Three Profiles of Cannabis Entrepreneurs

Over 35 million US citizens use marijuana every month, more than the number of Americans who smoke cigarettes, according to the Dennemeyer Group. Research shows that the number of cannabis users is growing at over 15% a year. Interestingly, since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, the US Patent and Trademark Office must refuse all cannabis-related trademark applications, but that hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs.

As outlined in my previous blog post, there is a multi-billion dollar market for cannabis and CBD products, which opens up entrepreneurial opportunities in both the plant-touching and ancillary businesses. This post will look at profiles of three entrepreneurs working in cannabis-related start-ups and their views on the market space.

From helping growers, to distribution, to working with individual consumers, the cannabis market provides many opportunities.

AdaViv: Predictive Agriculture for Smarter Growing

Founded by an interdisciplinary team of MIT researchers and alumni, AdaViv emerged from MIT’s delta v accelerator.  Julian Ortiz, co-founder of AdaViv, explains how predictive agriculture can help cannabis growers to develop a competitive advantage: “We help producers grow smarter – from disease prevention to rapid experimentation, improving yields, and quality optimization.” 

The company uses computer vision and AI to uncover hidden plant biometrics, then translates this data into actionable insights for indoor and greenhouse growers. AdaViv aims to transform agriculture and deploy their technology to a variety of crops grown in controlled environments, though the founders initially are focusing on cannabis due to the high value in the crop, the level of quality control needed for the medical market, and the level of differentiation they can offer to growers. AdaViv has recently closed a $1 million funding round and has lined up initial customers. (See this video of AdaViv’s delta v Demo Day presentation.)

I Heart Jane: ECommerce Marketplace for More Efficient Distribution

Another cannabis company started out of MIT is Jane Technologies, Inc., a retail tech company that can be found online at IHeartJane.com. I Heart Jane is the cannabis industry’s only complete online marketplace where consumers can discover and order cannabis online. Founder Socrates Rosenfeld is a West Point grad and an Iraq War veteran. Suffering from PTSD after his return from combat, he realized the benefits of cannabis for symptoms such as sleeplessness and anxiety. After receiving his MBA from MIT, he founded the company with his brother using a business model similar to the Grubhub food delivery service. 

The company website states, “We believe in the cannabis industry’s ability to bring well-being, health, and love into this world, and it is our mission to bring confidence to the online cannabis shopping experience.”  Their online marketplace lets consumers shop for cannabis with the same ease and sophistication that they shop for everything else.

JBS Holistic Nutrition: Healing Alternatives for Consumers

The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill removes hemp (with less than 0.3% THC) from the Controlled Substances Act and propels hemp-derived CBD to be a potentially $22 billion market by 2022. While cannabis is still illegal in many states, CBD products are being embraced nationwide by both entrepreneurs and major retailers.

Joanne Burke-Sherman, owner of JBS Holistic Nutrition, works one-on-one with clients for health coaching and healing alternatives and offers CBD products. CBD, or cannabidiol, offers therapeutic benefits without the high. Clinical research on CBD includes preliminary studies of anxiety, cognition, movement disorders, and pain. Although CBD products are only one aspect of her business, she initially saw a lot of interest in CBD because everyone was curious. “I have seen many people supported in pain and anxiety,” said Burke-Sherman. “One client with addiction issues felt it truly helped and ‘saved his life.’  Others feel their joint pain is reduced and others say their anxiety is reduced.”

As the market gets more crowded and large chains start to carry CBD products, small entrepreneurs may be squeezed out. Burke-Sherman is concerned that most consumers will not know what to use. It is very similar to the existing nutritional supplement market – there is high-quality and low-quality. She would highly recommend going through a qualified person who has knowledge about the product in order to buy it.  Otherwise, a person should spend time doing research.  Some basic information is whether a product is organic (no pesticides and herbicides) and non-GMO.  Is there third-party testing?  What is tested? Consumers should check for solvents, heavy metals, or other harmful materials to make sure anything they use is safe.

Conclusion 

As the market opportunities continue to spark up, everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Jim Belushi to Jay-Z are getting involved in the blazing hot cannabis industry. But the hope is that there is plenty of green available for the less-famous entrepreneurs profiled here as well.

For more on the cannabis market, please read my last post, A Growing Market Sparks Up: Cannabis Opportunities for Entrepreneurs.

An abbreviated version of these posts was published in Xconomy, under the title, The Entrepreneurial Potential of Cannabis.

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A Growing Market Sparks Up: Cannabis Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

Atop the pile of mail on my kitchen island, I see “CBD for everyday wellness” calling from the back cover of the Bed, Bath & Beyond circular. For only $29.99 (minus my $5-off coupon) I can enjoy pure, THC-free essential oils from SpaRoom that promise relaxation and well-being. From these essential oils for wellness, to prescription-based medical marijuana, to recreational pot, cannabis offers huge business potential and both startups and big businesses are drawn to the market opportunity.

Recreational marijuana is now legal here in Massachusetts and it seems that everywhere you look, people are excited to create business ventures around it. But, like any other business endeavor, research, planning, and discipline are essential – maybe even more so given the legal and regulatory issues involved with cannabis. Starting a “cannabusiness” can provide passionate “ganjapreneurs” a chance to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning market, but it’s critical to jump in with your eyes wide open.

As of now, marijuana is fully legal in 10 US states plus Washington DC, and 33 states have a legal medical cannabis program (this map shows marijuana legality by state). From a business perspective, it’s tricky as some states allow medical marijuana, some allow only medical CBD oil, and in others it is still fully illegal. However, businesses are eager to participate in the cannabis industry at every level and many analysts believe that the US will fully legalize marijuana in the next several years, given that legislation such as the Marijuana Justice Bill to end the federal prohibition on marijuana has been introduced.

First, a bit about Cannabis Terminology … What’s What?

For the uninitiated, here’s a quick glossary of terms:

  • Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is a psychoactive drug from the Cannabis plant used for medical or recreational purposes. Cannabis can be used by smoking, vaporizing, within food, or as an extract. (There are a ton of slang names for cannabis too, including pot, weed, grass, reefer, ganja, bud, etc. In fact, media outlet Ganjapreneur has a whole terminology guide.)
  • Medical Cannabis (or medical marijuana) can refer to the use of cannabis and its cannabinoids to treat disease or improve symptoms; however, there is no single agreed-upon definition.
  • THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, the part that produces the high.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is one of some 113 identified cannabinoids in cannabis plants; CBD accounts for up to 40% of the plant’s extract. If CBD oil contains only CBD as the active ingredient and not THC, it provides therapeutic benefits without the high. Clinical research on CBD includes preliminary studies of anxiety, cognition, movement disorders, and pain.
  • Hemp is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. In addition to cannabis, the hemp plant is used for food (hemp seeds and hemp seed oil) and its fiber.

What are the Real Benefits of Cannabis?

First let’s focus on CBD. In 2018, the World Health Organization published a report that showed there are no public health risks or abuse potential for cannabidiol, or CBD. As summarized in this Forbes article, the WHO team determined that CBD has “been demonstrated as an effective treatment for epilepsy” in adults, children, and even animals, and that there’s “preliminary evidence” that CBD could be useful in treating  Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, psychosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other serious conditions.

What about THC, then? According to the National Institute of Health’s website, THC can increase appetite and reduce nausea. THC may also decrease pain, inflammation (swelling and redness), and muscle control problems. Although marijuana is not FDA-approved, scientific study of the chemicals in marijuana has led to two FDA-approved medications in pill form, dronabinol and nabilone, used to treat nausea and boost appetite.

Some proponents feel that a combination is best and that CBD and THC work synergistically within the body’s endocannabinoid system in a way known as the entourage effect.

Opportunities from Every Angle

Due to increasing legalization, cannabis is a burgeoning industry and new business opportunities exist from almost every angle. Businesses can focus on the recreational or medicinal benefits – or both. At the same time, there are dozens of ancillary services that are needed to support the cannabis industry.

There’s so much more to the business than growing marijuana. Business News Daily categorizes opportunities as “plant-touching vs. ancillary businesses.” As the name suggests, plant-touching businesses handle the cannabis plant itself, either cultivating, distributing, processing, or selling it. Entrepreneurs should realize that these types of businesses face the strictest regulations and may need to navigate complicated licensing processes before they can get started. Also, as the business grows, big industry players will tend to dominate. In Canada, where recreational marijuana is legal throughout the country, the top four licensed producers are set to corner approximately 70% of the country’s regulated recreational market, says Marijuana Business Daily.

Ancillary businesses provide all the supporting functions for a cannabis business. These include data platforms, ag-tech companies, legal representation, compliance technology, point-of-sale systems, payment processors, digital marketers, event planning, public relations, software, accountants, and more. They are the same kinds of functions and services needed to support any other business in any other industry. Ancillary businesses are also the least risky kinds of cannabis-related businesses since cannabis regulations for businesses only apply to growers, processors, and sellers. Because ancillary marijuana businesses aren’t burdened with all the red tape and high taxes, they tend to have higher profits as well.

In a Boston Globe article, Jay Youmans, a founding member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association, says, “We’re really trying to destigmatize this industry and [have] folks understand this is no different than any other industry. We create jobs. We hire local people. We’re regulated very heavily, and we take this job really seriously.” Youmans said the local [Massachusetts] cannabis industry is expected to rake in an estimated $1.5 billion in sales annually. At the industry’s full force, he expects there to be 20,000 jobs in or related to the market.

Nationally, CNBC reports that job creation is expected to grow as more states legalize marijuana. Manufacturers and distributors (both recreational and medicinal) saw a massive 44% gain in job creation in 2018, with 64,389 new positions, for a total of 211,000 jobs directly related to the industry and 296,000 in all related areas combined (according to industry site Leafly in a report it compiled with Whitney Economics). To put this into perspective, there are now more legal cannabis industry workers than dental hygienists in the United States. The Leafly report also shows $10.8 billion in legal cannabis sales in 2018. Interestingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not count cannabis-related jobs in its figures because the substance is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic at the federal level.

The Significance of Hemp Legalization on a National Level

For entrepreneurs that are looking at business opportunities on a national level, CBD products may be the way to go for now. Many big name retailers from CVS to Sephora to Neiman Marcus to Walgreens have either entered, or expressed an interest in entering, the CBD market. This interest in CBD has been propelled by changes in the Farm Bill.

In late 2018, President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill which removes hemp (with 0.3% THC or below) from the Controlled Substances Act. According to Hemp Industry Daily, this is the most significant change to American drug policy in five decades. Federal drug authorities will now have to treat hemp like any other agricultural commodity, such as wheat or potatoes, and hemp farmers will no longer face legal or regulatory burdens of it being classified as an illegal drug, such as difficulty getting crop insurance or barriers to obtaining loans.

The tide is turning. This Bloomberg article gives several examples of the shift, including a 10,000 acre farm in Yuma County, Arizona, that had originally grown organic spinach and lettuce and has now transitioned to hemp. According to the Brightfield Group, hemp legalization propels what was originally projected as a $2 billion market by 2022 into a $22 billion hemp-derived CBD market instead, which could double the projected market value of the entire cannabis industry.

At MIT, our student venture accelerator, delta v, provides a capstone educational opportunity for student entrepreneurs that prepares them to hit escape velocity and launch into the real world. We’ve had some entrepreneurs start to explore businesses in the cannabis market. In my next post, we’ll talk to one of those startups and get more entrepreneurial insights on the cannabis market.

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!

 

How Imposter Syndrome Affects Our Best and Brightest

psychology-1957264_1920I heard a statistic the other day that 70% of people admit to feeling like an impostor at some point in their lives.* I work with students at MIT – one of the most prestigious universities in the world – and although it attracts the best and the brightest, college students at institutions like this are even more prone to suffering from insecurity.

A former student and I were discussing her experience at MIT and she said she completed her degree in three years – not because she was smarter than the other students, but because she felt someone would find out she didn’t belong there. Wow. And it continued when she went to Harvard Business School and felt the same insecurities. Today, this woman is a successful entrepreneur, but taking risks has never come easy for her.

Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. Although it is not an official clinical diagnosis, Scientific American classifies it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.” Interestingly, minorities and women are hit the hardest. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Oscar-winning actress and Harvard alum Natalie Portman, and Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz all admit that they suffer from Imposter Syndrome and share their stories here.

Fake It Until You Make It

Those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome will probably shudder when they hear the words “fake it until you make it,” but sometimes this can be the best approach. For instance, there is a lot of research that says men will apply for a job when they typically meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women only apply if they meet 100%. This is the type of “fake it until you make it” approach that gives you a chance to level the playing field and prove yourself. The most prominent fake role, in my opinion, is parenting. You may have babysat for children and thought, “I can do this.” However, it is not until you have 100% responsibility for a child that you are aware that you are faking it. Yet we adapt, learn from our mistakes, and become better parents.

Deep Stealth Mode

My boss often talks about his first startup company being in a very “deep stealth mode” – meaning it failed. It failed, but is he a failure? Of course not. Today, Bill Aulet heads up the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and he’s an accomplished professor, speaker, and author. He learned that each risk he took – and continues to take – makes him stronger. The book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses that although fragile things break under stress, there’s an entire class of other things that don’t simply resist stress, but actually grow, strengthen, or otherwise gain from unforeseen and otherwise unwelcome stimuli. There are some benefits from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil that may allow us to not only survive but flourish.

If you fail at a job what is the worst that can happen? You may get fired. Yet, the sun does come up the next morning. You figure out what happened, and hopefully, what you’ve learned. Then you can address the problem and try again. The key is the reflection and the learning but also taking the risk to try again. So why do most entrepreneurs fail a few times before they get it right? It may be that they are doing things that have never been done before. In some instances, they may not have the necessary skills. But the question is, can they learn or surround themselves with the right people to move forward?

Advice for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Going back to the story of my former MIT student; she looked to her mentors when she was faced with a decision to go out on her own and start a business. I could see that it was a positive step for her and knew she would do well. She struggled to make the decision, but we helped her through the process and assured her of her strengths. Ultimately, the decision was her own, and the leap was significant. She now has a thriving business and influences many people with the work she does every day. So what did we tell her?

  1. Be open to the possibilities.
  2. Find joy in what you do.
  3. Be open to change and learn.
  4. Learn from both failure and success, and let them make you stronger.
  5. Be a disciplined entrepreneur.
  6. Surround yourself with a board of advisors.
  7. Enjoy life!

The Scientific American article suggests two of the ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome are to choose a mentor (the way she chose to work with the Entrepreneurs in Residence at the Trust Center) or become a mentor. Becoming a mentor lets you gain perspective, share what you know, and nurture others.

I have grown through the ranks at large companies, completed entrepreneurial stints at two startups, and now I’m in education, guiding new entrepreneurs. Each move was, in my opinion, a risk with challenges, new people, and new technology. However, if you are lucky, you will have a long life with lots of options. I can tell you first hand it is much more meaningful to want to learn, from mistakes or circumstances, but it’s also important to know that even if I fail … I can start again.

*Statistic attributed to the International Journal of Behavioral Science

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.

 

The delta v Culture: Six Entrepreneurial Essentials at MIT

delta-v-2017-On June 12, we’ll open the doors to this summer’s delta v cohort, beginning an intensive 3-month entrepreneurial “boot camp” for MIT student entrepreneurs. This post looks at the culture of delta v and how this environment helps to grow entrepreneurs.

The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is attributed to management guru Peter Drucker and was made famous by Mark Fields, president at Ford Motor Company. It speaks to how vital culture is in an organizational setting. At MIT, Professor Bill Aulet has written an article that explains why, as an organization, we believe culture is essential for entrepreneurs.

For delta v, MIT’s capstone student venture accelerator, we create a culture of entrepreneurship that is all about risk-taking and the freedom to make mistakes. Although delta v operates out of a cool space with a startup feel, it’s about more than the free coffee and ramen noodles or the walls you can write on. The vibe of delta v is different because of the people inside it and the meaningful work they do. If you’re one of the fortunate student teams accepted into the summer-long “entrepreneurship boot camp,” you’ll be surrounded by smart people all working on new companies with big goals. During the summer, the teams will be working in small cohorts in similar fields and will also participate in being part of a greater cohort, where a true sense of teamwork and collaboration is established.

The staff at delta v know they are assisting students who are making a positive impact in the world. In this experimental culture, failure is expected because students are encouraged to take risks and stretch to their full potential. This is a safe zone to try new ideas and the disciplined entrepreneurship framework provides a basis and common language for the staff to work with students. The framework isn’t a hard and fast set of rules, but it’s more like a common operating system that guides all of the teams.

As part of the culture of delta v, we also bring in the outside community to meet and assess the student teams from an educational perspective – not to look for deal flow but to participate in the students’ learning experience. A key milestone for MIT delta v teams is meeting with their board of directors and gaining valuable input from these advisors. This year we are also starting a delta v cohort in New York City to expose students to a network that is relevant for their company, for example, fintech, real estate, fashion, media, the arts – but, again, with a common operating system. As students gain experiences throughout the summer, they also build trust and respect within the greater Boston and New York communities that will be important as they launch their companies.

Six elements of the delta v culture are shaped by our principles at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship:

  • MIT Standard of Excellence and Rigor – The delta v teams receive not only the highest quality education, but also the highest quality advising, and practical experiences as well.
  • Collaboration – By partnering with various departments and centers within MIT and the greater community these startups will be prepared to collaborate for the success of their businesses.
  • Diversity – Encouraging a wide variety of perspectives, people, and ways of doing things mean that new ideas and concepts are examined from many angles and the diverse contributions make each company stronger.
  • Experimentation – delta v is the place to “fail forward” and try everything in a supportive environment.
  • Honest Broker – Since MIT does not take a financial stake in the delta v startups, our focus is solely on nurturing and assisting the education of the entrepreneur.
  • Mens et Manus – MIT’s motto, “mind and hand,” fuses academic and practitioner perspectives for a well-rounded entrepreneur.

The way the Martin Trust Center shapes the culture within delta v will be reflected by each of the entrepreneurs and their ventures. Good or bad, all our past experiences come into play as we create something new. Sometimes we choose aspects of a culture we want to emulate. Other times, we actively realize that a certain way of doing things is something we want to avoid. Many of the delta v teams will go on to become successful entrepreneurs that help to solve some of the world’s toughest problems. (Read about some of them in the news here.)

We hope that each student and team carries forth the culture of delta v.