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. Girls tend to defer to boys in class, even when they know as much or more. Their body language is hesitant. When they do raise their hands, it’s often timidly. And when they don’t get called on, they tend to shut down even further.
A study by the American Association of University Women found that around the age of nine, girls were confident and assertive, but by the time they reached high school less than a third of girls felt this way. The survey also showed that boys lost some sense of self-esteem, but far less than the girls.
Part of the problem, says Londa Schiebinger, author of Has Feminism Changed Science?, is that “girls are raised to be modest, while boys learn to exaggerate their intelligence, their successes, their prospects in life, and even their height. Girls who have been trained to underestimate their talents encounter boys who overestimate their talents; the girls take the boys’ estimations of their skills at face value and think even worse of themselves.”
What is the cost of women’s lack of confidence? Schiebinger calculates that it takes four hundred ninth-grade boys, but two thousand ninth-grade girls, to produce one PhD scientist.
By the time they get into college, says Dr. Bruce Porter, professor and former chairman of the Computer Science Department at the University of Texas at Austin, “the men have two qualities that most women lack. They are cocksure. They speak out with confidence, even when it’s unwarranted. And they have Teflon baked into their fiber. When they’re mistaken, when they get a critique that would devastate most women, the men don’t take it personally. They bounce right along and keep going.”
The American Association of University Women study I discussed earlier supports Dr. Porter’s assertion, demonstrating that when girls perform poorly in math, they internalize it as personal failure, whereas boys brush it off as a subject that was not useful. This internalization demonstrates something that I also touched on briefly earlier—the attitude that renowned psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set.
A person with a fixed mind-set believes that she only has a “fixed amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character.” According to Dweck, having a fixed mind-set “creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. . . . It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”
Dweck’s research shows that, over time, girls and boys develop different views about what they can accomplish, and that difference is often rooted in the way girls and boys are praised. Girls are frequently praised for being “good” or “smart” or “pretty” (that is, for their innate qualities), while boys are often praised for “trying hard” (that is, for their effort). Girls are told to be good girls and not to get their dresses dirty, while boys are told to play in the mud and be adventurous.
While these compliments from parents and loved ones are well-meaning, they are counterproductive and put an expectation on girls to believe in their labels. Many girls believe that they have to do well to prove they are smart. They start believing the media messages telling them to diet and wear makeup in order to prove they are beautiful. And when challenges arise, they play it safe in order to live up to their labels and to avoid being seen as failures.
The differing levels of self-confidence in boys and girls continue to impact women throughout their lives and even affect the ability of women to simply ask for what they need. Speaking up about what you want doesn’t appear on any list of academic subjects or professional skills, yet it’s a skill that can make an enormous difference in a girl’s prospects for life.
“Just the prospect of asking is assertive,” observes Nick Hahn:
It requires confidence, and there’s an element of risk. You may ask for things and get turned down. So asking for things is an issue for girls. There’s a good chance you’ll fail. But you also might prevail. If you see asking as part of what you do, you can become good at it and go shoulder to shoulder with anyone.
Depending on the kind of environment you grow up in, being assertive and asking for what you want may seem almost impossible or may seem to be the most natural thing in the world. Graham Weston, chairman and CEO of Rackspace, reflects on this using an example from his own family life:
Recently my son told me about how he’d bought a thirty-dollar ticket to some event, then realized he couldn’t go. Of course, he didn’t want to waste the thirty dollars, but the ticket said “nonrefundable” on it. Still, he didn’t take that for an answer. He called up the box office, explained the situation, and asked whether he could get his money back—and the manager at the other end of the line agreed to give him a refund.
When I asked my son how he’d gotten the idea to do that, he said, “Dad, you taught us to ask for what we want.” I never did it consciously. But I guess my kids grew up watching me behave that way, and they saw that it worked. So now it comes naturally to them.
If they’d grown up in a different kind of family, that’s a lesson they might never have learned. It’s certainly not something you learn in school. School isn’t about making exceptions—it’s about enforcing the rules. So in school, you’re taught that asking for what you want is kind of rude. It’s a problem for a lot of kids—and especially for girls.
All too often, the battered sense of self-confidence that girls develop even before they start school persists through high school and college, and into their work lives. When the time comes for leaders to step forward—on the job, in the community, in politics, and in every setting—men are more likely to push themselves ahead, while women with greater talent tend to hang back and are often hesitant to ask for the resources they need to succeed.
Not only the women, but also society as a whole suffers profoundly as a result.
COMBATING THE PROBLEMS
JASON SEATS IS A TECH ENTREPRENEUR AND A PARTNER AT TECHSTARS Ventures. Most important, he’s the father of a daughter, Isla, and a son, Gus. Seats has done a lot of thinking about the gender gap in tech and categorizes gender biases in two buckets: biases that repel women from attempting STEM and entrepreneurial paths and biases that cause them to be unsuccessful within these paths.
The first bucket involves messages and language, and Seats describes it as “‘easyish’ to quantify and fix—correcting folks to say ‘women’ instead of ‘girls’ when referring to adults; making sure that the marketing material for startups or tech jobs doesn’t have all white males in the photos; teaching recruiters that job ads for ‘expert rock star ninja programmers’ repel many women candidates.”
The second bucket is more insidious, unconscious, and opaque. “It has to do with individual behaviors and power structures,” Seats explains:
People tend to choose other people to work with or promote who are most similar to them. Without correcting for that, a majority group in control turns into a super majority very quickly. A group of male executives running a company are extremely likely to put policies and patterns in place that will feel more familiar to people who are similar. It shouldn’t be surprising that a male-dominated company is easier for a man to navigate politically than it is for a woman.
As Seats observes, changing people and their behavior is hard work that takes a long time. But many groups and individuals are working on the problem. The Girl Scouts is the original organization for empowering girls. While it once offered awards, badges, and patches mainly for typical “girl” activities, it has expanded to promote girls’ STEM and innovation activities. In July 2017, the Girl Scouts announced a new batch of twenty-three badges dedicated to science and outdoor subjects. Girl Scouts can now earn recognition for STEM-based activities like Design a Robot, Animal Habitats, Digital Photographer, Inventor, and the Model Car Design Challenge. Meanwhile, the Girl Scouts’ classic cookie sales remain the most widespread entrepreneurial experience for girls in the United States.
Another group leading the battle for change is Girls Who Code. Since its start in 2012, it has brought relevant computer science experiences like summer immersion to the lives of tens of thousands of young girls nationwide to inspire them to pursue studies in technology and engineering.
Then there’s the most visible, rollicking STEM event in the world, the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, held annually since 2006. It now draws more than ten thousand women and six hundred presenters from more than fifty countries in a glorious exchange of ideas, inspirations, camaraderie, and entrepreneurial energy. It’s where college students go to become part of the next wave of women to embark on STEM careers.
Still, groups like these are continuing to fight an uphill battle. The three forms of bias I’ve described are deeply intertwined and firmly embedded in the culture and mores of our society. It isn’t hard to see how they work together in producing the female empowerment gap.
In a world where technology is driving most of the major changes in business, in economics, in lifestyles, and in society as a whole, the exclusion of women from science and math means that they are condemned to relative powerlessness. The scanty numbers of women in STEM fields are an underlying cause of the lack of women as business founders and leaders. With so many businesses today based on technological breakthroughs—and with the mathematical disciplines of economics, finance, and investing playing such a key role in the world of business—the exclusion of women from STEM leads almost inevitably to a lack of women in the ranks of corporate leaders.
And both of these trends are closely interwoven with the third problem—the lack of self-confidence that plagues so many women in our society. When you see relatively few role models who resemble you in the ranks of STEM leaders and business leaders, it’s understandable that you will suffer from self-doubt and a sense of inadequacy. And the hesitancy and timidity that these feelings produce only make it more difficult for young women to break through the cultural barriers and assert themselves as potential leaders—a vicious cycle that perpetuates the second-class citizenship of women.
Through my research and my experiences, I have found that we must take a bottom-up approach and address this when girls are young. If we really want to create a culture change we must start by giving girls confidence and showing boys that girls are equally as capable.
Because these three problems are so tightly connected, tackling just one of them isn’t likely to be effective if we want to close the female empowerment gap. Instead, a real solution must address all three, and do so in a way that transforms the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle of self-reinforcing, positive change. That’s the kind of solution I’ll describe in Part Two of this book. It will serve as the foundation for a detailed, step-by-step recipe you can use to implement the solution in your own family, school, or community, which I’ll provide in Part Three.
Daring, Risking, Growing:The Entrepreneurial Spirit at School, at Work, in Life
THE CONCEPT OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS CRUCIAL TO CLOSING THE FEMALE empowerment gap and to our country’s future in the global economy. To understand why, you need to know what I mean exactly by entrepreneurship.
Let’s begin by looking at the story of Bri Connelly, a millennial (still in her twenties) who has fearlessly followed her passions and mapped one of the more remarkable entrepreneurial career stories I know.
Connelly studied computer science at the University of Texas and was lucky enough to intern during her school years with three of the world’s leading information technology companies—IBM, Apple, and Google. She also got to be part of a class project powered by Watson, the IBM supercomputer that is exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (and became famous in 2011 when it won a groundbreaking competition on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!). After graduating, she joined Google as an associate product manager, where she works on projects that include Gboard, Google’s name for the keyboard it has created for its smartphone operating system.
It’s an impressive high-tech resume that probably makes Connelly sound like a classic techie. But computer science wasn’t on Connelly’s radar as she was growing up in Portland, Oregon. Her father worked in software, and like most kids, she wanted to do something different than her parents. She was good at math and science, but she also loved reading, making short movies, and performing and recording music. She fantasized about being a rock star.
Above all, she was a dancer. At the age of three, she began dancing and never stopped. As she grew older, she joined a dance company and danced every day after school—often for three hours at a stretch—before turning to her homework. To accomplish this while leaving time for school, hanging out with friends, and the other things kids like to do, she developed time management skills that would rival those of any corporate executive.
Dance shaped her life. She learned to accept constructive criticism of the thousands of microfailures on the way to mastery. “Nothing is as bad as some of the things that are said during dance class,” she recalls. “When your ballet teacher is yelling at you while you’re looking at yourself in the mirror in a leotard, it’s personal.”
Dance helped Connelly learn to stretch her abilities and challenge herself. “I looked up to the older girls in the dance studio,” Connelly says, “and saw them do all these tricks. I would practice over and over again. Even if I didn’t have a class, if there was an open studio, I would be there practicing that move that I couldn’t do. Practicing and being able to be bad at those tricks in front of a room of girls made me less afraid to try things that I think I won’t be good at. I learned not to say no just because I was afraid of things.”
Competitive dance strengthens not only the body but also the brain, blending thoughts and sensations with muscle memory for peak performance. Neuroscientists tell us that dancers use and strengthen the sense of proprioception, a function centered in the cerebellum that guides the position and strength of a body in motion.
“When you’re learning a routine, sometimes you have to learn it really fast,” Connelly says. “You learn a two-minute routine in an hour. That ability for fast memorization still helps me today. It’s a mental puzzle and it keeps your mind fully engaged. I find myself being really good at memorizing and remembering small details, and I think a lot of that ability comes from dance.”
By the time Connelly left home for college, her cumulative time spent practicing dance had exceeded the magical number of ten thousand hours, which author Malcolm Gladwell identifies in his bestselling book Outliers as a key to attaining mastery of any difficult skill.2 She also spent hundreds of hours in high school on social activities like student council and the drill team—and just a few hours on the single, one-semester computer class she took.
But having developed an array of powerful achievement-driving abilities—including self-discipline, drive, concentration, problem-solving talent, and sheer grit—Connelly was ready for the spark that would ignite her career aspirations. It turned out to be a movie—The Social Network, filmmaker Aaron Sorkin’s 2010 story of Mark Zuckerberg and his founding of Facebook.
The movie reminded Connelly of the fun she’d had more than a decade earlier when she, like thousands of other girls, had connected with friends old and new by creating her own space on MySpace (the pioneering social network that would ultimately be displaced by Facebook). But more than that, she was inspired by the way the movie captured the excitement of creating something entirely new. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do that, too, whether it’s starting a company, or just making an app or a website that people use—a cool project that involves lots of different skills. The best way was to get a degree in computer science.’”
Connelly figured that mastering computers would be relatively easy. Until college, she hadn’t truly, utterly failed at anything. Even tough subjects had always been easy for her.
“There was a shock of going from being one of the smartest kids in your school to being what I interpreted as the dumbest kid at school. I was part of the honors program at UT [the University of Texas], so it was really tough. And I’d just started programming, while everyone else had started when they were twelve.” And, of course, Connelly’s classmates were overwhelmingly male.
Connelly flunked her first programming project and went sobbing to her advisor, telling him she was going to drop her major. He advised her to stick with it for one more project. She did, and she failed that one, too. Connelly was sorely tempted to quit. Like so many women, she was suffering from what psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes dubbed the impostor syndrome. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of Womenomics, describe the impostor syndrome as the deep-seated belief that you’re a failure and fraud with no business even trying to succeed.
Again, Connelly’s advisor convinced her to ride out her tears and to stay in for just “one more project.” And somehow she found herself beginning to shake off the chains imposed by the impostor syndrome. “I began to realize that everyone else was doing badly, too,” she recalls. “They just didn’t tell me. Especially the boys would act like they knew everything, and if you failed a project, you were so dumb. But in reality, they were all failing their projects, too.”
Within a semester, Connelly found her grounding force—the network of female role models, mentors, and colleagues who wanted to support her in her personal quest. She got involved in the group Women in Computer Science and became president of her university’s local chapter. She traveled to Houston to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, where she saw thousands of women from around the world who, like her, were hoping to change the world through computing creativity.
In 2015, IBM invited students from ten universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, to “develop something cool” using genius computer Watson. That semester, Connelly happened to be taking a class taught by the UT computing department chairman, Bruce Porter. She quickly found herself the only female participant on the Watson project and, just as quickly, becoming project leader. Connelly says that, even as a child, she was “a bossy little girl,” the kind of negative characterization often used to describe girls who would be simply called “leaders” if they were boys. Now she had a chance to show her leadership skills without being faulted for them.
Her team studied different societal problems that they could solve with vision, algorithms, and software, and they settled on her original idea, “to do something that impacted people outside of our privileged technology world.” They came up with a plan for using the tremendous intelligence of Watson to help low-income people to navigate the confusing array of social service bureaucracies to find the help they needed.
IBM flew each of the ten teams in the competition to New York, where the winning team would be announced and would receive $100,000 to fund its project in the form of a real startup business. It was Connelly’s responsibility to choose the five students who would represent the UT team in New York. “I was nervous about seeming rude,” she recalls, “so I made a Google poll and had everyone vote on the five hardest-working people.” Luckily the vote matched her own choices.
Connelly honestly didn’t know what to expect in New York. “UT was one of the few schools with a team that was all computer science majors. The other teams had designers, engineers, and business majors all working together. When we won the competition, we were shocked. It didn’t sink in until later that night. We came back to our hotel room and were planning to go out and celebrate. But instead we just sat in a room together and thought, ‘Wow, what are we going to do?’ We went from being just students to founders of a funded startup with six figures in the bank.”
Upon graduation from UT, Connelly was offered—and accepted—one of forty places in a highly selective Google class of new college graduates. Within the next five years, she hopes to be an entrepreneur running a startup business of her own, or, perhaps an “intrapreneur” within Google—a company employee charged with developing and launching new business ideas.
At its Silicon Valley corporate offices, Google encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time on projects unrelated to their present work. For Connelly, the choice of how to spend that time was easy. She teaches a dance class for Google employees.
ENTREPRENEURSHIP—THE ART OF OPPORTUNITY
FOR ME, PEOPLE LIKE BRI CONNELLY EPITOMIZE ENTREPRENEURSHIP—NOT just in her current work at Google; not just as the leader of the Watson team at the University of Texas, creating a business idea that earned $100,000 in funding; but in her entrepreneurial mind-set and her relentless pursuit of opportunity.
Entrepreneurship is not just about starting a business. It can happen in many contexts. It’s about recognizing opportunities, asking questions, developing skills, taking calculated risks, and solving problems. An entrepreneur is someone who achieves more than other people because she is curious, high-energy, eager to explore the world, continually learning, and willing to make mistakes along the way. Perhaps above all, entrepreneurship is about courage—the courage you need to try new things, to challenge conventional wisdom, and to take the road less traveled.
If you’ve never worked in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street, you may think that entrepreneurship has nothing to do with you. Think again.
Have you ever taken on a challenging assignment—at school, at work, in a social group, in your local community, at the PTA or the Girl Scouts or your church—and figured out a way to make it work?
Have you ever conceived a new method for handling some aspect of your job and found a way to implement it, thereby improving customer service, saving time and money, or otherwise making things just a little better than before?
Have you ever brought together a committee or team to tackle a tough task and figured out how to get people to overcome their differences and work together for a common cause?
Have you ever come up with a surprising solution to a tricky problem that left other people feeling baffled?
Have you ever agreed to try something you never did before, knowing you’d have to experiment, make mistakes, and probably fail a number of times before discovering the winning formula?
If you’ve done any of these things, you may well have a touch of entrepreneurial genius—even if you’ve never written a business plan, raised a dollar of investment capital, or signed a payroll check. You’ve shown the ability to recognize the opportunity hiding in what others consider merely a problem—and found a way to convert that opportunity into an accomplishment. And that’s what you have in common with those whom the world recognizes and admires as entrepreneurs, from Thomas Edison to Henry Ford, Estée Lauder to Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey to Mark Zuckerberg, Martha Stewart to Arianna Huffington.
What’s more, entrepreneurial skills like yours are increasingly being recognized as the skills required for success in today’s increasingly challenging, fast-paced, unpredictable world. And not just in business, but everywhere.
Artists, writers, performers, designers, and other creative people must use the entrepreneurial mind-set to figure out how to create and market products and services that will delight audiences and turn them into willing customers.
Leaders in nonprofit organizations and government agencies must employ the spirit of entrepreneurship to find ways to streamline their operations, provide meaningful help to people and communities in need, and accomplish great things on limited budgets.
Teachers, professors, academics, and scholars must develop the entrepreneurial ability to find new ways to use, share, and communicate the knowledge they have so that more and more people will recognize its value.
Doctors, nurses, therapists, and others in the healing professions must become entrepreneurial in seeking out innovative methods of bringing cures to the suffering, combining high-tech efficiency with high-touch compassion.
In a world awash with serious problems—income inequality, climate change, political conflict, global terrorism, rampant unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, racial discord, health care disparities, and so many more—we’re desperately in need of people who can bring the spirit of entrepreneurship to every walk of life. We need millions of young people with the drive, creativity, and grit of Bri Connelly to help us tackle these challenges and develop the innovative approaches we need to solve them.
ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND THE GROWTH MIND-SET
WHEN KIDS—ESPECIALLY GIRLS—ARE EXPOSED TO ENTREPRENEURIAL thinking, a profound change takes place. They become more aware of opportunities around them. They begin thinking more critically and creatively. Most important, they become more confident and adventurous in their ability to solve problems and tackle challenges.
I’ve already suggested some of the key traits that make up the entrepreneurial character. At VentureLab, we help girls learn to embody the following eleven traits:
- Courageous—recognizing that they can make great things happen if they dare to step outside their comfort zones.
- Unafraid to fail—able to redefine failure as an opportunity to learn and a launchpad for the next success or discovery.
- Persistent—characterized by the quality that bestselling author Angela Duckworth has called grit, a powerful blend of passion and resilience that enables people to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.
- Opportunity-seeking—continually thinking about things that go wrong in society and in the world at large, and looking for ways to make them go right, viewing problems as challenges waiting to be met.
- Problem-solving—actively exploring creative solutions to the challenges they see around them.
- Curious—continually asking “Why?” and “What if?” and seeking new ways of learning and doing.
- Empathetic—able to understand and share the feelings of others, and ready to think about their needs and problems.
- Optimistic—prone to focus on the positive potential in any situation rather than emphasizing the negatives and the possibility of failure.
- Resourceful—able and willing to “do a lot with a little,” finding ingenious solutions to problems based on whatever is available, without becoming discouraged over the lack of resources.
- Adaptable—ready to change directions and try new approaches while working on a project rather than rigidly clinging to an idea that appears flawed or incomplete.
- Equipped with a growth mind-set—aware that they have the power to stretch their brains and sharpen their minds, which enables them to achieve practically anything.
Think about this list of eleven traits. Doesn’t it capture some of the qualities that you have used when achieving any important success in your own life? And doesn’t it describe the attitudes and behaviors you would like to see in the young people you care about—including your own daughters, granddaughters, students, friends, and any others whose lives you touch?
Notice, too, that these entrepreneurial traits are relevant to so much more than just launching a business. These are traits that underlie success in practically every area of life. A young woman with these traits will be equipped to do well in the world of the twenty-first century no matter what path she chooses. She might start a new company, like those we commonly refer to as entrepreneurs. But she might also become an exceptionally valuable contributor to an existing business, or an unusually talented and productive artist, nonprofit manager, government employee, researcher, scientist, teacher, physician, lawyer, or anything else you can imagine—as well as a deeply engaged, informed, and caring citizen. That’s why I believe that bringing these eleven traits to the young women in our world is an essential element of solving the female empowerment gap.
One of the most important qualities on this list of eleven entrepreneurial traits is the idea of the growth mind-set—the idea formulated and described by the brilliant psychologist Carol Dweck that I mentioned in Chapter One.
The growth mind-set is the opposite of the fixed mind-set—a set of attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that all too many people, including young women, share. The fixed mind-set says that a person’s intelligence, personality traits, emotional attributes, and abilities are basically set in stone, determined and limited by some combination of genetic inheritance and childhood influences. Children who are trapped in the fixed mind-set may think of themselves as “bad at math,” “not smart,” “lousy at chemistry”—and they believe that their shortcomings are innate and unchangeable. Even children who believe they are intelligent can be resigned to being failures in certain subjects.
The fixed mind-set is often reinforced by environmental, familial, or cultural forces. A teacher who classifies and categorizes students as either “bright” or “dumb,” or who lowers the standards of achievement for kids who she assumes are doomed to failure, helps to spread the fixed mind-set. So does a parent who projects his or her own problems in school or disappointments in life onto a child, discouraging attempts to break the mold. And so do misguided messages from the media or from artifacts like the talking Barbie doll from the 1980s that told little girls, “Math class is tough!”
By contrast, the growth mind-set recognizes the reality that human behaviors, attitudes, and abilities are not fixed and unchangeable. In fact, they are capable of change, growth, and development to a degree that scientists are only now beginning to fully appreciate.
The growth mind-set concept incorporates what neuroscientists have been discovering about the ability of our brains to grow and evolve over time—a trait sometimes referred to as plasticity. Here is how Professor Lise Eliot of Rosalind Franklin University explains the concept:
[P]lasticity [is] an admittedly ugly term used to describe the very beautiful fact that the brain actually changes in response to its own experience. . . . Every physical feature of the human nervous system . . . responds to life experiences and is continually remodeled to adapt to them. . . .
Plasticity is the basis of all learning as well as the best hope for recovery after a brain injury. And in childhood, the brain is far more plastic, or malleable, than it is at any later stage of life—wiring itself in large measure according to the experiences in which it is immersed from prenatal life through adolescence.
Simply put, your brain is what you do with it.
People who understand and internalize the truth of the growth mind-set develop a different attitude toward themselves and their own abilities. They realize that any flaws or weaknesses they may have (or that others may perceive in them) are subject to change. When they make a mistake or fail at something, they don’t consider it evidence of their own immutable limitations; instead, they view it as an opportunity to learn, make adjustments, and improve, with the hope of succeeding next time.
And this attitude tends to be self-fulfilling. Those who adopt the growth mind-set usually find that it’s correct—because the optimism, energy, and determination that they bring to life and its challenges help to bring about the long-term success they foresee.
The big question, then, is this: Can children be induced to adopt the growth mind-set?
Carol Dweck and her colleagues set out to answer that question. They wanted to develop an intervention that they hoped could shift—maybe even transform—a fixed mind-set into a growth mind-set. So they devised an eight-week series of workshops that taught middle school children study skills, the workings of the brain, and how the brain can become stronger when they tackle challenging tasks. In other words, children learned that their brains can change, and they can get smarter. Meantime, a similar control group of students were taught only study skills.
The results of this experiment were astonishing. Children in the control group continued the downward decline in math grades that the majority of students experience in middle schools. But students who learned about how the brain can change earned better grades throughout the remaining school year by a factor of 0.3. In simple grade language, that means a student who might have made a C-plus now made a B-minus, and an A-minus became a solid A. Even months after the specific memories of the lessons had dimmed, children continued to apply what they’d learned about the potential of their own brains.
The lesson is clear: Students who learn that intelligence is not fixed, that they can grow their abilities with effort, not only perform better and become smarter, but can also become tougher, “grittier.” The growth mind-set is about believing in oneself, even in the face of failures and setbacks.
The growth mind-set is a crucial component of the entrepreneurial personality. In fact, an entrepreneurial mind-set is an accelerated growth mind-set. After all, what entrepreneur has ever accomplished something new without believing it is at least possible? The growth mind-set is about possibilities—and that’s why it caps our list of the most important entrepreneurial traits.
ENTREPRENEURSHIP AS A NATIONAL CHALLENGE
YOU MIGHT THINK THAT ENTREPRENEURSHIP IS SO CENTRAL TO CAPITALISM, that the United States—the world’s largest and most powerful capitalist economy—must lead the world in teaching entrepreneurial skills to youth. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Some traditionally trained educators and school administrators are only vaguely aware of the importance of entrepreneurial traits in achieving life success. Others, who understand the value of entrepreneurial skills, bemoan the fact that standard school curriculums leave little or no time for teachers to focus on them. Under political and parental pressure to do more with less, and already forced by budgetary constraints to reduce the time and resources dedicated to “peripheral” activities like music and art, school officials are understandably resistant to any proposal that requires devoting more classroom time to subjects beyond the traditional basics. Good intentions have led many American educators to obsess about raising standardized test scores—sacrificing broader learning, and still failing to meet testing targets.
As a result, we’ve been overlooking a key insight—the fact that entrepreneurial education can enhance student performance in every field of study. It gives students reasons to aspire, improves their self-confidence, stimulates their curiosity, teaches them to fail wisely, and makes all the other subjects—including math and science—more relevant.
The fact is that there are educational systems elsewhere in the world that are already incorporating this reality into their school programs.
Consider the modest country of Finland. With fewer than 5.5 million people, its population is smaller than that of New York City. Yet Finland is one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurial economies—as well as a nation that consistently ranks near the top in student achievement. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Finland has set a national goal of making entrepreneurial skills a core competence of its citizens. Entrepreneurial learning is embedded in Finland’s educational system. No one complains that entrepreneurial education is taking time away from teaching basic skills. The Finns understand that entrepreneurial learning is not in competition with other subjects—rather, it complements and enriches them.
Finland became serious about entrepreneurial education when its economy crashed in the 1990s. National leaders recognized that they needed to raise more young people who were innovative, resilient, proactive, growth-oriented, and self-reliant. In 1994, entrepreneurship education was introduced as a new theme in Finnish school curriculums. Entrepreneurial skills were seen as a lifeline—not just for young people, but for the country.
The shift in direction received a serious test in 2007, when Finland’s economy suffered a serious blow. Nokia, a respected maker of cell phones, accounted for about 4 percent of Finland’s economy. Its business was going well until the day Apple unveiled its game-changer, the iPhone. Watching Steve Jobs’s live demo of the device, Nokia executives were dismayed. They quickly recognized it would be impossible for Nokia to catch up with the iPhone and futile to try. It was as if a genetically modified horse with unprecedented strength and speed had entered the Kentucky Derby. No jockey could close the gap.
But scrappy Finland used Nokia’s demise to further propel the country’s entrepreneurial initiatives. Fortunately, the groundwork had been laid, with nearly a generation of Finns already schooled in entrepreneurism. Quickly, Nokia and Finland went to work helping Nokia employees spin out new entrepreneurial ventures, finding capital and talent to support the launch of many new businesses. So far, former Nokia employees have produced three hundred startups, ranging from Valkee, maker of a bright-light headset to combat the winter blues, to ZenRobotics, which automates recycling. The startup you’ve surely encountered is Rovio Entertainment, maker of the worldwide sensation Angry Birds and a supporter of Finland’s Startup Sauna, an accelerator program that helps to jumpstart the growth of new businesses, with coworking space in Helsinki and connections to Silicon Valley.
That’s Finland’s story. The story of the United States, unfortunately, is one in which entrepreneurship has been neglected as a school subject. As a result, US economic performance has lagged. In the words of Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, whose company closely watches social trends, “True entrepreneurs are rare—and getting rarer. Yet it is crucial to our economy and national security that we find them. Without a growing entrepreneurial economy, there are no new good jobs. . . . We are focused on innovation. But what we need are entrepreneurs to turn innovations into products, revenue, jobs, and economic growth.”
Statistics bear out Clifton’s warning. In fact, US entrepreneurship as measured by business startups has recently neared a forty-year low. In 2014, the last year for which census data are currently available, just 452,835 firms were launched in the United States. By contrast, during every year from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s, between five and six hundred thousand new companies were born. Our shortfall in creating innovative new companies helps to explain lagging job growth, slow expansion of gross domestic product (GDP), and stagnant individual and family incomes. In short, when entrepreneurship declines, everyone suffers.
Yet there is plenty of room for hope. An untapped reservoir of future entrepreneurial talent exists in our midst—the millions of girls who could become part of the movement, as Bri Connelly has done. Developing entrepreneurial thinking in our daughters is crucial for our country’s economic future. We can’t lead the world with our girls relegated to the sidelines. We need them pushing their way onto the playing fields of business, technology, and problem-solving in every arena with a growth mind-set, knowing that their creativity, hard work, and perseverance will make a difference.
TACKLING THE THREE-PART PROBLEM
PERHAPS YOU’RE BEGINNING TO SEE WHY ENTREPRENEURIAL EDUCATION can be the key to solving the three-part problem I outlined in the first chapter—the interlocking challenges of attracting more girls to study science, math, and technology; of encouraging women to pursue careers as business leaders; and of combating the syndrome of low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence on the part of girls and women.
Many good people and organizations have been working to tackle one or another of these challenges. But surprisingly few have tried to address all three prongs of the dilemma.
As I mentioned in Chapter One, the Girl Scouts is the original growth mind-set organization for girls interested in STEM. The Girl Scouts Research Institute (GSRI) is dedicated to “elevating the voices of girls on issues that matter to them and their futures” and dispelling myths. In a study titled Generation STEM, they report:
- Three-quarters of high school girls are interested in STEM subjects.
- African American and Hispanic girls share the widespread interest in STEM but need more support and exposure to take full advantage of their opportunities.
- Eighty-five percent of high school girls like puzzles and solving problems, while 83 percent like working on hands-on science projects.
- Ninety-two percent believe they are smart enough to have a career in STEM, and nearly 100 percent believe they can do whatever boys can do.
These are encouraging data points. They suggest that today’s young women are trying hard to overcome the cultural and social barriers that have discouraged past generations of girls from pursuing their interests in science, technology, and math. And there are a number of organizations working to help them—not just the Girl Scouts but others like the National Science Foundation, whose ADVANCE initiative makes “transformational grants” to help universities develop programs to support women in STEM, as well as the two groups I’ve already mentioned, Girls Who Code and the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
But as I’ve argued, STEM alone is not the solution to the three-pronged challenge women face. It must be combined with entrepreneurship and self-confidence to produce the change we seek.
A few groups have been working on the entrepreneurial piece of the puzzle. One example is Prepared 4 Life, a Houston-based nonprofit organization founded by entrepreneur Michael Holthouse. It’s dedicated to revolutionizing the way children learn by teaching entrepreneurship, especially to at-risk youth. Holthouse has also launched National Lemonade Day, an annual event that provides step-by-step instructions for children to start, own, and operate a lemonade stand with a “third-third-third” model of “spend some, save some, share some.” Dozens of cities have joined Lemonade Day, and Google for Entrepreneurs is now partnering with Lemonade Day to develop an online curriculum for children around the world to become entrepreneurs for a day, and—who knows?—maybe for life.
Other organizations with entrepreneurship training programs for students include BizWorld.org, the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, and the Grow Your Own Business Challenge. Even the mainstream media have gotten into the act. ABC’s hit television series Shark Tank gave ten-year-old entrepreneur Mikaila Ulmer a platform to help her market her BeeSweet Lemonade (more on Mikaila later in this book).
It’s encouraging to see the work of groups and people like these. They’ve produced some good results that illustrate the importance of entrepreneurship for young people—including young women. But combining STEM and entrepreneurship with lessons and experiences that inculcate self-confidence is the final, crucial step in solving the three-pronged problem of the female empowerment gap.
Because entrepreneurship is about seeing opportunities and creating solutions to problems, it has a natural connection to STEM. In today’s world, technology, science, and math are at the heart of many innovations—not just in business but in government, education, the nonprofit sphere, and practically every other life arena. As a result, girls (and others) who embrace the entrepreneurial approach to life often develop a powerful curiosity about science, technology, engineering, and math, even when they may have felt intimidated or bored about STEM in the past. Suddenly they realize that math formulas, scientific theories, and technological details aren’t just facts to be memorized for an exam. They are also powerful tools that anyone can use to create innovations that benefit real people.
A lasting solution to the challenges facing today’s girls has to be built around an approach that emphasizes the natural, creative connections among STEM, entrepreneurship, and self-confident female leadership. In the next chapter, I’ll outline an approach that brings all three pieces of the puzzle together. It’s one that I’ve personally developed and experimented with through my VentureLab program, and one that you can apply yourself—in your home, your school, your community organization, or anywhere you spend time with your own daughter or with any girl or girls you care about.
AS I LEARNED ABOUT THE THREE-PART PROBLEM THAT TODAY’S YOUNG women face, I realized that a three-part solution is necessary. My contribution to the solution was to create VentureLab—a nonprofit that provides kids with an entrepreneurial mind-set and skill set designed to help them learn and apply math and science techniques to solve real-world challenges. In the process, they achieve successes that build their self-confidence and help them develop the growth mind-set that will open the doors to achievement in every area of their lives. Our mission is to build a movement to spread the entrepreneurial mind-set around the world and to empower youth, and girls in particular, with the tools needed to become the next generation of innovators and change makers.
VentureLab was launched in 2013 in San Antonio, Texas, with a series of Maker, Gamer, Girl Startup, Youth Startup, and High School Startup camps specifically designed to teach girls ages five to eighteen how to be inventors and entrepreneurs. Within the first summer, parents began seeing changes in their daughters’ confidence and knowledge base; some began asking whether their sons could attend as well. I opened co-ed camps the following year, and I liked the idea that we would be teaching the boys that girls are equally capable.
By 2015, schoolteachers and administrators who had heard about us began asking for our style of entrepreneurial education in their schools. I worked with elementary and high school teachers to develop a suite of courses for teachers to use in schools. In 2016 and 2017, we were honored to be invited by UNESCO, the United Nations agency dedicated to educational, scientific, and cultural development, to lead courses in the TeachHer program, which centers on encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and design, and math (STEAM).
Since VentureLab’s founding, we’ve taught nearly ten thousand students how to be inventors and entrepreneurs through our camps and classes. We’ve trained over six hundred teachers in our entrepreneurial education methods, and some thirty-five schools across Texas and California have implemented our programs. More than one-fifth of VentureLab students use the ideas they develop in our classes to start real businesses—in fact, they’ve already raised more than $265,000 in capital to support their fledgling companies. We’ve also developed free online youth entrepreneurship programs for parents to use at home and for teachers to use in school, after-school, or summer programs. Currently parents and teachers in more than forty-five countries are using our programs to teach kids.
The process of designing, building, and expanding VentureLab has been quite an adventure for me. And the most satisfying and rewarding aspect of the story has been seeing the difference that entrepreneurial training can make in the lives of girls from all kinds of backgrounds.
Imagine for a moment the life of a destitute teenage mother, still a child herself yet forced to struggle on her own against abuse, neglect, and prejudice. When a group of these young moms living at Seton Home in San Antonio attended a VentureLab camp, they began with such low self-esteem that you could see it in the way they walked—their bodies hunched over, their eyes cast down, their voices hesitant and barely audible. Asked what they wanted to do with their lives and how they hoped to support themselves and their children, they could only mention menial jobs: hotel maid, fast-food worker. So what happened in the course of their three weeks with us was remarkable.
As part of their entrepreneurial training, one team of girls identified a pet problem they all faced—having just one pair of shoes, making it impossible to match their footwear with the rest of their outfit. In a brainstorming session, they came up with a possible solution: sandals with interchangeable straps in different colors. Simply talking about their ideas infused them with an initial boost of confidence.
As the project evolved, it became increasingly apparent that Norma, one of the members of the team, was a natural leader—though neither she nor the people around her had ever realized it. During the third week of camp, the young moms had to present their work to an audience of fellow campers—their first-ever experience of speaking in public. When the education coordinator at Seton Home came unannounced to watch Norma practice her presentation—and nail every point with clarity and style—she shook her head in disbelief. “That can’t be Norma,” she declared. “That’s a different girl.”
Later that year, when Seton Home held its annual gala, Norma addressed the gathering with elegance and ease. A few months later, we weren’t surprised when we got the news that Norma had won a college scholarship.
Norma’s story illustrates the extraordinary power of entrepreneurial education to transform the attitudes of a young person. Research has shown that when students begin to develop entrepreneurial skills at a young age, they become accustomed to expanding their brains and forming new neural synapses in response to challenges and problems. In other words, they develop the growth mind-set that I explained in Chapter Two. They also learn to employ what’s called the curiosity cycle, discovering how to learn about anything and everything simply by asking questions that fascinate them and then taking steps to discover the answer—building foundations of knowledge on which they can expand as they follow their curiosity. All in all, they learn what it takes to achieve mastery in any field, in the process developing the entrepreneurial traits that help to increase their chances of long-term success.
At VentureLab, we believe all girls should follow their passions, whether in music or business, art, technology, education, or science, and be brave enough to overcome obstacles no matter where they arise. The spirit of entrepreneurship is relevant in all these fields. As we’ve seen, entrepreneurship isn’t just about founding companies. It’s about devising strategies to solve problems, make connections, serve markets, and achieve great things. A musician who figures out how to connect with appreciative audiences is using entrepreneurial skills. So is a doctor who creates a successful practice providing care to an underserved community . . . an artist who builds an online gallery to market innovative works . . . a teacher who uses unconventional activities to spark curiosity in her students—all are entrepreneurs in their own way.
This is the premise that underlines everything we do at VentureLab. We are demonstrating that entrepreneurial education holds the key to sparking girls’ interest in engineering, math, and technology—and, more important, that it also is the best way, bar none, of developing girls who are confident, courageous, and persistent. We want to empower girls to do anything they desire, while recognizing that, in today’s world, practically everyone needs to have a basic level of comfort with technology. We help girls achieve this combination of entrepreneurial skills with technological savvy by:
- Making STEM subjects real and relevant as girls learn to think like entrepreneurs about subjects that matter to them.
- Encouraging curiosity, perseverance, and grit, important traits in entrepreneurship, science, and technology as well as in practically every other field of endeavor.
- Providing opportunities for girls to learn from failures and become wiser each time, as successful entrepreneurs do.
- Introducing career possibilities in fields that girls might not otherwise even consider, helping them picture themselves as engineers, computer scientists, technology leaders, and entrepreneurs while visualizing their own success—a crucial development practice known as self-casting.
Virtually every product and service our teams of budding entrepreneurs imagine involves some form of science, technology, engineering, or math, so stepping into those STEM fields is natural and necessary. From a new kind of fashion accessory to a scientist’s tool, many of the product prototypes the VentureLab participants dream up are programmed and produced on a 3-D printer.
We have now taught entrepreneurial skills and concepts to thousands of VentureGirls. We help girls learn to look around their worlds and notice problems, snags, or everyday processes that could go better. We ask “What if?” questions repeatedly, pressing to break down mental silos. We encourage girls to stretch their imaginations, allowing room for their gut feelings and intuitions as well as logic.
Then we encourage brainstorming about solutions and zeroing in on promising ideas. Teams of girls learn to design and create a product or service prototype, which may be as simple as a sketch or an outline on paper, or as elaborate as a full-blown model of a usable product. They learn to conduct research by asking friends and family for their feedback on the prototype. They follow through with their best solutions to challenges raised, and they learn to make smart decisions about pricing, promotion, and distribution. They present and sell their solutions to an audience, usually of friends and parents.
These girls aren’t just inspired—their transformation is inspiring!
THE SEVEN CORE BELIEFS ON WHICH VENTURELAB IS BUILT
- Entrepreneurship Is for Everyone
- Potential Is Universal
- Failure Creates Opportunity
- Diversity Powers Innovation
- Empathy Fuels Collaboration
- Impractical Is Not Impossible
- Learning Is Limitless
FROM CALMING FEATHERS TO DOGGY BOOTIES—THE VENTURELAB EXPERIENCE
AT VENTURELAB, WE BELIEVE THAT GIRLS SHOULD BE ENCOURAGED TO have an entrepreneurial mind-set—and the best way to model that attitude and to let our girls experience it is by giving them a chance to play the part of real-life entrepreneurs. Here are a handful of stories that illustrate how we make that happen.
One group of five- and six-year-olds in a weeklong VentureLab summer camp decided that their project would be to make and sell bracelets. They used Venture Bucks, our class currency, to purchase pipe cleaners, beads, and glittery trinkets from the in-class store. By noon on day three, they had made several beaded bracelets in bright colors as prototypes, and they felt proud of their work.
Now the girls realized that they would have to stand in front of an audience of parents and friends to present their bracelets. It meant they had a serious problem to solve: How could they calm their fears and anxieties enough to talk to an audience? How could they do it without succumbing to tears?
They went back to the store with their remaining ten Venture Bucks. They bought a small sack of colored feathers and incorporated them into the bracelet design. The feathers weren’t just striking additions; they were “calming feathers” that they could touch to calm their fears. Each girl wore a bracelet during the final presentation. Now their prospective buyers weren’t just purchasing fuchsia, cobalt, or purple bracelets. These bracelets had calming powers that the girls demonstrated right then and there, touching the feathers at their wrists in front of a roomful of incredulous parents and siblings.
Afterward, one father said he simply had no idea that his daughter had the capabilities he’d seen her exhibit in those moments.
One middle school participant—I’ll call her Rhonda—loved to bake. Her group chose to work on the problem she threw into the mix, that baking leads to eating, and cakes and cupcakes are not exactly the healthiest food choices. It was weighing on her mind, since her parents—and many others—were rightly starting to focus on fitness and health. Rhonda’s group wondered: Could they solve the problem by developing healthier recipes for baking? They came up with Fit Cakes, cupcakes with added protein and icing made from low-fat yogurt.
This group had the added advantage of attending the Anne Frank Inspire Academy, an unusual charter school in San Antonio with a maker architecture and approach: learning studios instead of classrooms, student-directed learning, facilitators instead of teachers, and no factory-model bell schedule. Many of the girls already had a sure-footed confidence—yet, for most, this was their first contact with the entrepreneurial process. Translating a good idea into something tangible and marketable was a new experience. They came up with prototype recipes that they could bake at home at night and deliver the next morning for taste tests. They developed ingredient labels, packaging, website marketing, and presentations they could use to sell the goods. In fact, Fit Cakes became the fastest-selling product on the final day of VentureLab.
Sometimes a VentureLab student strikes out on her or his own. A third grader named José (one of the boys who participates alongside our girls) imagined a backpack that would help him with the challenge of keeping organized. He called it the Fun Pack. Our instructor observed José with a pouty look staring out a window, his group having chosen to work on other ideas. What was the matter? “I want to do it by myself,” he said. The instructor told him he had one week to pull it together and prove he could do it alone.
He made two identical prototypes, one to take home and show his mom to get her feedback. He made a drawstring bag from blue fabric and used pale blue duct tape to attach pockets and labels for such cargo as Pokemon cards. Before long, José was on cloud nine, with the other students watching his progress. On pitch day, he brought his mother and grandmother, who were proud to witness and cheer his demonstration. At its close, he displayed a poster thanking all of the teachers. From day one to that final day, José was thoroughly engaged in the process of product designing, testing, and learning from failure, and before he left that day, he straightened and cleaned the room with an abundant joyful energy. Best of all, José’s classmates were as proud and supportive of him as they were of themselves.
Or take another student, a young girl named Olivia, whose problem involved her dog. His paws would get painfully burned when he walked on the blacktop in the blazing Texas sun. Her team chose a different problem, but Olivia didn’t give up on her idea. She enrolled in the next camp session so she could work on her idea.
This time, to convince her fellow team members of the urgency of the problem, she involved them in a visceral way. She led them out into the parking lot, then urged, “Kneel down and put your hands on the blacktop.” After three to five seconds, they each cried out in pain.
“Now imagine how your dog feels when you take him out for a walk on a summer afternoon!” Olivia said. The passion of this calm, reserved, quiet girl ignited a drive to solve the problem for the dogs of San Antonio. She and her teammates went on to design, make, and sell little padded boots to protect dogs’ feet—a new product dreamed up by a team of girls to better the lives of their pets.
Financial literacy is part of entrepreneurial learning. We don’t start class with a bucket of materials. We start instead by investing in the students. It’s their first-ever business loan, one they don’t have to repay. Groups begin with an initial investment of one hundred Venture Bucks, a currency honored nowhere else, but that can buy a great deal in the class store. Determining how to spend their seed money can take the better part of a day as students realize their resources are limited, and they need to conserve in the event that their first prototypes are catastrophic failures—which happens. You hear, “Do we really need this colored paper?” If a group wants to use the 3-D printer, they’ll need to allocate ten Venture Bucks for the materials fee. Sometimes they’ll find items on sale that can stretch their budget. As much as possible, spending and budgeting require real-world decision-making.
Parents of VentureLab participants report that their children who once didn’t like working with numbers are now doing better in math. They’ve realized that math is useful in real-world activities: for calculating product dimensions, managing a production budget, and figuring out how much money they will make—or lose, if they don’t incorporate efficiencies into the production process. They’ve learned the meaning of costs, revenue, and profit margins.
Many parents call us after the VentureLab class comes to a close, saying, “I don’t know what has happened, but my kid’s grades have gone up!” We know what happened: Their child has gained a powerful motivation to count and calculate. While the kids think they are playing, we’ve effectively tricked them into learning.
Children learn that a different set of rules apply in entrepreneurial skills class. To begin with, they make the rules, whether it is not speaking when others are talking, letting ideas flow without criticism during brainstorming, or the overarching “have fun.” The children are in charge, and instead of being told what to do, they have agreed on what to do. VentureLab offers one of the few classrooms where kids have the autonomy and responsibility of being in charge. Middle school teachers have told us that they can see a shift in their classrooms when VentureLab kids are present—fewer disruptions and faster work, with the responsibility for solutions subtly shifted to their students.
When I began VentureLab, I hadn’t anticipated that students would want to repeat the class or camp—but many do, either to continue to work on their product idea or to branch out. Returning students are generally savvier, more supportive of their teammates, and likelier to build more prototypes to sell on pitch day. Some of the revenue records—more than two hundred dollars in product sales—are set by these returning students.
On the first day of class, entrepreneur and entrepreneurial are words many students have never spoken. But on the final day, they can freely say them and spell them and have proven to themselves that they can think like an entrepreneur—curiously, creatively, expansively, and resiliently. It just takes practicing the new mind-set they’ve learned.
Entrepreneurial education also exposes kids and families to a new way of thinking and to a new world of opportunities. One group of girls from Highlands High School in San Antonio came to VentureLab for a three-day intensive camp on a full scholarship. Most of the girls said they hadn’t been thinking about applying for college, and when we asked about entrepreneurship as a career choice, they said it was not for them.
As we do with other groups, we then asked them about problems they’d like to solve. They began to identify everyday problems in their lives, like forgetting to brush their teeth, making it to school on time, having food to eat for lunch, or having school supplies. By the second day, the girls began to work on solutions. One girl—I’ll call her Trisha—said she needed help with her homework. Trisha began to prototype and design a website and app that would match students up with other students to help with tutoring. At the end of the third day, she proudly presented her prototype to an audience—including her parents, who’d had no idea about the kind of project their daughter had embarked upon. After the presentation, Trisha’s parents—practically in tears—profusely thanked the VentureLab team for helping their daughter unleash her potential. As for Trisha, she announced she was planning to apply to college.
ENTREPRENEURIAL LIFE SKILLS AS A CORE COMPETENCE
ONE OF THE MOST FAR-REACHING CHANGES WE CAN MAKE FOR OUR CHILDREN and their future is to establish entrepreneurial life skills as a core competence for all students beginning as young as kindergarten and continuing through high school.
What changes when students develop entrepreneurial skills at a young age? They learn that they can grow their brains, forming new synapses and abilities just by learning new things. They develop a mind-set that makes learning a way to strengthen and enhance their potential. They learn to employ the “curiosity cycle,” building foundations of knowledge on which they can expand as they follow their curiosity. They discover what it takes to achieve mastery in any field.
Finland’s tremendous success as an entrepreneurial nation emanated from the conscious decision by schools, government, and the private sector that success in the global economy demands entrepreneurial skills on the part of all citizens. Surely the United States can achieve what Finland has achieved—citizens with an entrepreneurial skill set that will help them achieve their potential in any endeavor, preparing them for a future in which the only constant may be change.
To accomplish this, schools need to teach entrepreneurial life skills. You can help to make this happen. Find fellow advocates to visit with your local school administrators to ask for courses that teach entrepreneurial skills. Use this book to help make your case. And be persistent—you are advocating a paradigm shift in the way we think about school, and that kind of change does not happen with a single attempt.
Because the most effective entrepreneurial learning is project-based, entrepreneurial lessons can also be incorporated into all kinds of classes. It’s easy to imagine, for example:
- A biology class that analyzes environmental or health problems that science has the potential to solve.
- A language class that identifies translation challenges that a student armed with computer tools could tackle.
- A physical education class that uses fast-paced team activities to challenge and exercise the brain.
- An art class that includes the use of new technologies—3-D printers, for example—to create new forms of self-expression.
Why do some young women persevere and succeed?
What I see is this: The women who stick it out are different. They are more determined, more conscious of their struggles, and more inventive about getting the help they need. They cast themselves in a successful future and build the bridges to get there.
They don’t opt for “easy.” Like Bri Connelly, the young ballet dancer who found her way to a leadership role at Google, they seek out like-minded spirits, cultivate friendships, and address setbacks with renewed energy and determination. They can imagine themselves jumping the hurdles, feeling more confident and empowered with each step toward success.
Most important, however, a girl doesn’t have to be born this way. These traits can be learned and nurtured. Entrepreneurial projects provide hands-on practice that build these strengths and prepare girls for the trials and errors that lie ahead in life. A girl who has experience bouncing back after failures and persisting in her pursuits can adapt to all kinds of challenges. She has a growth mind-set, knowing her brain and abilities can grow. She’ll admit when she’s in over her head and needs help—whether she turns to a mentor, her big sister, a classmate, or the inspiration of a role model.
One reason I love teaching entrepreneurship is that there are built-in opportunities to introduce role models in the curriculum, even to bring them to class. Nothing tops seeing a woman in charge for inspiring young women to imagine themselves as future technology leaders and innovators.
I encourage girls to be themselves, to find and feel their confidence, to work as teams, bolstering their strengths, to express and sell their ideas, to find their role models and mentors, to cast themselves in a future that captures their imaginations. After all, an entrepreneur is someone who believes she has a better idea, something that people will want—so she has reason to persevere.
You’ve seen in this chapter that entrepreneurial education, like the teaching we do at VentureLab, has the ability to transform the lives of girls, opening up doors of opportunity they can take advantage of, wherever life may lead them. But it’s not necessary for a girl to attend VentureLab to get the benefit of this approach.
Next, in Part Three of this book, I’ll show how you can create your own entrepreneurial curriculum at home or in your community and have fun turning the girls you love into VentureGirls!