WHAT'S THE BEST way to increase the
number of women entrepreneurs? Offer
them a community, says Sara Herald,
associate director of social entrepreneurship
at the University of Maryland's
Smith School of Business in College
Park. She and her colleagues at the
school's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship
hope to build such a community
through Ladies First Founders, a
one-credit course for undergraduate
women across the university who are
working on new ventures.
"We wanted to provide that extra
level of support and peer community for
undergraduate female entrepreneurs,"
says Herald, an adjunct professor who
teaches the course. And this support
is much needed, she emphasizes: Even
though women launched 40 percent
of new businesses in the U.S. last year,
that number was lower than in previous
years. In 2017, women-led companies in
the U.S. received more venture capital,
on average, than male-led companies,
but they collectively received only 2.2
percent of all VC funding, according to
the investment database Pitch book.
Ladies First Founders evolved from
the Dingman Center's larger Ladies
First initiative, launched in 2016. Led
by Herald, the initiative incorporates
events and workshops on topics such as
working with mentors, pitching business
plans, and securing funding. In spring
2018, the center began holding Ladies
First office hours on Fridays to encourage
women at the university to seek feedback
on their business ideas from faculty
and entrepreneurs-in-residence. Last
April, Dingman hosted "Dolphin Tank," a
friendlier version of the TV show "Shark
Tank," for female founders.
Herald created Ladies First Founders
because she thought women would get
more from these opportunities as part of
a formal course, where they could find a community of peers
"who are all dealing with the same issues," she says.
selected for the
course through an
must be women who are currently
undergraduates at the university actively
working on venture ideas. In spring
2018, the course's inaugural cohort
included ten women, whose business
ideas included a skincare company, a
brand consultancy for black women, an
athletic wear company for figure skaters,
and a biomedical device maker.
The course features workshops that
tackle issues of particular importance
to women entrepreneurs. In the course's
initial run, for example, students participated
in an interactive session on body
language. They learned from an executive
communication coach how eye contact
can affect interactions and how power
posing can help them feel more in control
when they pitch their ideas to investors.
One impactful workshop helped women
overcome imposter syndrome, which
occurs when a person feels inadequate
regardless of past successes, says Herald.
"The women turned to each other and
exclaimed, 'You mean it's not just me?"'
The point at which the women began
to explore ways to address imposter
syndrome, she adds, "was one of the best
moments I've ever had as a professor."
Audrey Awason is a 2018 graduate
whose nonprofit Noble Uprising
provides career readiness training
for homeless women. After sitting in
entrepreneurship courses that were
dominated by men, Awason most appreciated
the way her Ladies First Founders
classmates "instantly connected on so
many things. It was just so safe to be able to share experiences and have others
relate. I came in not knowing anyone
and left with friends. I loved it."
Although Herald's students were
interested in learning hard skills such
as basic financial projections, they were
intent on developing the soft skills that
would enable them to overcome obstacles
female founders face as they seek
funding. They wanted to become strong
leaders "in a society that doesn't like
high-achieving women," says Herald.
The course is not intended to "fix the
women," Herald emphasizes. "Instead, I
want students to discuss ways that unconscious
bias negatively affects women
and how both men and women might be
able to change their behaviors to make
the system less biased."
Herald and her colleagues credit the
Ladies First initiative for bringing more
women to the school's entrepreneurship
programs. For instance, women made up
40 percent of participants in the school's
accelerator cohort last summer, and
the Dingman Center has attracted more
female investors to its angel network.
Although Herald intends to keep the Ladies
First Founders cohort small, so that
students can form tighter bonds, she
plans to add a mentorship component in
future runs of the course.
More information about the Ladies First initiative and the first cohort in the Ladies First Founders course is available at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.