'Ladies First' Supports Ladies Who Launch

Part of a wider initiative, a new course at the University of Maryland gives space for women founders to develop their ideas and abilities within a community of their peers.
Ladies First Supports Ladies Who Launch

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.

Students are selected for the course through an application process; successful candidates 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.