Why We Need to Redefine Start-up Culture With Positive Mental Health Habits

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Data shows self-awareness practices helped M.I.T. entrepreneurs better manage the stress of entrepreneurship.

Anxiety and depression are rampant among entrepreneurs. The stereotype of a founder — fueled by caffeine and ramen noodles, while forgoing sleep, exercise, fresh air, friends, and family in the quest for success — has been the norm for years. It has been encouraged, and even glorified, by start-up culture.

The Inc. article “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship” explores this topic and explains, “the same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are ‘vulnerable to the dark side of obsession.’” Yet this is not healthy or helpful for long-term success.

Compounding this problem is the start-up founder’s hesitation to show weakness or self-doubt. They feel the need to project confidence for investors and employees, despite any inner insecurities. They also tend to connect their self-worth and identity to their start-ups, which can lead to feelings of depression if their start-up fails.

We also commonly see “impostor syndrome” — an unjustified, yet pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence. This can slow down an otherwise well-designed new organization by curtailing its ultimate impact and potentially even its existence. The majority of entrepreneurs have experienced these feelings, but they are pushed away and not discussed.

At M.I.T., we don’t believe entrepreneurship has to be this way. The health of a start-up doesn’t need to impact founders’ mental health. We believe self-awareness and mental preparedness can enhance an entrepreneur’s abilities. This, in turn, leads to creating a more successful business. The right tools can help entrepreneurs work through stress, rather than work in spite of it. This is a real game changer for the start-up culture.

Through a new exploratory program, 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. In fact, 93% of M.I.T. delta v entrepreneurs believe self-awareness practices can help them create more successful businesses. Here’s more about the program:

Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication

Last year, we debuted Entrepreneurial Confidence and Communication (E.C.C.) at M.I.T.’s delta v accelerator. This is the first comprehensive program to address mental health challenges in the start-up community and builds on our previous smaller experiments in this area. Our goal was to teach 84 student founders and their team members tools to build greater self-awareness and to provide a confidential environment for venting and peer feedback. Stress is inevitable in start-ups, but by learning how to be less affected by that stress, participants could make better choices for themselves and their start-ups.

In the first six weeks of the program, participants were taught the tools of self-awareness, including meditation and mindfulness, and their benefits. What are the benefits of meditation or mindfulness? Studies abound, but two that may be of particular interest to entrepreneurs are:

  • Harvard study on practicing mindfulness meditation for at least 30 minutes a day reports that the practice can increase grey matter in the hippocampus. This is one of the more important meditation facts, since this part of the brain plays an important role in memory and learning.
  • Another study, published in Heliyon, showed that practicing mindfulness meditation for a short period of time may enhance visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.

In the second six weeks, they applied their learnings, discussing key choices entrepreneurs face — taking breaks vs. spending all your time on your start-up, working through limiting beliefs, considering others’ perspectives, and approaching challenges with fear or curiosity. Participants learned through readings, optional group meditation, and small group sessions where they could talk confidentially about challenges they were facing with people who could relate to what they were going through.

The results were significant. Participants didn’t just learn that a self-awareness practice can benefit them — they decided to implement it on a regular basis in their own lives. The overall experience had a measurable effect on their well-being.

The student entrepreneurs started becoming what we call “antifragile.” The term antifragile is used by professor and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book titled Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. When applying his systems analysis to humans, antifragile people are those who “grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

A comparison of surveys conducted before and after the program, with 60 participants responding, revealed the following results:

Learning new skills

Before the program, 65% of participants had never meditated and only 21% were regularly practicing meditation or mindfulness.

By the end of the summer, 88% of had independently established their own regular, weekly meditation or mindfulness practice, despite heavy workloads and continual critical deadlines. And, their practices were measurably impacting how they worked through stress. After the program, 53% of participants were using a deliberate technique to calm themselves when in the midst of a stressful situation.

Sharing challenges

Most founders rarely have the opportunity to talk about the challenges of entrepreneurship with someone who is knowledgeable, and whom they don’t feel the need to impress. Participants in E.C.C. reported significant value from both small group discussions and optional one-on-one sessions, which were both 100% utilized by the students. The fact that very busy students took full advantage of E.C.C.’s optional one-on-one coaching, in particular, indicates the strong value the participants realized from the program.

Credit: The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Making better choices

We hypothesized that self-awareness tools could help founders make better moment-to-moment choices in their daily entrepreneurial lives. We found that after the program, 34% of participants who had established a meditation or mindfulness practice were more confident in their communications with others. And 40% were more aware of the emotions they were feeling, choosing to go ahead and feel those emotions rather than push them away.

The data affirms that self-awareness tools are useful in managing stress — and they can be taught. These tools help you understand your automatic responses to difficult situations and to perspectives different from your own. You start to notice problems earlier and feel more personal confidence, making it is easier to treat yourself and others with respect and to be resilient in the face of entrepreneurship’s challenges.

As demonstrated in this Boston Consulting Group article “Unleashing the Power of Mindfulness in Corporations,” meditation and mindfulness have proven positive effects in other industries — and now we have data that shows they can be significantly beneficial in entrepreneurship. Integrating self-awareness into the entrepreneurial experience will help prevent burnout, encourage better mental and physical health, and create better team dynamics. It’s great for entrepreneurs, and it could be great for their start-ups’ bottom line too.

Self-awareness education can guide entrepreneurs to not only take care of themselves, but to spread these skills across the entrepreneurial ecosystem, building company cultures that are supportive of both individual and start-up success. As M.I.T.’s delta v program works to redefine the start-up culture by incorporating positive mental health practices, we want to help entrepreneurs practice the self-awareness skills necessary to nurture their own mental health and create more successful businesses.

This piece originally appeared in Thrive Global and was co-written by Kathleen Stetson.

Entrepreneurship 2020: A Look Ahead

Heading into a new decade is a time for both reflection and predictions. What have we learned about entrepreneurship? And what do we see as trends moving forward?

2019 marked the tenth summer that MIT’s Martin Trust Center has hosted an accelerator and the eighth year of our formal MIT delta v program. I’ve had the pleasure of leading delta v for the past five years, and I’ve seen tremendous growth during that time. The summer-long bootcamp works with entrepreneurs who enter with an idea for their business and progress to product creation and new venture launch. The program is based on the Disciplined Entrepreneurship framework with the philosophy that entrepreneurship can be taught; you don’t have to be born an entrepreneur.

A Decade of Success at MIT’s delta v Accelerator

We’ve studied the path of the companies coming out of delta v; as of January 2018, 101 teams made up of 316 students had taken part, and a full 75% of these startups were either still in business or had been acquired – far above the average for new ventures. These delta v alumni companies employ more than 500 workers across the globe, and 25% of our teams have ten or more employees. According to figures on Crunchbase, as of November 2019, delta v teams have raised more than $215 million from 375+ investments. One-third of the companies raised at least $1M+, and six teams have exceeded $10M+ in funding rounds.

In the words of one of our board members, Max Faingezicht, “delta v is a driving force of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you mix talent with motivation to go out and change the world.”

So, what changes do we anticipate in the next decade of entrepreneurship? Some of the broader trends we see are ones reflected in delta v.

A Rise in Women Entrepreneurs is Impacting the Economy

It is a fact that women entrepreneurs are driving economic growth. According to an article in Forbes on 10 Stats that Build the Case for Investing in Women-Led Startups, women were the sole or majority owners of an estimated 12.3 million U.S. businesses at the beginning of 2018, and are starting businesses at a rate of more than 1,800 per day. The number of women-owned companies is growing at a faster rate than all businesses and women of color are driving this. In addition, companies founded by women deliver higher revenue – more than 2 times as much per dollar invested – than those founded by men.  

Four out of every ten businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, according to The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). These businesses tend to be smaller in terms of revenue and employment. In fact, 88% of women-owned businesses generate less than $100,000 in annual revenue, while 1.7% generated more than $1 million in revenue – although both segments are growing.

At MIT’s delta v we see more women taking leadership roles in the startups. With each cohort, we strive for diverse gender and ethnic backgrounds plus a worldwide perspective, and we proactively aim to neutralize gender bias for entrepreneurs. Diverse teams offer a tremendous benefit in terms of networking and help each other solve challenges, supporting our philosophy that diversity fuels innovation. We’ve also seen that the rate of our successful women-led startups is even higher than the delta v average.

Mentorship Lays the Foundation for Entrepreneurial Success

An article in VentureBeat explains that people with access to a mentor are five times more likely to be interested in starting a business than those without a mentor. Mentorship is linked with business success, and business owners who receive three-plus hours of counseling report higher revenues and employment growth rates. The article also states nearly half of women entrepreneurs say one of the top challenges they face is finding a mentor who can direct them to the resources and organizations that can help them launch their businesses. 

At delta v, our Entrepreneurs-in-Residence and board members are built-in mentors for our student teams. Both bring resources and experience to guide the new entrepreneurs on their journey. We also encourage student entrepreneurs to find their voice. This requires mentees to speak up and be active participants in the process. They need to own their narrative, identify what is of value to them, and speak up to find a mentor or sponsor and make that relationship fruitful.

Gen Z’s Vision of Entrepreneurship

Although we work with a lot of Millennials in delta v, it’s interesting to keep an eye on the upcoming generation of entrepreneurs. (Pew Research considers anyone born between 1981 and 1996 a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of Generation Z.)

Gen Z has different priorities and different frames of reference than the entrepreneurs who preceded them. Amazon’s next-day delivery has always been a thing for them. They never went to Blockbuster to rent a movie and social media permeates their lives. As a result, internet-based business models are second nature; “Uberize” is even a verb used to describe a business model. Entrepreneur states that 41% of Gen Z-ers plan to become entrepreneurs.

Interestingly, Millennials are less likely to become entrepreneurs, according to a study from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It revealed that fewer than 4 percent of 30-year-olds are actively engaged in entrepreneurship, compared with 5.4 percent of Generation X-ers and 6.7 percent of Baby Boomers who were entrepreneurs at the same age. Coming of age during a time of recession and burdened with student debt, many Millennials turned to side gigs to make money. I explored the gig economy in my Xconomy article on Necessity vs. Innovation-based Entrepreneurs. Interestingly, necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their businesses.

As each new generation makes its way in the world, it is fascinating to see how they view entrepreneurship and the new types of businesses they create.

What’s Ahead for delta v?

With the data we have gathered on the delta v teams over the past decade, one of our next steps is to develop a more scalable playbook so that we can extend our reach even further. At MIT, we rely on observations, research, and experimentation. Our motto, mens et manus (which translates from Latin to “mind and hand”), is present in everything we do. In entrepreneurship classes and programs, this approach is vital. Our students don’t automatically have a higher success rate; they learn the fundamentals of becoming an entrepreneur hands-on. At the Martin Trust Center, we have integrated the mechanics of new venture creation in curriculum, programming, community support, and we have validated them on a world stage.

As the collective knowledge of entrepreneurship improves, we continue to move forward to meet the needs of the entire entrepreneur. However, like any discovery, it takes several experiments and iterations to fully understand aspects of the problem you are trying to solve. We realize that mental fortitude and self-awareness are crucial to moving forward and are implementing some exciting new programming in this area.

As we prepare to lead entrepreneurs into the next decade, there are some “big rocks” to address. We need to prepare students for financial discussions and mental stamina for the funding process. We need to focus on establishing a culture and nurturing it, supported by our team. A business reflects the character of the founding and growing team, so the journey starts with an individual and builds to a long-term game.

Why Give Back? Reflections from delta v Board Members

At MIT delta v, the capstone educational accelerator for MIT students run by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, our board members are a very special part of the entrepreneurial mix. Each summer, the student teams work extremely hard to identify their beachhead market, build the right product, and secure initial customers as they form and grow their startup companies. On a daily basis, they receive mentorship and coaching from the Trust Center staff and the Entrepreneurs in Residence, but the rubber really meets the road when it’s time for the board of directors meetings. The board members bring in their real life, outside perspectives as the teams prepare to formally present their startups at the culmination of the program on Demo Day.

The delta v students live and breathe each detail of their startups every day, and interactions with their board members gives the students a chance to step back, look at the big picture, and convince others of their vision. They must rise to the challenge of communicating their business plan clearly and succinctly. There is a huge opportunity to learn from people on the board, who know a great deal about business fundamentals and have tremendous networks that can help an entrepreneur.

Our board members are incredible! Each of them is assigned to a startup team based on their industry interest, and they dedicate a minimum of 90 minutes per month during the summer to these meetings, not even counting preparation and follow up. The board’s specific role is to evaluate a team’s progress based upon rubrics and metrics focusing on customer and market understanding in month one, product development in month two, and the readiness of the business to launch in month three. In each meeting, the board evaluates how successful the team has been in meeting benchmarks and then awards the team an associated amount of equity-free funding. As a result, both the teams and the members of the board take these meetings very seriously.

But what’s in it for these volunteer board members?

Each of these people are highly successful, incredibly busy business executives, entrepreneurs, faculty, or domain experts. I’m sure each and every one could use a little extra downtime in their lives – especially over the summer – but instead they choose to engage with us at delta v. None do so passively; they come prepared and are tough graders for these student teams. Since delta v is an education accelerator, none of them have an equity stake in the companies they advise.

So why give back? I reached out and asked board members why they chose to do this. Their answers are truly amazing and inspiring.

Why have you chosen to give of your time, talent, and wisdom?

“Entrepreneurship requires a support network. It is almost impossible to do it alone. I have received so much support from the MIT ecosystem (that) I want to do whatever I can to help provide the same support for others in the community.” Adam Blake, entrepreneur and investor, Board Member for Viridis

“To me, the energy that radiates from the MIT community is like no other in the world. The ‘pay-it-forward’ mindset is so intrinsic to the culture at MIT; thus, I feel honored to be able to share anything I have learned so far, which might be helpful to others.” Amanda von Goetz, FERMATA Profiling,
Board Member for
Season Three

“My brain finds all this engaging. The board members and the structure help these [students] move along on their developmental path, which in turn contributes to the world’s ‘good’ business karma.”
Antoinette Russell, Eaton Vance, Board Member for
CaroCare

“I have received a lot of help and encouragement in my career to take on tasks that seemed impossible (sort of like starting a company!), and this is my way of paying it forward.” Chris Zannetos, Covered Security, Board Member for Quantifai

“All the time I invest in it is well spent, for it’s equally inspiring and enriching to hear new ideas, thought processes, and extract so much from all this talented and diverse melting pot.” Jerome Selva, IBM Watson Customer Engagement, Board Member for Quantifai

“Entrepreneurship matters! It drives our society forward and helps us solve the world’s greatest problems. Giving our time and sharing our experience is how we keep the startup fire alive.” Max Faingezicht. Entrepreneur, Board Member for Precavida

“Servant leadership is very important to me – it’s all about enriching the lives of others, building better organizations and ultimately creating a world that is more caring and equitable.” Rita B. Allen, Rita B. Allen Associates, Board Member for CaroCare

With all the worthy causes, why delta v?

“It’s always as much of a learning experience for me to be a part of a team on the ground floor of some amazing ventures. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to network with students in the program, as well as colleagues and business professionals/executives throughout different disciplines and industries within the Boston community.” – Rita B. Allen

 “delta v is the program that I wish existed when I was a student. I believe it epitomizes the ‘manus’ part of the MIT motto ‘mens et manus’ and serves as one of the most important mechanisms for enabling MIT technology and talent to create value for the world.” Adam Blake

“It is an incredible opportunity to connect and reconnect with out-of-this-world alumni from all corners of the MIT community, to problem solve alongside diverse minds, and to continue learning and growing through the experiences of others.” – Amanda von Goetz

“delta v is a driving force of the entrepreneurial ecosystem where you mix talent with motivation to go out and change the world.” Max Faingezicht

What is one thing that you can look back on during this summer’s program that makes you say, “This was worthwhile”?

“The common passion and conviction embodied by the participants – alumni, faculty, and board of directors – to seek ways to make the world a better place.” – Jérôme Selva

“The team I worked with is moving to India to start the company that they worked on. I’d like to think that we helped them to refine their approach over the summer and seeing the team follow through with real action is very gratifying.” – Adam Blake

“To be able to be a part of the launch and initial pilots of CaroCare, a new venture founded by two visionary young women.” – Rita B. Allen

 “I have found the teams to be tremendously open to feedback and re-assessing their assumptions; seeing them not just take our advice on face value, but really evaluating the feedback and exploring whether it should impact their plans. That makes it worthwhile.” – Chris Zannetos

“Seeing the progress of the teams is humbling. The amount of work that happens in just a few weeks gives us a glimpse of what is possible when we are focused and determined.” Max Faingezicht

“The team’s energy, their passion, their pure and unbridled excitement for what they do, is contagious in the best possible way. This is positive energy that reinvigorates and re-inspires you, which you can then take back with you into your own respective spheres.” – Amanda von Goetz

If you could share one piece of advice with students as they launch their startups, what would it be?

“You need to lead. Never forget that pivoting – and communicating the pivots – is an integral component of building.  You cannot build this on your own – you need those teammates – but you also need to lead.” – Antoinette Russell

 “Try to get as far as you can with as little capital as you can before scaling up.” – Adam Blake

“Get physically fit and work as hard as possible to stay that way. Being a founder is not an easy job, and it comes with a pretty hefty amount of stress. For that reason, it is really important that you stay as strong and healthy as possible. Get into ‘fighting shape,’ not just for yourself, but also for your team, and for all of the people who believe in you.” – Amanda von Goetz

“Be intellectually honest about your assumptions and challenge them constantly.” – Chris Zannetos

“Follow your passion, fuel your conviction, focus on outcomes to succeed together! The results will come!” – Jérôme Selva

“It’s always about people. Don’t get lost in the minutia and forget about your team, your customers, your partners, or your investors. In the end, people make up the journey, and that will determine the breadth of your impact.” Max Faingezicht

“Stay humble, honest, paranoid, and ALWAYS hustle.” – Rita B. Allen

One final note …

I’d like to give a big thank you to Martin Trust and his family; without him there would be no platform for delta v. Marty Trust passed away recently, and he will be fondly remembered by all of us at the center that bears his name. To learn more about Marty and his legacy, read this tribute by our Managing Director, Bill Aulet.

Women and Work: Intentional Invisibility?

Be seen. Speak up. Make your voice heard. These are lessons we are taught as we enter the workforce and climb the ladder to corporate success. Yet, many women are uncomfortable with this advice, even though they want to succeed

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Why Women Stay out of the Spotlight at Work,” explores the concept of “intentional invisibility” and why some women use this as a strategy to navigate the workplace. Immersed in a women’s professional development program, the HBR authors learned how this cloak of invisibility enabled women to “get stuff done” and quietly move things forward without drawing attention to themselves. The drawback? Although these women were well-liked, they were underappreciated, (probably underpaid), and often overlooked for promotions.

Women tend to choose intentional invisibility for three reasons:

  1. to avoid conflict,
  2. to be authentic to their personalities, and
  3. to seek personal and professional balance.

The term intentional invisibility really clicked with me. I believe that looking at this issue more closely can help C-level executives and managers value and encourage leadership qualities in women they work with, even if those women may not lead in the same way as their male colleagues. Here are some examples I’ve encountered in my own life.

Conflict Avoidance when Choosing a Startup CEO
At MIT’s delta v, student venture accelerator program, I mentor entrepreneurs. During the program, student teams form startup companies and choose a management team. Although women are well-represented in delta v overall, we still have more male CEOs than female CEOs. Often, the most extroverted person in the group is rewarded with leadership responsibility, and more reserved women on the team defer and don’t put forth an argument as to why they should be considered as CEO. Later, I’ve had female team members share with me that it just wasn’t worth the fight, or that it doesn’t matter who has the CEO title, they will all work together. This conflict avoidance lets the team initially move forward more quickly, but hidden resentment sometimes bubbles up to cause problems later. Ultimately, if the company succeeds, it is important who is the CEO. I’m encouraged that a lot of women in the delta v program this year took advantage of the personal coaching sessions we offer to address imposter syndrome. As leaders, we should ensure employees are evaluated on several different, varied criteria because the person who speaks up the loudest is not always the best for the job.

Self-Identified in a Helper Role
In another example, many women I know (myself included) often end up in the job of the indispensable helper or chief assistant, the so-called right-hand man … only in this case, it’s a woman. Whether it’s as a COO, vice president, or research assistant, the right-hand woman makes it easy for her boss (usually a man) to be successful while she stays in the background. This role may be more aligned with her authentic sense of self, or it may be how she has been guided through the organization. When we meet these women, we wonder if their bosses could ever survive without them. In my opinion, many of these women would make excellent top executives themselves, but they may gravitate toward these roles because they define themselves as helpers. I’d encourage women to think about what they really enjoy in this role and find a voice. They should strive to shine independently and get credit for their accomplishments, not just enable their boss’ success. If they realize they’ve been hiding in their bosses’ shadow and would rather be the boss themselves, they should take the steps to grow into that position. I was fortunate enough to work with an executive coach who told me, “You don’t need a seat at the table, you already have it. Now, act like it.” No one had ever told me that before and it really re-framed the way I thought about my job.

The Balancing Act and the Second Shift
Finally, women tend to choose invisibility over face time when they need to balance responsibilities at work with those at home. However, what women really need is flexibility, not invisibility. Although the dynamic is changing, most of the women I know are still responsible for the lion’s share of household duties, our so called second shift – especially when it comes to parenting and elder care. While face time is important to get ahead in an organization, it becomes deprioritized for women who need the flexibility to bring a sick child or parent to the doctor, assist with after-school activities, or even to be the one who works from home when the cable guy is coming. Jobs that involve travel for work, networking events outside of regular work hours, or even casual after-work drinks often deliver undue stress for women. They know it’s good for their careers, but they either decline to attend or need to do a lot of juggling to make it happen. While the boss is getting chummy with the guys over a beer, often the female colleague is rushing home to pick up the kids, get dinner on the table, throw in a load of laundry, and get everyone ready to do it all over again tomorrow. When it comes time to pick someone for that plum assignment, Tom gets chosen because he’s a good guy and the project leader got to know him socially after work. This is a tough one, because it’s an implicit bias. I believe things will only change when both partners at home equally share responsibilities and both must deal with juggling the needs of a demanding job and home life. Of course, this is even trickier for single parents and caretakers.

Reality Check

As the HBR article explains, organizations value leaders who stand up, are visible, and take credit. But, this definition of leadership can leave women out in the cold because their behind-the-scenes contributions are overlooked or undervalued. It suggests that organizations value unconventional forms of leadership, fight implicit bias, and balance women’s second-shift responsibilities in order to make it easier for them to be seen and promoted. I wholeheartedly agree that today’s leaders must dig deeper to recognize and value the contributions and leadership qualities of women who are intentionally invisible in our workplaces. Most of these women truly don’t want to be invisible, so as leaders we need to see them, encourage their input, recognize their contributions, and offer flexibility. We need to make it OK to succeed by following a different path.

If you feel like you gravitate toward an intentionally invisible role at work, what can you do? Be mindful to push yourself out of your comfort zone and step in the spotlight. Find your voice and own your career, rather an allowing other people to do so. There are a lot of paths – you are allowed to do things your way and own your success!

Necessity vs. Innovation-Based Entrepreneurs

This article originally appeared in Xconomy.

What makes someone an entrepreneur? Most simply defined, an entrepreneur is a person who identifies a need and starts a business to fill that void. But others will argue that a “true” entrepreneur must come up with an innovative new product or service and then operates their business to sell and profit from that innovation.

Under the broader definition are those people who become entrepreneurs out of necessity – starting their own business after losing a job, to supplement their income, or to gain the flexibility to attend to other demands in their lives.

Take Joanne, for example. Joanne started her holistic health business about eight years ago. Although she doesn’t necessarily consider herself an entrepreneur, the necessity of a family member’s health situation created both a challenge and an opportunity that shifted her path of employment. As a graduate of Boston University with a degree in math, and Syracuse with an MBA, Joanne had been working as a technical engagement director managing large-scale database development projects.

However, she was also managing the special needs of a son at home with learning differences. She was hit with a layoff from her job about the same time that her son required more services. She was doing tons of research to help him in any way possible, including alternatives to mainstream treatment, and she started an unpaid e-mail service to friends and family sharing what she learned. The response was tremendous – several people told her that she had changed their lives and she should make a career out of it. She decided to take the plunge, pursued further education, and then started JBS Holistic Nutrition where she offers health coaching and healing alternatives. The nature of her business allows her to be flexible. She is currently working part-time, which enables her to manage the needs of her family and help take care of an ailing parent. She sees her business as an opportunity to help people change their lives for the better.

Joanne is someone I’d consider a necessity-based entrepreneur. Often, necessity is financially based, but pursuing a passion and work-life balance issues also play into necessity.

One of the first references to “necessity entrepreneurship” was in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report in 2001. This third annual GEM assessment researched entrepreneurship in 29 countries. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they were starting and growing their business to take advantage of a unique market opportunity (opportunity entrepreneurship) or because it was the best option available (necessity entrepreneurship). At the time, the average opportunity entrepreneurship prevalence rate across the 29 GEM countries was about 6.5 percent, while the average for necessity entrepreneurship was 2.5 percent.

Interestingly, GEM’s most recent report for 2017-2018 looks at entrepreneurship through a few more complex lenses, but it states that most entrepreneurs around the world are opportunity-motivated. On average, three-quarters of global respondents stated that they had chosen to pursue an opportunity as a basis for their entrepreneurial motivations, with 83 percent of entrepreneurs in North America falling into this category. Women were more likely to start businesses out of necessity, compared to men, in all regions except in North America.

My guess is that necessity-based entrepreneurs may be somewhat under-represented in these numbers as they may not self-identify as entrepreneurs. Necessity-based entrepreneurs also may be less likely to respond to this type of survey.

Some of the early research on the topic discusses a push-pull analogy. “Push” (or necessity-based) entrepreneurs are those who may be faced with a job loss, dissatisfaction with their current positions, or lack of career opportunities. For these reasons – unrelated to their entrepreneurial characteristics – they are pushed to start a venture. “Pull” (or opportunity-based) entrepreneurs are those who initiate venture activity because of the attractiveness of the business idea and its personal implications. They may seek independence, increased earnings, and opportunities to carry out their own ideas.

A study out of Stanford on Opportunity versus Necessity Entrepreneurship explores the common and seemingly paradoxical finding that business creation increases in recessions. It looks at two distinct motivations, “opportunity” entrepreneurship and “necessity” entrepreneurship (with the simple definition of a necessity entrepreneur as initially unemployed before starting their business). The research found that opportunity entrepreneurship is generally pro-cyclical and necessity entrepreneurship is strongly counter-cyclical – that is, recessions drive necessity-based entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Opportunity entrepreneurship was also found to be associated with more growth-oriented businesses.

I believe there are many profiles of the necessity-based entrepreneur, and it’s a segment of entrepreneurship that deserves more attention. Not every entrepreneur is the genius superstar with a new technology. Some forms of entrepreneurship are a bit humbler.

An example of this are gig economy entrepreneurs. These “gigs” are often short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to (or in addition to) permanent jobs – think Uber and TaskRabbit. Although this is an emerging form of entrepreneurship, is it a positive experience for the entrepreneur (and the economy)? Or, is it a necessary side hustle some people need to survive?

Women and minority entrepreneurs are often necessity-based entrepreneurs. The startup rate for businesses created by both women and minorities exceeds the overall rate for new startups. The Minority 2018 Small Business Trends survey by Guidant Financial surveyed 2,600 business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, and found that 45 percent of small business in the country were owned by minority ethnic groups and 26 percent were owned by women in 2018. What is driving these business owners, and are we measuring their contributions effectively?

While economic gain is certainly one component of necessity-based entrepreneurship, a broader definition includes entrepreneurs who are motivated by their belief that the traditional labor options available are insufficient to meet their non-economic needs and goals as well.

At MIT, we foster entrepreneurship through programs like our delta v student venture accelerator where our students are out to change the world with their innovations. But, entrepreneurship has many forms and there is no one right model or best way to measure success. Necessity-based entrepreneurs are shaping their own success in a way that works and should be included in the broader study of entrepreneurs.

This article was published in Xconomy on November 26, 2018.

How the MIT Ecosystem is Supporting Entrepreneurs

0044_8788 copyAnother MIT delta v Demo Day is in the books! Our 2018 cohort was the biggest yet, with 25 teams presenting, and for the first time, we had a program in New York City in addition to our Cambridge team.

With all our preparation for Demo Day and the excitement of the day itself, sometimes it’s tough to step back and look at the big picture – but, it’s important. In this case, the big picture is the MIT ecosystem for entrepreneurs, and how it works to support our startups.

As our Managing Director Bill Aulet said in his introductory presentation, the mission of MIT is that we DO things, and that’s what this is all about. We are driven to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges. Our entrepreneurship program at delta v is about trying to solve some of these great challenges – and we do it by creating an environment and an ecosystem where these entrepreneurs can thrive and flourish.

An Inspiring Environment for Diverse Ideas

Delta v is the most inspiring environment I can think of for an entrepreneur. There’s an energy here that propels each of our teams forward. For 90 days, the delta v teams eat, sleep, and breathe their companies. They are guided through a process that makes them really think through the realities of starting an actual business. It’s not just chasing a cool idea – the fundamentals and bedrock of the business must be in place, including a solid business plan, working collaboratively with a board of directors, and testing their concepts with customers. The mentors, Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, our board of directors and the customer community are all part of the ecosystem.

This year, I was really impressed by the diverse industries in which the students worked. We had students with business ideas in crypto-currency, social, agriculture, mental health, financial, construction. And despite these wildly different spaces, the students still managed to find common ground and problem solve together. Three big themes stood out this year:

  • Inclusion – such as financial and societal inclusion
  • Human isolation – people are more connected today, but there is a lack of real relationships
  • Machine learning & AI – technologies with strong MIT foundations

A Strong Entrepreneurial Community

At delta v, we realize that a startup is only as strong as its community. So, we really focused on building more support systems for our students. We brought back delta v alums, like our keynote Spyce, a 2015 delta v alum who just closed on a $21 million series A round. We did consistent one-on-one counseling with founders and hosted outside advisors and speakers to provide novel perspectives for our students. In addition, this area provides an unparalleled innovation ecosystem access. The MIT campus and Kendall Square area is the densest innovation cluster in the world, with its concentration of startups, high-tech companies, and venture capital firms. This enriches the lives of our student entrepreneurs and expands the ecosystem where our they can grow and learn.

Personal Development as Leaders

A lot of this summer was about personal development for our entrepreneurs. I never worry about these students when it comes to technology. But it takes intentional entrepreneurship education – through many different teaching methods and technologies – to help create leaders that can rise to the challenge of starting a business. That’s something we hope to continue to grow at delta v in the coming years. Because really, anyone can raise money for their startup. But it takes better leaders and teams to know how to use that money and tech knowledge more effectively to continue generating revenue and try to solve some of the world’s great challenges.

If you want to get the full experience (and have 3+ hours), watch the video of the entire Boston Demo Day 2018 program:

To learn a little about each of the teams and view the startup videos (about 5 minutes each).

Also, see what BostInno and the MIT Sloan Newsroom have to say about Demo Day 2018!

 

Find Your Voice, Own Your Narrative, and Help Your Mentor Help You

In today’s society, there is an awareness that diversity is important not only as a concept, but also for real bottom line improvements. While this is good news, there is still a long way to go. I recently had the privilege of joining a panel that discussed the successes and challenges facing women in terms of equal pay, gender parity/blind bias, and upward mobility.

“Press for Progress” was sponsored by The Boston Club and held at the offices of Ernst & Young. First, my thanks to our moderator, Tara Alex, an Insurance Partner at E&Y, and my fellow panelists: Linda Rossetti, social entrepreneur and board member; Agnes Bundy Scanlan, who is on multiple boards and an advisor at Treliant Risk Advisors; and Jane Steinmetz, the Managing Principal for E&Y’s Boston office.

The overall feedback from this panel is positive – there is more focus on improving gender parity today, and sponsorship is key to that improvement. When you have a sponsor, someone is advocating for you; they have your best interests in mind and can recommend you for important assignments. The other key takeaway is the importance of having multiple women and minorities in the candidate pool for new hires.

Gender Parity and Sponsorship

The panel provided actionable advice both for women trying to get ahead and for their mentors. It was clear from the panel’s experience, as well as the audience’s, that each individual’s journey is personal and gender parity mandates don’t work. Because each experience is different, the power is shifted to the employee to own their experience and make the most of it. Employees need to leave “breadcrumbs” along the way so that when opportunities arise, the managers making the decision know what you have accomplished. Whether it is seeking a board seat or a new career path, if no one knows what you want (and you have not networked to get the message out) then it will be difficult for the hiring folks to find you.

An interesting Harvard Business Review article by Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman, and Elsa T. Chan delves into the statistics around the number of diverse candidates presented and its impact on selection. Titled “If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired,” the article’s premise is that people are invested in maintaining the status quo. That means if two men and one woman are presented as equally qualified, employers tend to hire a male. The panel discussed making the candidate pool richer with more women and minority candidates, and how this could shift the odds.

The women on my panel have all played a sponsor role in their organizations. They talked about looking at a slate of candidates and finding opportunities to position them, so they are ready for the next opportunity. But this can only be done if the sponsor is aware of what you want and desire as a potential job candidate. This requires you as an employee to own your narrative, find your voice, identify what is of value to you, and link it to the organizational purpose.

Taking Risks

It is also clear that women often wait until they are fully qualified for a job before they apply for it, whereas men are more likely to take a risk and sell the vision of what they can/will do. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty states, “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not co-exist.”

With each risk you take, you build confidence. The first risk is the toughest, and if you’re successful, each subsequent risk is easier. Changing jobs is scary, but this lets others perceive you in a different light and provides momentum to your career. Even if you fail, you will realize what the issue was – wrong organizational fit, skills mismatch, more travel than you understood it to be, etc. – but by taking the risk you’ll be better prepared for when you make the next decision.

Upward Mobility

Pay parity and advancement were topics of particular interest to women who take an extended parenting leave and then return to the workforce. The panel’s advice was that you need to align yourself to market value, not your former salary. Do the work, find the data, and present your case. Today there is more transparency in salaries with sites like Glassdoor, so use this to your advantage. Remember, it is much costlier for your employer to lose you as an employee than to provide you a market-value salary. Also, step back and look at patterns. If you have seen other people’s careers go off track, this is where you must convey your own narrative to decision makers and voice your expectations about what you need to make it work.

Another point women should consider as they negotiate salary and benefits, is that silence is OK. In fact, it is often a powerful negotiation tool, so use it to your advantage. One final point is that you don’t have to do a job the way your predecessor did. Make it your own. If your family obligations don’t allow you to be out every night of the week, then figure out what does work for you and own it.

Further Diversity Research

I looked further at the research and the Harvard Business Review has a series of articles on the latest studies in diversity. One article by Evan Apfelbaum, titled “Why Your Diversity Program may be Helping Women but not Minorities (or Vice Versa),” looks at the problem of lumping women and minorities into one bucket. “The fact is that 40% of women make up all employees in a professional setting, whereas black women and men by contrast rarely comprise more than 5% of employees in these same settings.” These statistical differences affect how concerned people are with “sticking out” as representatives of their group. While the “value in difference” approach may energize groups, like white women, the very same message may, ironically, undermine groups who are represented in smaller numbers, like black women and men.

In the end, business is conducted by people and the way to enhance performance and decrease turnover is to provide all groups the same opportunity to succeed.