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Six tips to balance the gender scale in start-up programs

Charlotte Ntim's picture

Sinah Legong and her team meet at Raeketsetsa, a program that encourages young women in South Africa to get involved in information and communications technologies. © Mutoni Karasanyi/World Bank

Olou Koucoi founded Focus Energy, a company that brings light, news and entertainment to people living off-grid in his country, Benin. Its spinoff program ElleAllume hopes to train more than 1,000 women to bring power to 100,000 Beninois homes this year. “At the end of the day, [inclusive hiring] is not a gender decision, it’s a business decision,” he says.
 
Over the past few months, I interviewed a number of incubator and accelerator programs to compile best practices for the World Bank Group’s Climate Technology Program. The research spanned 150 programs in 39 countries, ranging from relatively new to seasoned veterans of the clean tech incubation space. The consensus regarding gender diversity and inclusion was almost unanimous; all but one program echoed Koucoi’s sentiments – in principle.
 
In practice, however, encouraging more women into the clean energy sector and related programs has proved challenging. Below are some of the most popular explanations for the low levels of female representation:
 
“We can’t find them.”
Many clean energy incubation programs said they had difficulty recruiting due to a lack of women in the industry and strong women’s networks to tap into. While there is no shortage of women in clean energy (with industry-specific examples such as clean cookstoves serving as a good example) there are few women-led businesses. This lack of visible leadership translates into lower rates of participation.
 
“We would love to focus on bringing more women into the program, but we have limited resources.”
Incubation programs are often lean, with little time and few resources to expand on offerings and create targeted programs for women. Instead, to create quick wins and draw in additional funds, programs often take a “low-hanging fruit” approach, seeking out the most visible companies to recruit and invest in, which tend to have male co-founders.
 
“Does it really matter at the end of the day?”
Many programs are pro-gender-diversity in principle, but gender-agnostic in practice. This stems from a disconnect between the “gendered-lens” approach discussed when fundraising for incubation programs and the results frameworks which judge their success. Such factors as the number of companies exited are still weighed much more heavily than gender balance.

Below are some of the best ways I have found to create more gender-diverse and inclusive programs:

  • “Female Candidates Encouraged to Apply”
Being explicit about a program’s interest in attracting female talent will often boost the number of relevant applicants. “Sometimes, it’s just as simple as stating that ‘Female candidates are encouraged to apply,’ ” says Habiba Ali, founder and CEO of Sosai Integrated Concepts, a provider of solar systems and products in northern Nigeria. Ali credits programs such as the Vital Voices Fellowship with sparking a turnaround in her business. The U.S.-based accelerator program Unreasonable Group also found that encouraging recommendations from similar-minded investors, programs, or previous cohort members helped.
 
  • Female mentors
A recent report by JP Morgan and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City on the inclusivity of incubation programs highlighted how small changes in program leadership can significantly influence more inclusive programs. For example, Amsterdam-based global accelerator Rockstart noticed a large increase in female applicants for their program in Nepal following a concerted effort to attract more female mentors.
 
  • Pitches are a poor estimate of potential
Incubator programs are inherently competitive, particularly when funding is at stake. Program managers must be cognizant of potential biases during the selection phase, where male applicants may find it easier to project more confident and outspoken displays than female applicants. Selection panels would do well to place less emphasis on final presentations and balance scoring on other parts of the company such as strength of product in market addressed. Of course, selection panels themselves should be balanced in representation.
 
  • If you build it, they will come
Programs should be proactive in seeking out and starting women’s business networks. For example, U.S.-based 1776 has signed onto the “Athena Pledge,” a community of American accelerators and incubators who pledge to have 33 percent of their cohort feature women-led businesses. Some, such as Chicago-based 1871 Incubator, have developed special program streams to attract more female-led businesses. 1871 offers WISTEM, a 16-week program that connects women to capital, community, and technology resources.
 
  • Look beyond recruitment
South Africa’s Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative prepares female entrepreneurs to adequately compete and “grow confidence in a man’s world.” The program considers the societal pressures of “coping and planning as a mom, business owner, wife, boss, getting your partner on your side and more.” Program attributes are also flexible, with a one-morning commitment every week over a period of six months.
 
  • Focus on leadership development
Nthabiseng Mosia, founder of Azimuth Solar in Sierra Leone, says programs need to recognize that women are socialized to approach business development in markedly different ways from men, particularly in more traditional cultural contexts. Programs tend to overlook women’s need for more pointed coaching on leadership and executive presence.
 
Creating more gender-balanced start-up programs requires a concerted effort by all stakeholders. But as key implementers, program managers will have to catalyze a change in mindsets through leading by example: pushing for more gender-balanced representation in program leadership and starting women’s business networks.
 
While there is no shortage of women in clean energy, programs will need to increase the visibility of these women through tailored leadership, personal development and mentorship. Regardless of mission, cultural context or indeed gender, programs that last and thrive will be those that engage all parts of the communities in which they are based. In other words: “It’s not a gender decision, it’s a business decision.”