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Women Founders Lead the Way at Harvard


Women Founders Lead the Way at Harvard

Updated November 25, 2020

From social impact to healthcare to fintech and consumer goods, women leaders notice different needs in their communities and come up with different solutions. While women entrepreneurs, particularly women of color, face unique challenges with regard to financing, they are nevertheless transforming industries by pursuing bold ideas and solving real customer problems.

Harvard Innovation Labs is proud to say that in 2019, approximately 50% of venture teams had at least one woman founder. Moreover, of the 275 startups at i-Labs that have secured venture capital funding to date, approximately 50% also had at least one woman founder.

In May 2020, we asked some of the women founders in our ecosystem to tell us how they believe women are changing the game. In July 2020, we continued to have conversations with women founders, this time about their core values and their perspectives on equity and justice. And in October 2020, we spoke with more women founders across the Harvard Innovation Labs about how they are navigating a global pandemic and what challenges and surprises them about entrepreneurship. Read some answers below and learn even more about them on our social channels under the hashtag #womenledwednesdays.

Jamie Mittelman: Flame Bearers

Jamie Mittelman (Harvard Kennedy School, 2021) is founder of Flame Bearers, a podcast profiling 2021 women Olympians and Paralympians. Each episode focuses on one athlete’s journey navigating the gendered complexities of sport, including topics such as equal pay, racial equity, or balancing motherhood and work. The podcast aims to create a space for and celebrate women Olympians and Paralympians through storytelling. Currently, Mittelman has produced eight episodes with athletes across a wide range of sports and geographies.

Mittelman has received support for her venture from guest athletes including U.S. Soccer’s Becky Sauerbrunn, Syrian refugee judoka Sanda Aldass, and Para-Badminton World Champion Manasi Joshi as well as other athletes like Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon, and 2014 Boston Marathon winner, Meb Keflezighi. Mittelman will soon be featured on The Female Lead and Flame Bearers episodes have already been picked up by media outlets and websites like the Badminton World Federation and the International Judo Federation.

How has COVID changed the way you work?

“This venture is my COVID adaption of an internship I pitched to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). I spent months pitching a role to the IOC to travel to Tokyo and support their efforts to elevate women in sport. With the postponement of the Games, I reimagined how I could still pursue that mission safely from home. Flame Bearers is my way of continuing to push forward with my commitment to championing the best women athletes in the world.”

What hard lesson have you learned about entrepreneurship? What’s been the best surprise?

“It can be lonely working alone and getting your venture off the ground. This was the first time where I felt being an individual creator was simply not enough. While I established a group of mentors who provided me with invaluable guidance during the early stages, I was very much doing the work alone. I just recently onboarded two teammates, and they have made the process more collaborative and less isolating. It’s always great to have an extra set of hands (or in this case, ears) on a creative endeavor.

The best surprise has been the relationships I’ve built with the athletes we spotlight. My goal is to tell their stories as they want them told, and I’ve been surprised by how much they genuinely appreciate it. Most athletes are used to reporters looking for an angle and are disarmed by a student who seeks to celebrate their experiences for the sake of storytelling and learning.”


Ruha Shadab: LedBy Foundation

Ruha Shadab (HKS ’20, Cheng Fellow 2019-2020) is the Founder of LedBy Foundation, India’s first leadership incubator for Muslim womxn. In addition to supporting individual womxn in advancing their careers, Shadab is passionate about increasing Muslim womxn’s representation across the board, particularly in corporate India where they make up only 1% of the sector despite being 8% of the population. Through their programs and network of industry experts, the LedBy team intends to “cultivate an ever more integrated India, where everyone has equal opportunity to contribute to the country’s growth.”

Recently featured by MAKERS India, LedBy has two arms: a leadership incubator for high-potential, college-going womxn, and an incubator aimed to support Muslim founders of early stage startups. In September 2020, LedBy graduated its first cohort of 24 fellows. For this milestone event, Shadab reached out to and was delighted to welcome Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to ever win the Nobel Prize, to speak to graduates.

How has COVID changed the way you work?

“We started off as a virtual team with a virtual program for 2020 since I was still at the Harvard Kennedy School and living in Cambridge. COVID19 didn’t impact our first cohort. However, for our 2021 cohort, we will use a sandwich model in which the orientation and graduation will be in-person, while workshops, mentoring, and coaching will all be virtual. The good thing is that geographical distance is no longer a barrier to getting the best facilitators, advisors, and coaches. We have a pool of 100 such individuals from eight countries working with our fellows now.”

What hard lesson have you learned about entrepreneurship? What’s been the best surprise?

“I’ve learned that I will never be completely, entirely prepared with the perfect product or service. I have to go out, do it, ask for feedback, and iterate. Nike summed it up best: ‘Just do it.’ There is only so much scenario planning, research, stakeholder consultations, and advisor meetings one can do. It really comes down to not letting perfection get in the way of good… The best surprise has been the number of fantastic allies and supporters who we have met along the way. LedBy is about raising the representation of Indian Muslim womxn. In today’s charged and divided world, being a startup that wears its identity on its sleeve like this can generate pushback, but we’ve had many industrialists, philanthropists, and artists from India to the US support us.”


Kate Terry: Surround Insurance

Kate Terry (HBS 2005, Harvard College 1999) is COO and Co-Founder of Surround Insurance, which is on a mission to “reinvent age-old insurance” for the modern consumer. According to Surround, as a result of the shift from owned assets to shared assets, this is someone who may own less assets, but certainly has more flexibility to live, work, and move on their own terms. And this consumer needs insurance protection, too. Founded in 2018, Surround is about to celebrate its official launch in November 2020.

An alumni of Harvard Innovation Labs Launch Lab X GEO program, Terry says she’s proud to go to work every day and “make life a little more fair” for an underserved market, young professionals who are living a modern lifestyle and who are largely ignored by traditional insurers.

How has COVID19 changed the way you work?

“We switched from mostly in person to entirely remote work. Fortunately, we already had a strong team culture, and many of us had flexible schedules, so the transition wasn’t a big deal. What’s tougher is all of the other stresses that have come with COVID19: children learning from home, feeling isolated, a lack of normal opportunities for socializing and exercising. We just try to do the best we can and give each other a little extra grace. And we’re about to launch! Our product is done, our contracts for reinsurance are signed, our pricing has been submitted for regulatory approval. It’s so exciting to see the culmination of all of our work… I can’t control what goes on in the world, who gets in an accident, where there’s a fire. I can be there to help people put their lives back together after the fact.”

What hard lesson have you learned about entrepreneurship? What’s been the best surprise?

“Everything is going to take longer than you think or hope. More time means more stress as you try not to run out of money, show momentum, and take care of your family. The best surprise is how compelling starting a business is. This is the best job I’ve ever had! I had a 20 year career before this, and I’m married and have a child, so I also don’t fit the stereotype of an entrepreneur… And yet I’m bringing everything I’ve learned to a startup where deep industry knowledge is key. I’ve been surprised and delighted by the generativity of midlife.”


Rebecca Kersch: TANG App

Rebecca Kersch, (HKS 2020), founded TANG app to make paying, transactions, and sending money and airtime easy. Through TANG app’s international mobile payment app, overseas Filipino workers can send airtime and money home and receivers in the Phillippines can use the same app to e-pay, all on the same platform. The app also gives the 46 million unbanked adults in the Philippines a financial history, fulfilling one of the main functions of a bank account.

Kersch wants fellow entrepreneurs to know that finance for good exists. “It’s all about the people behind the development of new financial products and ventures,” she says. At TANG app, Kersch wants teammates who prioritize their social mission of financial inclusion and won’t compromise on it, regardless of how tempting the opportunity. TANG app was named a runner up in the 2020 Harvard Innovation Labs President’s Innovation Challenge, receiving $25,000 in prize money for their venture.

What is one of your team’s core values?

“Generosity: not only financial generosity, but generosity of time, attention, open-mindedness, and empathy. This is extremely important given the state of the world. We took the time to ask US-based Filipinos how the pandemic is affecting them and how TANG app can help, which is why we are pivoting our first product launch to offer users the ability to buy phone credit through the app so loved ones abroad can stay connected. We want our customers to understand that TANG app is by Filipino for Filipinos and that we are on their side, learning to understand their needs. We believe that our customers, Filipino migrant workers and their loved ones at home, sacrifice a lot and deserve extra attention, effort, and savings on the products that they use to stay connected.

Our team is spread out across countries. While we work to achieve financial inclusion for the Philippines, we also want to take care of ourselves. We check-in on each other and aim to be generous with empathy as everyone is dealing with hardship regardless of where they are.”

What kinds of conversations do you think organizations need to be having about equity and justice?

“Just start by having one conversation. Some good conversations are happening, but a lot of organizations avoid tough conversations by mentioning initiatives they are doing. What is not happening systematically is every person having a conversation about equity and justice. We all have deep entrenched biases; changes to the system will not happen until we acknowledge this. We can reflect with questions like, Why are the places I seem to be in not diverse? What has been my role? Why haven’t I ever spoken up when I have noticed that?

I wrongly thought that I could not possibly have strong biases or be racist, because as an Asian female founder, I was a part of an underrepresented community, especially in Fintech. But that’s not an excuse. I have mostly been a part of privileged, predominantly white institutions, which shapes how I recruit and build my team. I need to do what I can to hire for more diversity. Understanding what my role has been, whether it’s been silence, fear, or letting my biases limit diversity in my surroundings, was an important starting point for me.

Interestingly, when I’ve said this to male founders, many have responded by saying how well they have succeeded at building diverse, equitable organizations. I would urge you to stop focusing on all the good you’ve done, and assume you’ve played a role in keeping broken systems in place. Start there, ask colleagues what you can do better, be generous in your active listening and reflect.”

Charli Kemp & April Finlayson: The Studio

April Finlayson (HGSE/’2022) and Charli Kemp (HGSE/’2022) are co-founders of an innovative youth summer program that cultivates skills within students and teachers to narrow the opportunity gap. The Studio is a collaborative effort between their two organizations Change the Tune and The Leadership Academy. Change The Tune, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, is dedicated to dismantling inequitable systems by providing unique and transformational learning experiences for youth. The Leadership Academy, based in The Bahamas, and its network of schools are driven by a mandate of inclusive, holistic, and experiential learning which develops the whole child. Together, the team uses creative programming leveraging universal, culturally responsive connectors like food and music to drive social impact and close the digital divide. They also run an afternoon multidisciplinary STEAM, Entrepreneurship, and Social-Emotional Learning Lab aimed to arm youth with 21st-century social, vocational, and entrepreneurial skills.

The Studio just finished the first iteration of their 2020 summer program serving over 100 students with two iterations in Los Angeles and The Bahamas receiving a high Net Promoter Score of 83. In addition to being named a runner up in the 2020 Harvard Innovation Labs President’s Innovation Challenge, The Studio also recently received a Spark Grant of $5,000 to expand their offerings. With extremely positive feedback from program participants and their facilitators who are eager to work with more students, The Studio is currently fundraising to take their work to the next level.

What is one of your team’s core values?

“Justice and Equity. There are many injustices in the education system, especially considering the grave injustices that many students are met with… particularly students who look like us.”

What kinds of conversations do you think organizations need to be having about equity and justice?

“We can forget that organizations are merely a conglomerate of people rather than simply brick and mortars. Status quo, system-driven teams sometimes make the ‘system’ the scapegoat boogeyman, not the people. But the work to be done is with the individuals in the organization. We all have a role to play, and allyship should not be taken lightly.

Teams should ask themselves:

  • How willing are we to get uncomfortable and really unpack how the organization may be structured around Eurocentric practices?
  • How have we been complicit in systemic racism?
  • What transformations are we willing to make to build a new culture from the top? What is the makeup of our board, leadership team, and organization? What percentage of these teams are Black? What percentage are minorities?
  • What has employee turnover historically looked like for Black people? Why?
  • How do we deal with the immunity to change that may arise as we seek to create an anti-racist culture? What accountability measures can we build in as part of our structure?
  • If we truly want to create equitable and just spaces for Black people and all people, how can we avoid common pitfalls and surface-level acts? How are we creating space in the company where Diversity, Equity, and Belonging and Corporate Social Responsibility are not afterthoughts, but actually interwoven into the fabric of who we seek to be?
  • Whose voices are being authorized (and unauthorized) in conversations about equity and justice?
  • What are we willing to invest in time, money, and energy in to truly transform systems? How can we support the transformation of the education system, reverse the school to prison pipeline and the digital divide? How will we intentionally design in new visions of equity pipelines that support transformation?”

Joanna Smith: AllHere

Joanna Smith, Harvard Extension School ’16, is Founder and CEO of AllHere, an AI-powered ed tech company dedicated to mitigating chronic absenteeism in schools and improving student engagement. One of the things people tend to miss about AllHere—perhaps since Smith used to be a teacher–is that AllHere’s work is deeply research-based. Most impressive, AllHere has shifted the conversation about attendance from thinking about “students in seats for a given amount of time” to being about whether or not students are actually present and engaged in learning. This is even more critical now that so many students are attending school virtually.

After COVID19 hit, AllHere needed to change its offerings significantly. Nevertheless, AllHere had its launch webinar with approximately 4,000 educators signing on from across the U.S. They currently have a waitlist of schools and school systems who want access to AllHere’s new products which strategically match students to the research-based interventions they need to keep learning at school and reduce the strain on teachers in the process.

What is one of your team’s core values?

“Always reserve the right to change your mind! We embrace a culture of experimentation. Pre-COVID, AllHere helped schools reduce chronic absence through an interventions management platform, which meant that it was a workflow tool to ensure that the right educator was doing the right intervention (usually in-person) with the right student at the right time. Then COVID hit. It’s like Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That was our punch in the mouth. Not only were students forced to go online, but face-to-face interventions weren’t going to be the primary mode of supporting struggling students for some time. But early on at the i-lab I learned that the only thing that we’re beholden to is producing value and outcomes for the client, in this case, schools and school systems (and kids).

For us, embracing a culture of experimentation meant that we were willing to reinvent ourselves. We did it, but in order to be able to do so, we needed to have that value that it’s okay to kill your darlings or forget what you thought you knew to be responsive to what your clients actually need.”

As a woman founder, what kinds of conversations do you think organizations need to be having about equity and justice?

“I think people felt a sense of accomplishment in posting anti-racist statements on their websites, LinkedIn, and Facebook. The conversation that we need to have now is what happens after you post that statement?

DEI is not just a statement; it’s a practice that extends to how you treat your employees of color and customers of color. How do you collaborate with them, support them, and give them meaningful opportunities to sit at tables that matter? As a woman of color who is also a CEO, that’s the conversation I want to see. I see some collaborators make statements, but I can point to instances where those same folks have systematically excluded people with diverse backgrounds from having seats at tables of power. So you made your post… How does that translate into the lived culture and lived experience that makes that statement a reality for everyone in your organization, from soup to nuts?”

Shelly Xu: Shelly Xu Design

Shelly Xu (HBS ‘21) is founder of Shelly Xu Design, a fashion-tech startup that creates beautiful, accessible, zero-waste designs. In addition to her commitment to working with zero waste materials, Xu is clear that no matter how “sustainable” a piece of clothing is, “if it’s not bought and worn, it’s still just waste.” This is why she initiates dialogue with potential customers to offer original designs that people actually want.

Check out how the Shelly Xu Design team asks their Instagram followers to vote on which styles they’ll design and produce next. After being named a finalist in the 2020 President’s Innovation Challenge Awards, Xu went on to participate in the Harvard Innovation Labs’ Summer Venture Program. Shelly Xu Design has also received a Spark Grant from Harvard Innovation Labs and secured a new manufacturing partner to scale operations.

What is one of your team’s core values?

“Never compromise on quality or on the principle of creating zero waste products.”

What kinds of conversations do you think organizations need to be having about equity and justice?

“It’s not just about having more women; it’s also about creating space for women to express themselves authentically. This should be the case for other underrepresented groups, too. Organizations can encourage this by designing for open dialogues and healthy debates.”

Avis Atkins: Microsprout

Avis Atkins co-founded the financial company Microsprout with Matt McCalpin to help young people and their parents leverage community resources to save for college and take on less debt. Both passionate about increasing access to higher education, Atkins and McCalpin have participated in Harvard’s New Venture Competition and the President’s Innovation Challenge. Since working on their venture at Harvard Innovations Labs, Atkins says they’ve made tremendous progress on their product and are now pitching to virtual audiences. Learn more.

How are women changing business and/or social impact?

“The unique perspective and insight that women founders have is unparalleled. Many industries are serving a broader number of customers because of women founders. I can’t wait to see how many amazing companies are led by women founders in the next decade.”

Nicole Black: Beacon Biomimetics

Nicole Black is Co-founder of Beacon Biomimetics, a company that makes PhonoGrafts, novel devices 3D-printed from biodegradable ink, which repair damaged eardrums and passively enhance sound conduction. Their goals? 1) achieve a minimally invasive design, 2) improve hearing outcomes, and 3) decrease the time necessary for wound healing. All of these things will improve patient care and decrease patient morbidity. Beacon Biomimetics hopes to branch into engineering other tissue grafts, particularly in the ear, nose, and throat (ENT) space.

In the last 3 months, Black and her team have spoken with three venture capital firms and submitted a provisional patent on the novel material they use for 3D printing. Black also received the Gliklich Healthcare Innovation Fellowship for 2020, which will let her advance the translational arms of PhonoGraft after defending her PhD.

How are women changing business and/or social impact?

“Women emotionally connect with their teams as well as their customer base. They tend to have strong empathy, allowing them to make responsible and fair decisions. This can also lead to more creative and effective solutions… Women typically also comprise 50% of a company’s potential customers. Since women can have distinct needs and perspectives, having an all-male team means you may overlook key elements of a potential product.”

Jean Jung: DreamworldVR

Jean Jung is Co-founder of DreamworldVR, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of pediatric patients using immersive virtual reality technology. In this context, the purpose of VR is to help patients combat loneliness and develop emotional and social intelligence. In April, DreamworldVR became a finalist in HBS’s New Venture Competition. Since the pandemic, Jung says, Dreamworld has gone completely virtual and has been registering 500% patient counts. Learn more.

How are women changing business and/or social impact?

“I’ve always been on the minority side as an Asian, a female, a patient as a kid, a female developer, and a founder. But I believe these experiences actually help me understand vulnerable populations and genuinely care for and put my customers’ needs first.”

Roshni Mehta: Hibiscus Monkey

Roshni Mehta is Co-founder of Hibiscus Monkey, which relies on traditional ethnic care to create new-age products that shatter stereotypes around women’s beauty, personal care, and menstrual needs in India. As creator of all-natural (100% chemical free, all-natural, vegan) products inspired by her grandma’s recipes, Mehta has been selling through a direct-to-consumer model via Instagram until being selected by Amazon Launchpad to create a customized storefront. Mehta encourages Indian millennial women to be unapologetic about their self-care (#MeFirst), and her products address specific needs for the Indian market while promoting “slow-care” (strengthening the body from the core versus short-term superficial quick fixes).

In February, Mehta was among 23 women entrepreneurs awarded at the BW Businessworld Women Entrepreneurship Summit in New Delhi, where she won the “Disrupt Young Women Entrepreneur Award” for “leading by example in creating a sustainable business.” Learn more.

How are women founders changing business and/or social impact?

“As a millennial Indian woman, I speak directly to consumers and forge a strong emotional connection that goes beyond transaction. Our campaigns are honest, edgy, and bold and focus on bringing us together over our collective experience of womanhood. Hibiscus Monkey is a brand by women for women and we don’t shy away from that… My long-term plan is to set up our manufacturing in rural India (where we source our ingredients) to generate sustainable livelihoods among low-income individuals. I want Hibiscus Monkey to be a part of India’s growth story.”

Julia Cole: June Motherhood

Julia Cole is Co-founder and COO of June Motherhood, a digital maternal care company that offers live, expert-led programs and a close-knit community for prenatal and postpartum families. As a virtual, group-based service, June’s vision is to be the number one resource for families as they navigate pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and beyond. Recently accepted into a VC accelerator and featured by Female Founder Fund and cheddar tv, June recently launched virtual classes with 300+ participants. June is unique in that it aims to support the whole family, which is why the team is building out their offerings to include partner prep and more. Learn more.

How are women founders changing business and/or social impact?

“We see women founders changing the business landscape every day, innovating in areas that historically have not been given attention. For example, [billions of dollars have been invested in Femtech] and countless female leaders are paving the way for a more empowered future for women.”

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