It is with fond memories that I watched this year’s MIT delta v Demo Day presentations. Even though I was traveling out of the country, Demo Day generates the kind of enthusiasm and excitement that had me tuning in and watching the passion of these student entrepreneurs. (You can catch the replay of the Cambridge presentation here. The group also presented in San Francisco and New York City.)
MIT delta v Demo Day
Demo Day is an annual event that showcases the culmination of three months of work with the intensive delta v capstone educational accelerator program. Why am I so passionate about delta v? For five years I served as the director of this MIT program – a full immersion into a wide variety of innovative technologies and startups.
This year, watching from abroad, I saw a new cohort of entrepreneurs pitch their innovative and potentially world-changing companies to an audience of MIT students, mentors, friends, investors, and perhaps even customers. Kudos to Executive Director Paul Cheek, Jenny Larios Berlin, and Ben Soltoff, along with the entire Martin Trust Center staff for a successful Demo Day! Like any successful performance, there is an immense amount of hard work and preparation that goes into the final production. Like a proud parent, it was gratifying to pass the torch and see the program grow and move forward.
delta v 10-year Impact Study
In addition to celebrating this year’s delta v entrepreneurs, MIT just released an in-depth longitudinal study of the impact of delta v. I’d like to highlight some of the findings here to show how much this program has meant to the students and their startup companies, the MIT community, and to demonstrate the overall economic impact of the program.
The study was based on 10 cohorts of delta v students who comprised 181 teams. There were 692 participants during that time (67% were MIT students), and 322 of them (47%) responded to the survey. Some of the highlights include:
Survival Rate: Since its inception, 61% of delta v projects have become real companies that either continue to exist to this day or have been acquired. (For companies from the past five years of delta v, that number increases to 69%.)
Attractiveness to Investors: 63% of all the projects have resulted in companies that raised money.
Funding Attracted: The companies that have raised funding to date have totaled over $1 billion, and that continues to grow.
Founding Other Companies: Over 130 new additional companies have been created and raised an additional $2 billion beyond the companies started from the projects worked on in delta v.
Broader Entrepreneurship Communities: 68 (37.5%) of delta v startups were accepted into external, private/for-profit accelerators, including Y Combinator, TechStars, and Mass Challenge.
Connected Community: 83% of survey respondents say they are still in touch with their delta v cohort.
What’s Next for Me?
So, how can we help the next generation of entrepreneurs around the world be successful in their endeavors? Now that I’m working on the “fourth act” of my career, I’m working one-on-one with entrepreneurs and their startups in a consulting and coaching role.
These days I’m also traveling more for both pleasure and business. And, I’m working on an e-book resource on Global Entrepreneurship and Accelerator Programs around the World.
Interested in the e-book? Sign up here and I’ll send you a copy once it’s completed.
Hiring struggles endure as companies try to employ and retain the talent needed to grow their businesses. The Great Resignation (or Great Reshuffle) continues in many industries as people consider new post-pandemic options. While nearly 4.3 million people in the U.S. quit their jobs in January (2022), there were also 11.3 million job openings, according to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor. What does this mean for hiring?
In my last blog post, I wrote about how to lead with empathy in hiring and recruitment practices. Part of leading with empathy is to make sure our workplaces are representative of the society we live in by implementing effective diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) hiring practices. This post will explore how companies and hiring managers can help make an impact, even when talent may be scarce.
There is much lip service given to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and some companies are making strides, but many companies are not. This quote resonated with me as a goal for DEI initiatives:
“As a society, if we begin to shape our practices around how we treat people, how our work environments are structured, the Great Reshuffle will end,” states Gina Ganesh, VP of People and Culture at Florence Healthcare. Treating all people well is the right thing to do. And hiring diverse candidates drives real progress, including bottom-line business results.
Diversity Drives Business Results
It has been proven that ethnically diverse companies perform 36% better than companies that are not. We’ll dive into that stat in a minute, but first, some important definitions and distinctions when thinking about a DEI recruiting strategy.
Diversity is the range of differences that make people unique, both seen and unseen. (Be mindful that diversity includes not only race and gender, but age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical disabilities, and neurodiversity).
Inclusion is an environment that engages multiple perspectives, different ideas, and individuals to define organizational policy and culture.
Remember, when you hire for diversity, you get the benefits of inclusion.
An important point according to Janet Stovall, Executive Communications Manager at UPS, in her TED talk. “Let’s be clear: diversity and inclusion are not the same things. Diversity is a numbers game. Inclusion is about impact. Companies can mandate diversity, but they have to cultivate inclusion.” Stovall is also clear that businesses can be a key force to dismantle racism.
McKinsey has done a series of studies on the topic of DEI and the latest study encompasses 15 countries and more than 1,000 large companies. This latest report, titled Diversity Wins shows that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time.
McKinsey explored how different approaches to inclusion and diversity could have shaped the trajectories of the companies in their data set and found two critical factors: a systematic business-led approach to inclusion and diversity, and bold action on inclusion.
One Leader’s Story on Building a Diverse Organization
The business case for DEI is there, but it’s not always easy. I’d like to (anonymously) share the story of a friend of mine who was trying to increase diverse hiring his organization.
He was the head of AI software for products at a Fortune 500 company and specifically set out to hire more female engineers. He met with his managers and discussed ideas. He challenged his staff to look through LinkedIn for candidates. He spent one morning combing through LinkedIn and personally wrote 100 cold/semi-cold emails to prospects.
I think it’s important to note that he didn’t delegate it out. From this initial outreach, he received 35 responses, and he reached out personally to all. Then he interviewed and hired several of these women. After a period of one year, 20% of his team were women – from less than 5% – and the percentages were still climbing.
A couple of things had to happen to make this work. He told his staff that they needed to get involved and invest in their networks – both college alumni networks and other networks of friends and past colleagues. He made it clear that hiring for diversity is key in jobs at every level. He also made sure that candidates met a diverse group of people within the company during interviews. His staff was taught to follow up with every candidate personally. These may seem like small things, but they were game changers for both the new employees and the organization’s depth.
Unfortunately, there is bad news here. Two years after this initiative, there was a full reorganization and my friend parted ways with this company. The commitment to hiring for diversity was not sustained, the DEI focus faded within the organization, and progress was lost. I believe that the moral of this story is that enabling real change takes both time and commitment, and awareness is only the first step.
Beyond the Rooney Rule
The “Rooney Rule” – a diversity initiative started by the National Football League that calls for interviewing minority candidates for top jobs – has been adopted by corporate America, but experts believe it hasn’t made much of an impact.
As companies release detailed information about the diversity of their workforces, the data shows that women and people of color are well-represented in the lowest rungs of many company workforces, but there’s often little representation in leadership roles and board positions. When companies adopt a Rooney Rule, they’re pledging to add at least one candidate to their interview pool to increase gender and racial diversity, but that’s usually not enough to foster real change.
To make a meaningful impact, hiring managers should aim to interview a slate of candidates that’s 30% diverse, according to Alina Polonskaia, global leader of the D&I practice at executive recruiter Korn Ferry. Companies could also set a standard of having their executive ranks mirror the gender and race breakdown of the usually much-more-diverse entry-level workforce. In addition, employers should also use the same diversity standards they are applying for new hires to people being considered for promotions.
How Diversity can be Your Superpower
Let’s take a look at a study focused on hiring for B2B sales roles. This study by Forrester, commissioned by Outreach, confirms it is time for us all to commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Since sellers are the first point of contact for a company, sales reps must represent the world around them, and organizations must commit to DEI or risk losing revenue and talent.
Sales leaders understand the need for diverse teams; 67% of respondents say it’s important for their team to represent the world around them. However, although sales respondents in North America say DEI is important, they are not ranking DEI efforts over other priorities. Respondents ranked almost every other sales leadership skill before DEI. Yet, customers are demanding diversity now.
60% of respondents stated that diversity within their sales team has contributed to their teams’ success.
82% predict that the racial or ethnic diversity of their sales team will be equally or more important in the next two years.
72% believe that DEI will play an equally important or more important role in business decisions in the next two years.
They conclude that companies with strong DEI practices have better-performing sales teams, including higher forecasts, higher conversion rates, and higher sales attainment.
How to Walk the Walk
The Inclusion Solution blog points out, “it’s not just about introducing shiny new initiatives and hiring the first head of DEIBJ (diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice) — it’s about displaying a real, sustainable commitment to these efforts through financial and human resources deployed over time… not just when the cameras are rolling and the topic is trending.”
To that end, here are some strategies and ideas on how to walk the walk and incorporated diversity in your hiring to reap the benefits of inclusivity. Some are tactical tips, others are broader, more strategic initiatives gathered from the reports, experts, and sources mentioned in this blog.
Focus on developing an equitable talent process, purposely create diverse and inclusive teams, and create development programs for under-represented groups. (Korn Ferry)
When conducting campus recruiting, think beyond Ivy League schools and schools you may be personally connected to, and consider Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) (Excelencia in Education)
A “work from anywhere” environment can foster diversity hires. In an all-virtual environment, there are very few limitations in terms of where to find talent. (Bloomberg)
Challenge your definitions of “professionalism” and “leadership” within your organization – and then hire and promote diverse leaders. (Mac’s List)
Broaden your lens on DE&I, including embracing neurodiversity. One big benefit of an inclusive work culture is that it fosters diversity of thought, different approaches to work, innovation, and creativity. (Deloitte)
Provide education around and try to use inclusive language. (Mac’s List)
Training is a good start, but mature organizations do more. Leaders need to model inclusive behavior, and the organization as a whole needs to value and measure progress toward DEI goals. (Forrester)
Strengthen leadership accountability and capabilities for inclusion and diversity (I&D). Companies should place their core-business leaders and managers at the heart of the I&D effort—beyond the HR function or employee resource-group leaders. (McKinsey)
Enable equality of opportunity through fairness and transparency. Deploy analytics tools to show that promotions, pay processes, and the criteria behind them, are transparent and fair. (McKinsey)
If companies want to do a better job of retaining diverse talent, they can’t go back to “business as usual.” It’s time to make work more equitable, and while flexibility is not the panacea, it is a step in the right direction. (Harvard Business Review)
Workers overall want to feel like their boss cares about them. Gen Z wants a culture built on mental health and wellness. (LinkedIn)
Flexibility is increasingly prized, particularly by underrepresented groups. Leaders who hope to retain top talent and maintain diversity must act swiftly and deliberately to counter the forces of proximity bias. (i.e., if managers spend most of their time working in the office, that is likely to lead to a double standard of valuing employees who also come into the office). (Future Forum)
Continue pushing the conversation forward, even if you don’t have all the answers. DEI strategy is an essential element of building a strong business that is able to attract and retain great talent and connect with a diverse customer base. (Forrester)
As you search out new talent, there are a lot of nuances that you need to consider. Your HR team may have guidelines, and you may want to “go with your gut” in terms of what is right, but there are many factors and issues involved. Educate yourself and become an agent for change, dedicating the time and commitment necessary to foster inclusivity for all.
Recently, I left my job at MIT, and I don’t have another job. As the Executive Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, my days (and many nights) were filled with activity – working with students, teaching, and shaping entrepreneurship education programs. All that has stopped, and I’ve taken time to be still, breathe, take stock, and think.
This time of reflection is providing me a much clearer view of what is possible—and realizing the big picture is even bigger than I thought. Quitting your job is not for everyone (and I am very fortunate that I’m in a position where I could do that), however, taking time to make room for other activities is something I highly recommend to everyone. Creating space to see that there are other opportunities, different ways to work, new skills to learn, and passions to embrace is enlightening. (My new passion is tennis! Who knew?)
I have had three acts thus far in my career. I held roles from engineer to executive in tech companies. Then, as an entrepreneur, I navigated two startups through to IPOs, and my third act was a career in academia teaching entrepreneurship in the classroom and through hands-on programs. Each transition had its moments where I said, “What did I get myself into?!” Yet, digging in and being open to learning proved to be rewarding in every case. I’ve had great rides with successful companies, enjoyed relationships with diverse and interesting colleagues, and embarked on learning experiences I could never have imagined. I have traveled the world, thrived in new environments, and have seen colleagues soar and cheered on their success. I’ve learned so much about people and how they think, work, celebrate, and come back from setbacks. It makes you realize that the people you work with truly can make or break any job experience.
As someone with many, varied job experiences, I’ve realized that experience is double-edged sword. On the one hand, you know how to do things, and perhaps you have even forgotten what others have not yet learned. However, experience also can leave you in a lane you know too well and prevent you from taking the risk of trying—and potentially failing—at new skills. When you are starting fresh, you know there will be new risks, new failures, and new experiences.
I am extremely fortunate to have enjoyed every job I’ve had, but I do realize my enjoyment of work is dependent on my own attitude and approach. Approaching each new role as a learning experience helps you get over the hurdles and enjoy the successes. I’ve worked with folks who had deep expertise but lacked some of the skills I have, and we ended up being a terrific team. I am fortunate to have friends from my very first job and from my most recent job, and I make a concerted effort to keep in touch with these people. My network—and talent tree—is something that was built organically with people I enjoy, and it makes a career so rewarding.
In my research findings for my doctorate, it wasn’t a real surprise that matching new graduates with seasoned employees in data analytics roles was a recipe for success. The veterans could contextualize situations for the students based on experience, and the recent graduates would apply that context to achieve a much more robust analysis. Later, my work at MIT included building mentorship programs and creating networking relationships between students, alumni, and startup founders. When I was no longer running these programs, I realized I needed to apply my networking and mentorship skills to myself as well.
Although I am a certified professional coach, it’s true that even coaches need a coach. If you want to do something different and are unsure about how to get there, working with a coach is a perfect way to figure out these decisions. I needed a coach to look at why I was working so hard; although I enjoyed the work and the people, it didn’t feel like it was enough for me at the time. My coach helped me realign my values and aspirations—something that had not been done for quite some time.
I have always been curious, optimistic, and a contributor, but I needed more balance, less commuting (yes, I still commuted through most of the pandemic!), and a good challenge to be passionate about. The first two were difficult to manage in my last job, but there was no lack of challenge, in fact, there were actually too many challenges! I spread myself so thin because I wanted to do everything and for everyone—and this led to an erosion in my passion for my job.
So, as I take time to reflect, I’m betting on myself and focusing on balance. Just creating the space to reflect has let me think about of all sorts of exciting things I can do next, both professionally and personally. I am enthusiastic about the future and approaching new challenges with the renewed energy that taking a break has given me. I hope my story inspires you to give yourself some space to think, reflect and renew!
Have you ever finished a riveting book and realized that the plot, characters, and setting have left an indelible mark on your being? That is how I will always remember the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship – the people, energy, and ideas will forever imprint the fabric of my life.
When I joined the Trust Center nearly six years ago, I blogged about Disciplined Entrepreneurship – the framework we use for the entrepreneurship program at MIT’s Trust Center based on the book by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. One of the ideas that resonated with me then, and continues to do so, is that “ideas mean nothing without execution.”
Reflecting on the past six years, I realize that my time at MIT was about more than a job, it was about the execution of entrepreneurship. It was a chance to shape the lives of aspiring entrepreneurs who had big dreams and ideas to change the world for the better and help them to shape and execute those ideas into concrete plans. At the Trust Center, we like to say that MIT’s student entrepreneurs tackle the world’s big problems, and it was exciting to help make that happen.
Here’s the synopsis of how I landed at the Trust Center, and filled many roles, ultimately becoming the Director of MIT delta v, as well as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management on entrepreneurship topics.
In 2014, I had completed my doctorate in work-based learning at the University of Pennsylvania’s Chief Learning Officer program, and I wasn’t sure what my next step should be. I had the option to get back into the corporate world and focus on business analytics, but instead decided to pursue a role in education. I was hired by MIT as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and to help lead the student venture accelerator program, which is now known as delta v. From there, my role has expanded to teaching entrepreneurship classes, spearheading global programs, and becoming a spokesperson and thought leader representing MIT’s entrepreneurship initiatives.
This was definitely something new and different for me, and I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and embrace the challenge. The results achieved have certainly been beyond what I could have anticipated six years ago, including the expansion of the Trust Center – both physically and via online with Orbit, growing delta v both in size and in scope, partnerships with other universities, and instituting a flagship program to support the mental health of entrepreneurs. There were also many awards and accolades along the way, both personally and for the program.
But I’m not here to toot my own horn … I want to sincerely thank the whole team at the Trust Center for their support, teamwork, and camaraderie over the years – our group is quite the entrepreneurial talent tree. I’d also like to thank all the students who I was able to work with and mentor on their entrepreneurial journeys. Your enthusiasm and bright light made the hard parts of this job rewarding and worthwhile.
For those of you who are rethinking your own career situation, after the past year this may be exactly the right time to open yourself up to new experiences and find that that your next chapter was better than your last. I am leaving a job I love for the unknown – of course, this is a risk, but as an entrepreneur you bet on yourself, and make the choice to wake up with a “wow” in terms of what is going to happen today.
For me, this is the time to move beyond what has become well-loved and comfortable, and to take a leap into the next chapter – the fourth in my career. First, I was an engineer who moved up through the executive ranks. Second, I focused on startups, leading two companies to successful exits. Third, was my move into academia at MIT by leveraging my startup experience. And, for the fourth chapter, I’m not 100% sure what it will be yet, but stay tuned – that is the exciting part!
Wisdom from the Women Who Support MIT’s Entrepreneurs
Today, November 19, is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, a day celebrating and encouraging female entrepreneurship. Our student venture accelerator program, delta v, has launched some amazing female entrepreneurs – and our historical data show us that the women-led delta v companies surpass our very impressive overall stat that 3 of every 4 delta v startups are still operating. At MIT, our goal is to support all our entrepreneurs and make them as successful as possible. That is why we are thrilled when we hear feedback like the quote below – it shows us that we are succeeding in our support of diverse entrepreneurs, and neutralizing any implicit biases.
“In the Trust Center, gender, age, race, culture, even hierarchy, are invisible. It’s the only space I’ve ever walked into where all that baggage was truly left at the door. This almost disorienting sense of equality allows for a re-imagining of identity.” Joan Kelly, delta v entrepreneur and CEO of Abound
For the entire month of November, we’re profiling some of our women entrepreneurs, faculty, and Trust Center staff on our Instagram feed (@eshipMIT) with the tag #WEMatMIT (which stands for Women’s Entrepreneur Month at MIT). Follow the feed and be inspired!
Here is our lineup of stellar women supporting MIT’s entrepreneurship community and their responses to our questions on entrepreneurship. As I reflect on the contributions of these women, it is evident that the strong entrepreneurial ecosystems at MIT did not just materialize – they are nurtured, fostered, and improved upon by these individuals. They all bring a focused passion to their roles – with a lack of ego, they meet students where they are on their journeys to become entrepreneurs and help them flourish.
What advice can you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?
“Just start! Usually that first step is the hardest one. If you just start you will see that anyone can get started. Figure out what that first step is and do it. And if your first step was to make a PowerPoint, nice job doing that first step, but now get out of PowerPoint and talk to humans!!” – Kit Hickey
“Admit what you don’t know. Share your idea and take every opportunity to learn from those around you. This isn’t always a comfortable way for talented, high performers to operate. But it is critical. Rather than always looking for validation of your ideas, look for evidence that reveals weaknesses in your hypotheses.” – Megan Mitchell
“Seek a broad range of advisors, mentors, colleagues – diversity in terms of age, gender, experience, outlook on life and don’t limit it to people you think you align with – so that you are challenged to move beyond your comfort zone.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Follow your intuition and do what you feel is right. Women have stronger emotional intelligence, use this to make appropriate decisions and follow through with persistence.” – Karen Golmer
“Remain open-minded to what you learn through research. Approach research with curiosity, rather than an opportunity to reinforce and validate your current assumptions. Embrace surprising results and be ready to go back to the drawing board and adapt your solutions to a deeper understanding of the problem you’re looking to solve.” – Jinane Abounadi
“The outcome of any entrepreneurial endeavor is extremely uncertain, so you should be really excited about the journey. And surround yourself with people you like and respect, because you’ll be spending a lot of time together!” – Carly Chase
What do you believe female entrepreneurs need to do more of/better/differently to be successful?
“Unfortunately, we still need to have incredibly thick skin because the industry is not yet as equitable as it should be. Given the inequities, we’ve got to support and stick up for one another, in both small and big ways.” – Carly Chase
“Recognize that there are fewer female-backed startup companies, fewer women on Boards of companies, fewer patent holding female scientists – but don’t let that be a hurdle. In fact, find those who have or are those things – and learn from them, what inspires them, what tricks and tools have they created to achieve what they have achieved.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Really examine what YOU want out of your entrepreneurial journey. We spend so much of our lives being told what we should be, it is a challenge to break away from that and define what success is for you. Success for you may be completely different than what success means for your classmate, and that’s OK. By actually defining success for yourself, you can have a much more meaningful, impactful and enjoyable career.” – Kit Hickey
“Female entrepreneurs need to own their space, their knowledge, and their brilliance. Women have to be deliberate in the words they use when they speak about their experience and their ventures. Please don’t say, ‘If the pilot is successful, we will…” Come from an affirmative position. Trade that language for something more like: “Following our successful pilot, we will…” – Megan Mitchell
“Speak up more often (males don’t wait for their turn to speak ) – so don’t wait to be asked, offer up your opinions, experience, insight and do it in a thoughtful and measured way – so people are keen to listen.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
Female entrepreneurs need to work together and hold one another accountable when they see another not owning her own power. Women working together will elevate all.” – Megan Mitchell
“Own your ‘imposter syndrome’ and don’t let it come an excuse to demonstrate your knowledge, passion and capabilities – in fact, challenge that feeling by speaking up.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Don’t back down, instead listen with respect and learn about other perspectives. When feeling blocked or ignored, don’t speak louder to be heard – try a different approach.” – Karen Golmer
“Try not to take it personally when you hit a roadblock, or your initial ideas get rejected. Be confident in your talent and your ability to overcome hurdles and challenges. Use a network of caring mentors to get honest feedback and be open to listening and growing in the process.” – Jinane Abounadi
How do you, personally, keep inspired and moving forward?
“I look for and accept the challenges that appear – one at a time. When I end up in a conflict or uncomfortable situation, I use humor to diffuse the tension and redirect to move forward.” – Karen Golmer
“For me, the inspiration at his phase of my career comes from stepping back and hearing about stories of other amazing women that have worked hard and persevered to make a difference. I felt so inspired when I heard that there was a woman scientist (Ozlem Tureci) behind the [COVID-19] Pfizer vaccine. In my role, I see the potential of so many of our brilliant female students (undergrad or graduate) to make significant impact in the future and I will feel proud to have been part of their journey.” – Jinane Abounadi
“I love engaging with people – the passion, diversity and new ideas at MIT keep me inspired every day. Every day I learn from a student, and I love it! Being at a place where you continue to learn, can engage with amazing people, and have the autonomy to solve hard problems you are interested in, is what I love about being an EIR at MIT.” – Kit Hickey
“It is the entrepreneurs, their individual stories and passion that inspire me and keep me moving forward. Each entrepreneur has a story that connects them to the problem they are trying to solve. Often that story is deeply personal and offers me insights not only into who they are as individuals, but also the worlds in which they come from.” – Megan Mitchell
“Recognizing that I am part of a community and my contribution (or lack of it) has impact on others and what they can or cannot achieve because of my actions.” – Lesley Millar-Nicholson
“Building businesses from scratch is an incredibly difficult, gritty, and uncomfortable experience that forces you to grow in ways you didn’t even know you needed to! I’m addicted to not only the constant growth I personally get from being an entrepreneur, but also to the people who it attracts – they are the most exciting people in the world to be working alongside.” – Carly Chase
At MIT, our definition of entrepreneurship has evolved from a focus on startups to an entrepreneurial mindset – we see entrepreneurship as a skillset and a way of operating. We need entrepreneurial attributes in all our organizations – whether it is within a big company, a small company, or a university environment. These women bring that entrepreneurial mindset to their roles in helping curious entrepreneurs in corporate environments, ready-to-go entrepreneurs, and amplifiers in their communities. They cover the developing world, emerging markets, and corporate innovation. We live in a changing world with changing needs, and students need to test and adapt their entrepreneurial skills. Thank you to Jinane, Carly, Karen, Kit, Lesley, and Megan for your invaluable guidance to MIT’s student entrepreneurs! As we all work together at MIT, we see all boats rise which is what makes the MIT community an amazing ecosystem.
The pandemic affects everyone. Today, we are all dealing with a different model for living – many people are working or attending school virtually, there is less social interaction, greater isolation, more juggling of home and work duties, and of course the anxiety and pain if loved ones become sick or die from COVID-19. A study by the CDC in June of this year reported 40% of US adults are struggling with mental health or substance abuse – substantially higher figures than in 2019.
Where does that leave our entrepreneurs? Beginning in March, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship closed its doors until further notice. We are continuing to support MIT’s entrepreneurship community virtually, including via online resources like Orbit. This past summer, our delta v accelerator moved to a completely virtual experience, including online Demo Day presentations.
One question we continue to ask ourselves is: How has the pandemic affected the mental health of entrepreneurs?
Building Entrepreneurial Confidence
As we look to answer that question, we realize we were fortunate that MIT started the first self-awareness program for entrepreneurs last year – the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (ECC) Program. We piloted this program with the delta v accelerator class of 2019 to help student entrepreneurs prioritize their own individual well-being while building their businesses. The culture of entrepreneurship celebrates working 24/7 to demonstrate passion and dedication for your business. A founder’s self-identity is often tied to the success of their startup, and as a result, entrepreneurs often experience loneliness, depression, and anxiety as they work through the normal ups and downs of startup life. This has only been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic which has caused delays, roadblocks, and failures for many startups.
Traditionally, entrepreneurs have lacked the support and tools to improve their mental well-being. The ECC pilot program, created by MIT Sloan MBA alumna Kathleen Stetson, taught MIT student entrepreneurs the tools and benefits of self-awareness; they then applied their learnings – discussing key choices entrepreneurs face, such as: taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your startup, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. The results were impressive, after taking part in the program 93% of participants felt that a self-awareness practice could help entrepreneurs create more successful businesses.
This year, because of the additional stress due to the pandemic, and the need for teams to feel connected when working remotely, we added two simple elements to the small groups within the ECC program that startup teams could quickly and easily implement in their own team interactions:
Red/yellow/green check-in– this not only encouraged small group members to practice self-awareness during small group, but many teams took this check-in strategy back to their teams, practicing it at the beginning of each of their standups.
A more structured way to give and receive help – after a small group member expressed a challenge they were facing, small group members asked clarifying questions rather than immediately jumping into solutions and advice. This not only made the speaker feel that they were heard, but helped participants practice active listening. They then took this back to their team interactions, helping them better understand their team members’ perspectives.
In a Fast Company article, Kathleen Stetson explains, “The 24/7, hustle-till-you-drop attitude has been a problematic fixture of startup culture for years. And now, due to the pandemic, sustaining one’s health is even harder. ‘I don’t know a startup founder who’s not burned out,’ a founder friend of mine told me recently.”
The Pivot: A Key Pandemic Strategy
“Pivot” has become the go-to word for 2020. People are pivoting with career changes and businesses are pivoting with strategies, as we all try to keep moving forward dealing with the unanticipated changes brought by a global pandemic. Entrepreneurs need to realize that a startup failure can be due to external circumstances, and the founders are not marked with a scarlet “F” for failure. A change in business strategy or taking a break from trying to start your own company is a pivot that will make you stronger the next time.
One of our delta v teams faced this type of challenge recently. Easel was a startup service that matched parents with top quality centers for last-minute childcare needs. The company was a member of the delta v class of 2019 and was faced with the tough decision to wind down the business this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic, so many people have transitioned to working from home that their childcare model was no longer sustainable. Although childcare continues to be a huge need, co-founders Neha Sharma and Michael Leonard realized they would need to shelve their plans for Easel and pivot to the next chapter in their lives. However, as delta v’s Managing Director Bill Aulet stated, “I still chalk these up to success for sure. They are much stronger than when they got here.” That strength, in part, came from MIT’s ECC program.
This type of a transition is one that often tests an entrepreneur’s sense of worth and purpose. They have put blood, sweat, and tears into their business only to watch their dreams fade. As stated in the Thrive Global article I co-authored with Kathleen Stetson, startup founders “tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.” Yet, we’ve found data affirming that when entrepreneurs understand their thoughts, feelings, and biases, it is useful in managing stress – and this is a skill that can be taught. This is why MIT is proud to host the Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication program – the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and teach entrepreneurs how to effectively manage stress.
At MIT, entrepreneurship programs run wide and deep – but across the board, student entrepreneurs know they can count on the university’s Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) for their wisdom, experience, and advice.
We caught up with some former EIRs who have represented the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. They have been part of a rotational program spearheaded by Bill Aulet, the Center’s Managing Director. The concept of rotating experienced entrepreneurs through the Trust Center has been extremely successful – it gives students a sounding board for their questions and benefits the EIRs as well, enabling them to recharge and rejuvenate before their next venture.
Aulet likes to call the network of EIRs part of MIT’s Entrepreneurial Talent Tree. Many of these individuals have roots at MIT – they went into the world to become entrepreneurs, then touched back down at MIT as EIRs prior to moving on to do big things as entrepreneurs again, or in the entrepreneurial education community. Through this talent tree, the lessons and skills of MIT’s entrepreneurship program are widely shared, and a strong network is formed.
Elaine Chen, a former EIR who has recently been appointed as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center (TEC) and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, sums up the MIT EIR experience as an opportunity to give back to the entrepreneurial community by helping them learn. “We draw on our own experiences to help students acquire an entrepreneurial mindset and skillset, which will help them succeed wherever they go in their careers.”
“We try to give entrepreneurs a safe, unbiased set of feedback,” comments Dip Patel, now CTO of Soluna. “In the entrepreneurship game, it’s very hard to get unbiased feedback. And it’s doubly hard to get unbiased feedback from people who have been operators or founders.”
“It’s better to give than to receive,” adds Will Sanchez, now at Gradient, his fourth startup. “But as MIT EIRs, we certainly receive a lot from the students as well. And we are doing this in a serving way.”
Donna Levin adds, “The EIR role enabled me to help provide students with actionable skills, proven frameworks, and a sense of urgency – what we called moving at founder speed.” Levin has moved on to head up Babson’s entrepreneurship program.
Nick Meyer, now a co-founder of Relativity6, remarks on the bond between the EIR group at the Trust Center. “Everyone’s always trying to help each other out and make introductions, and we still talk all the time.”
Introducing MIT EIRs: What they’re doing Now
As a brief introduction, here’s a quick snapshot of the former EIRs interviewed for this article and what they are doing now. Each EIR explains what they felt they were able to share with the student entrepreneurs, and what they received in return.
Elaine Chen continues to expand entrepreneurial education in the Boston area as the Director of the Tufts Entrepreneurship Center and the Cummings Family Professor of the Practice in Entrepreneurship, following her nine years at MIT as an EIR and Senior Lecturer. Chen will work with students in all majors – including liberal arts, medical, dental, etc. Building on her MIT experience, this was a fantastic career opportunity and Chen looks forward to the year ahead.
Nick Meyer is now a co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Relativity6, a company that uses AI to increase customer retention and lifetime value, currently focusing on the insurance broker industry. Key to Relativity6’s success is how to be predictive, without using personal information. The company looks at patterns developing over the course of people’s lives.
Will Sanchez is now The VP of Business and Customer Development and a founding advisor at Gradient, a cybersecurity company that is working to reimagine digital trust from the very beginning. The 14-person, Boston-based startup is still very much in the jungle stage – no paved roads – and he’s learning tons of new things to satisfy his infinite curiosity.
Dip Patel, is now the CTO at Soluna, a company launched in 2018 that is building a new type of data center that combines with renewable power plants – grid operators can plug into and turn on and off whenever they want. The company’s mission is to make renewable energy the primary power source, using computing as a catalyst.
Giving to, and Gaining from, MIT’s Student Entrepreneurs
It’s evident that this is a smart and talented group. We are fortunate each of them shared their time and talents with the student entrepreneurs at MIT. Here’s how they felt they gave back to the entrepreneurship community, and what they gained in return.
Elaine Chen comments she was known as a “hardware person” at the Trust Center and was able to leverage her background at Rethink Robotics, Zeemote, SensAble Technologies, and other hardware-related startups, to help guide students with startups in that sector. She feels that she was able to share her experience having seen a lot of different scenarios and give students a dose of reality.
Working with the students, she learned a lot about different businesses – from bitcoin to chip design – because they researched it and learned it together. She also worked with current EIR Paul Cheek as product manager for MIT Orbit, and helped build up the knowledge base with over 600 unique articles for entrepreneurs.
Donna Levin explains, “We were able to create a safe environment and meet students wherever they were on their entrepreneurial journey. From ideation, market selection, to product market fit – early stage entrepreneurs craved the ability to have a conversation about the problem they were trying to tackle today or this week.”
She was constantly inspired by the societal problems the students are tackling in the world and learning about new technology and scientific discoveries. Levin says serving as an EIR was one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.
Nick Meyer believes he helped students navigate the MIT culture and break out of the mental blocks that can come from overthinking things. Many students at MIT have such confidence in their ability to build things, and build things quickly, that they default to building instead of first figuring out what should be built. Meyer was able to aid students by sharing a lot of stories of what’s practical and what has worked at his startups.
In turn, he reports that telling his stories to the students helped him created a narrative of what happened in his career, as opposed to how the startup made him feel. “You can build up this narrative that’s not the healthiest because there aren’t that many levels of success in startups. There is kind of ‘billionaire or bust’ mentality, so, most of your time is spent dealing in failure and not reflecting on everything you’ve learned, what you’re good at, and being helpful. I’ve learned from the students how valuable all my startup experiences really were, and just who I am and what I’ve learned, and how to approach things.”
Will Sanchez sayson the first day of the delta v kickoff, he introduced himself to the cohort as, “I’m Will, New York City kid. I don’t know how I can help you, but I will ask you the tough questions – the more awkward, the better.” He reports that seemed to have resonated well not only with the delta v team but with the cohort and students in general.
What he learned from the students was that there’s so much he had to offer. “Going into it, I didn’t know what I could possibly offer these brilliant students and faculty, I just ran a small start-up that was somewhat successful. It was surprising to me how much I could add as a generalist.”
Dip Patel explains he was always extremely candid about his past and showing his vulnerability to the students – from sharing what it was like to fire his best friend to landing a million-dollar deal. “I think that what I brought as an EIR is candid vulnerability, plus realism as to what they are signing up for. And the energy, I think I brought energy.”
In terms of learning from the students, he comments, “It is extremely motivating that I get to meet students who share their dreams with me. The fact that I’m able to help them achieve their dreams, and they are grateful for that, motivates me as an entrepreneur.”
Keeping it Fresh
In other businesses, employee churn is generally seen as a negative. However, at MIT, the EIR position is designed to be part of a rotational model that keeps things fresh for both the students and the experienced entrepreneurs. EIRs find that the role of being an advisor to students lets them recharge their entrepreneurial batteries and unwind after the stress of starting a new company – and, the Trust Center gets the benefit of new and different experiences with each EIR.
Patel comments, “When you sell a company, even if you make millions of dollars, you’re losing a big piece of who you are. A lot of people say you shouldn’t connect your professional life with who you are, but it’s really hard for an entrepreneur to do that – damn near impossible. So, when that company ends, for whatever reason, it really takes a toll.” The beauty of the EIR role is that it lets entrepreneurs decompress and figure out what’s next. However, he continues, “After we started Soluna, I missed the Trust Center and wanted to get back involved, so now I’ve come back as a lecturer, co-teaching one entrepreneurship class each semester.”
Meyer says that when he was first approached for the EIR position, he was in the middle of a starting a new company, so he declined. “About three months later, I realized that I was in no mental space to be doing another start-up, because it was like my seventh or something, starting from when I was in high school,” comments Meyer. “I knew I did not have the grit or energy built up to last for another three, four, or five years working at another startup. I just needed a break.” After a short stint as a ski instructor in Switzerland, he joined MIT as an EIR for about two years. Along with helping students, it let him reflect on the best way to move forward. “I’d say MIT encourages people to move on after spending some time as an EIR. Very few people camp out for a long time.”
“MIT is a special place. It’s a place where people truly believe the impossible can work,” explains Patel, and this belief resonates in the discussions with all of the EIRs. Chen adds, “Being an EIR in MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem was an amazing opportunity.”
Sanchez reflects, “As EIRs, we’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors, but we all want to add the human dynamic to entrepreneurship – the stuff you can’t just Google or read about in a class.” Patel continues, “The EIRs are truly there to help, but the entrepreneurs have to ask. And you have to get comfortable asking for help – that’s another piece of advice. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help.”
As this group of EIRs blazes new trails, they are each still inextricably tied to their EIR cohort and the student entrepreneurs they advised while at MIT’s Trust Center. This network runs deep, and the talent tree continues to grow.
This summer, MIT’s delta v accelerator program for student entrepreneurs was adapted as a virtual experience. Although this called for a flexibility and creativity all around, one of the benefits was that we were able to virtually connect with some amazing speakers.
Our Founder’s Talk Series let us hear about journeys of successful entrepreneurs, the challenges they’ve had to face, and their advice for our students. This year, we were lucky enough to hear from: Eleanor Carey, an Australian adventurer who gave an inspiring talk relating to the realities of entrepreneurship; George Petrovas, a serial entrepreneur who shared his founder journey; John Belizaire, CEO of Soluna, who spoke about leadership; Perry Cohen, Founder and Executive Director of The Venture Out Project who spoke about his journey; and Ed Baker, Investor, Entrepreneur, and Growth Specialist, previously with Uber and Facebook, who talked to students on scaling their businesses.
We concluded the series by speaking with Hayley Sudbury, founder and CEO of WERKIN, a company that raises the visibility of underrepresented talent. What Hayley and her team are doing at WERKIN is extremely important because although people talk about diversity and inclusion in companies, they don’t always know what to do about it. Here’s a short recap of what we learned from Hayley during her Founder’s Talk.
Overlapping Boundaries between Work and Life
Hayley commented that the boundaries between work and life have formally collapsed since March 2020 when the pandemic hit, and we all went remote. But also, there’s a bit of a trend toward moving back to our true humanity of who we are as people and the businesses we want to build to create change.
As an Aussie Brit, openly gay, tech, female CEO, Hayley jokes that she seems to tick a few boxes around “different.” She comments that getting a more diverse mix of founders will help create change in the world.
Driving Forces for Founding WERKIN
From her job at large bank managing a £ 50 billion balance sheet, Hayley notes she looked around and realized, there were no women above her, and there were certainly no gay women.
Even for the most extroverted types, it’s important to be able to see the version of yourself in life, as you look to create an aspirational pathway for your career or the businesses that you’re building. For Hayley, this was a real motivation to kind of get out and do something different.
Creating Inclusivity and Belonging at Scale for Business
WERKIN is very much focused on helping companies create inclusion and belonging at scale. The name comes from “We Are Kin” – and is dedicated to building a kinship and community within a workplace, helping employees feel visible and supported every day.
With the death of George Floyd earlier this year, there is a greater global awareness that we’re operating in a world where not all is equal. Race is a very important conversation that’s being had right now. This has opened up a broader conversation around consumers demanding more from companies – both companies we work for, and companies that we want to purchase from. Whoever we are, and whatever our lived experience or background is, how we choose to spend our money creates power.
Millennials, particularly, make decisions around wanting to work for a purpose-led organization. They expect more. They expect organizations to not only talk about being equal and fair and transparent, they demand that they are. And they’re looking for the data to kind of back that up as well.
WERKIN has been on a mission for quite a long time around helping organizations create this and inclusion and belonging. But now it feels like there’s much more of a sense of urgency and importance. CEOs are realizing if you really want a different result, you must do different things, and this year has really tipped the balance.
It Started with Mentoring
The seed for WERKIN starting with mentoring and sponsorship, which essentially go hand-in-hand. It’s the stuff that people do for you. It’s the doors that get opened. It’s the connection that someone makes for you to a colleague. It’s those small actions.
So, we looked at ways to democratize this idea of access to the right people, so that you’re visible, and the traditional “having beers in the pub” is not the only way to build rapport. WERKIN was created help that accessibility be open and available to more people.
We then leveraged technology to manage and measure these programs and demonstrate ROI. For us, it is very much a data play, as we create this digital standard for inclusion and belonging.
Love Your Customers, Not Your Product.
Falling in love with your product is a very easy thing to happen. You can see the pain point, for example, but if you fall into the trap of being product-first, not customer-first, it’s very easy to miss the real opportunity to create change.
At WERKIN, we think about how we want to change someone’s journey inside an organization so that they are seen, they are heard, they are visible to a larger percentage of the population. But not only that, they have a clear pathway to accelerate through to the highest levels that are, obviously, economically beneficial for that individual, but also allow them to influence the outcome of the organization.
Embrace the Most Exciting Time in our Lifetimes
While it may look terrifying from an economic outlook, if you’re in the business of building new ways to do things, this is probably the most exciting time in our lifetimes. Both from a change in civil rights, equality, and the move towards shutting down this very separate life we had between work and life, and actually coming back to our humanity. This means businesses that are purpose-driven, sustainability-focused, forward-looking, tech-enabled and changing the way we work, are all presented with massive opportunities right now.
The entrepreneurial journey is certainly a roller coaster ride – enjoy it!
At MIT, the delta v accelerator is our capstone entrepreneurial experience for students. As educators, we always want to know what students gained from our programs and how it helped them in their post-MIT life. We recently interviewed delta v alumni to understand how their entrepreneurship education has had an impact on their life, and we wanted to share the findings.
We reached out to over 400 delta v alums from 2012-2019 with 60 responses.
87% Consider Entrepreneurial Skills a Core Competency
Slightly more than four out of five survey respondents currently consider themselves entrepreneurs. However, the vast majority of alumni (87%) view entrepreneurial skills as a core competency by 87% of respondents – rather than just a means to start their own business. These people may be creating their own ventures now, but they may transition throughout their careers between entrepreneurship and other roles. It’s important that these entrepreneurial skills will support them in either situation.
Respondents consider who consider entrepreneurship a core competency credit both the MIT program as well as the importance of hands-on experience to develop their entrepreneurial skillset. Many also noted they view entrepreneurship as a set of skills that must be honed through practice.
Entrepreneurship is Seen as an Important Part of People’s Identity
Many alumni view entrepreneurship as a way to solve important problems and pursue their visions. Entrepreneurship is the lens through which they approach these challenges and visions, with 62% of respondents reporting that an entrepreneurial outlook is an important part of their identity.
However, a select few respondents see entrepreneurship as a strict occupation, and not a core part of their identity. Others described themselves as entrepreneurs within their specific field or company, for example, an “entrepreneurial scientist.”
92% Say MIT Entrepreneurship Classes Support their Current Role
The classwork that delta v alumni participated in has proven to be on target. A full 92% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that what they learned in MIT entrepreneurship classes supports their current role, even if they are not an entrepreneur today.
Specifically, delta v alumni said the skills learned in the classroom help them in the following situations:
It gave me a playbook when I have to do things I have not done before.
I use what I learned at MIT every single day, in working with my team, financial planning/strategy, product development and management, and making sure I am looking at the right problems, in various different ways.
I focus a lot on management – and classes in particular help understand people and teams.
I need to assess new technologies according to their business promise and their technical risks.
I can more effectively voice my concerns and disagreements.
I can think about problems from a variety of different angles – rather than just technically.
The classwork provided a structured approach to innovation.
The presentation skills and network taught in delta v are still used to this day.
Entrepreneurial Skills are Marketable
Respondents feel that the entrepreneurial skills they learned while at MIT are marketable with 79% strongly agreeing or agreeing with that statement. They feel that:
The skills are an asset in their current role (86%)
The skills will be an asset in their future roles (68%)
The skills will help them in landing a future job (37%)
Some of the general entrepreneurial skills respondents bring to the table include customer identification/market research, Identifying competitive positioning and use cases, product design, business modeling, and scaling a business.
MIT’s entrepreneurship courses benefit participants by providing frameworks, structure, and discipline to their ideas. It also gave them opportunities to test out ideas and take risks, iterating those ideas in a supportive and knowledge-based environment. Many respondents mentioned the supportive delta v ecosystem and cohort, providing mentors in the entrepreneurship community and a network that gave the entrepreneurs confidence.
One of the delta v alumni sums it up nicely, saying:
“delta v gives people the opportunity to create transformational value in society. It gives young people the tools and skills they need to make that happen. The future rests on the next wave of entrepreneurs to bring about that change and growth.”
Today I put the dogs in my car to drive to a field where I could take them for a walk. I then went back to the house because I forgot my phone and when I came out, I got into the other car, and started driving to work. I was well into the next town before I realized it was 8:00, and I work from home now. It was a bit of a wake up call.
I know my mind is not in the game yet. I am running from item to item and finishing nothing. And, I don’t even have kids in the house. Like others, I do have family, community, and colleagues that I am worried about.
So, I am going to cut myself a break and figure this out.
I may need a slotted time. At a former employer, I was a slave to instant messaging, and I still hate it. I worked long hours, and I was busy, but not productive. I don’t want to make that mistake again. I don’t know what this “new normal” will look like yet, but I encourage all of you to find a way to work that works for you.
If you are home with kids, you know they need, deserve, and want your attention. If you have a spouse or partner at home and you are sharing a room or alternating rooms, you have to find a rhythm. If you are caring for an elderly parent, relative, or friend, I’m sure you’re especially stressed right now.
We all need patience. In one of my training sessions, the instructor said that you need patience and that you may not be able to do everything. They are right. This is a unique opportunity, and how can we take advantage of it? Each of us needs to figure out how it works for them and let one another know.
As part of MIT’s entrepreneurship community, we are a team that cares about each other. The work will get done as long as we take care of ourselves. So, I encourage you to experiment. If you want to partner up as we do for delta v applications, then set up time ahead so others can plan for it. If you need time for yourself, take it.
It looks like this is going to be a long road. This is a tough time, no doubt. We need to continue to deliver excellent programming, engage with students, teach in an innovative way, and continue to be a high performing team. However, first and foremost, we need to take care of ourselves, and if we all do that, we will get through this even stronger.
I know we’ve heard Rudyard Kipling’s quote from The Jungle Book, “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” and in this situation, I believe it is extremely apt and timely.
Those are my thoughts for today.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments as well.