At the Harvard Innovation Labs, we are always striving for greater representation in our communities. This PRIDE month, we invited LGBTQ+ founders in our ecosystem again to talk with us about what they are building with their ventures as well as their approaches to leadership. Given the significant challenges LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs still face, we asked these founders to share their views on the barriers and opportunities ahead. We will continue to share LGBTQ+ founders’ stories as part of our commitment to increasing visibility into our diverse community of Harvard student and alumni entrepreneurs.
Meet Tim Fleschner
I’m a co-founder at Eone and Eco Pet Score. At my first startup, Eone, we collaborated with individuals with vision loss to create a better wristwatch. After many prototypes, we launched our signature product, the Bradley: a timepiece you can touch or see to tell time. Unlike other assistive devices on the market, we used human-centered design and collaborated with approximately 30 people, both sighted and blind, to make a better wristwatch for everyone. I believe design has the power to bring people together and to create a world that is more beautiful, equitable, and sustainable.
In 2020, Eone was acquired, and I began to look for new ways to make an impact. I was introduced to my co-founder, Sophie Levin, and we hit it off immediately. Harvard Innovation Labs provided us space and resources to prototype solutions for the social and environmental issues facing the pet food industry. (If cats and dogs made up their own country, they would rank fifth in terms of meat consumption!) Eco Pet Score helps pet owners make healthy and sustainable choices. Our platform scores pet foods using an algorithm that estimates greenhouse gas emissions of ingredients, packaging, and distribution. We’re excited to build our community and reduce the carbon pawprint.
While at the i-lab, I also started the LGBTQ+ Founders sub-community to create a space for queer founders to connect. It has been incredible to meet other LGBTQ+ founders and learn from their experiences.
What are the opportunities you see for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs right now?
The first is for us to capitalize on what we learned when coming out and integrating into the LGBTQ+ community. Coming out is often a lonely and scary process, where it feels like it’s you against the world. You learn to trust yourself, have conviction, and have difficult conversations with people close to you. And you may learn that going against convention can have amazing results. All of these experiences serve LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs well and create opportunities for us to be tenacious, caring, and open leaders.
The second opportunity comes by way of the increasing support LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs are receiving from the startup ecosystem. There is a growing consensus among business leaders and some policymakers that diversity and inclusion is good for business and economic development. Large companies and local governments are beginning to include LGBTQ+ owned businesses in their supplier diversity initiatives. These things help LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs get a foot in the door and take their businesses to the next level.
What are the barriers you see?
A major hurdle faced not just by LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, but also women and people of color, is that we may feel the need to hide certain parts of our identities to secure funding. VC funders (and partners) are still primarily straight white cisgender men who tend to focus on founders and problems that they inherently understand. Less than 10 percent of venture capital goes to women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ founders combined. This inequity sends a message that certain aspects of who we are—which could actually give us a business edge—should be downplayed in order to secure funding.
Another barrier for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs (and the entire community) is anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and rhetoric. Innovation is diminished and productivity declines when LGBTQ+ people have their identities publicly targeted. Unfortunately, this is on the rise in some parts of the U.S., specifically targeting the transgender community. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2021 saw the highest number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced in recent history. Already in 2022, more than 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced at the state level. This not only directly impacts LGBTQ+ peoples’ lives, it increases the perceived need to hide our identities—and it leads to more stress and mental health issues.
What problems are you interested in solving?
Human-centered design, a problem-solving technique that puts real people at the center of the development process, is as exciting to me as it has ever been. There’s certainly work still to be done, but it’s incredibly satisfying to see more designers and brands incorporating accessible and well-designed products – for a wide range of people who make up a spectrum of abilities, experiences, and viewpoints. During my time at Eone, I saw the power of designing inclusive products for marginalized populations. While our wristwatches were specifically designed to eliminate barriers for those who are low-vision or blind, more than 90 percent of our customers were sighted. In a world where we increasingly celebrate our differences, human-centered design is a reflection of our empathy and willingness to build connection.
As a lifelong vegetarian who’s been vegan for six years, I’m also passionate about animal welfare and environmental sustainability. The combination of new technology and changing consumer behavior will create huge changes in what we eat in the coming years. A number of companies around the world are working hard to develop cultivated meat (meat grown from animal cells, but without harming an animal). This new technology, paired with consumers’ growing discontent with the environmental harm caused by meat and dairy industries, creates the perfect market conditions for disruption.
Meet Jeronimo Beccar
In my experience of entrepreneurship, diversity in the broadest sense of the word—diversity of thought, life experiences, training, background, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.—is critical. Even though diversity can deliver outstanding results, it can lead to conflicting points of view. Getting everyone on a team to understand the reasons behind strategic decisions can be challenging, but it’s also crucial for off-the-charts creativity. It’s the difference between, “I am doing this because I was told to do so…” and, “I know why I am working on this.” How do you achieve this change in culture and mindset as a leader or even as a team? You define – and lead by – your values.
Since the early days of Hyka (somewhat unintentionally) we began working together to try to live by our own unique set of values. Sure, this may sound cliché, but defining our values early on was 10% of the job. Two values have had a profound impact on us as a team: openness and transparency. There also has to be a structure built around values… concrete ways for team members to put values into practice.
For example, at Hyka, whenever one of us is about to voice a point of view or opinion that others might find conflict with, we start with: “Where I am coming from is…” When we ask people to articulate the reason behind their stance, not only do we empower them with tools to be transparent, but we encourage the receiving crowd to hear others’ ideas with an open mind. Again, it’s all about understanding the why.
What are the barriers & opportunities for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs?
LGBTQ+ founders are changing entrepreneurship by bringing values into leadership that have been shaped for years by their life struggles. To me, two values stand out: grit and compassion.
Grit is something we have embedded in us because of those moments that we believed we were on our own; it is what helps us keep our heads above the water. I consider myself lucky when hearing stories about other LGBTQ+ folks, however, everyone in their own way has lived their own struggle and I’d say it’s marked them for life. And even though these external challenges can destroy a person’s self-esteem, your self-value—all that suffering combined with accepting who you are—often leads to compassion.
Compassion brings with it an inherent desire to help others, to do good. It makes a world of difference. Grit helps founders overcome insurmountable obstacles. Compassion will not only help founders find success for themselves, but also extend a hand to help others succeed as well.
Problems Hyka is solving
At Hyka, we bring understanding and compassion through technology to a space that has been relegated to the shadows: mental health, especially in those who suffer from severe depression. There are about 50 million U.S. adults on antidepressants right now. Roughly 15 million people will not respond to traditional antidepressants even after trying different medications, sometimes for many years.
People in this situation usually fall through the cracks. The current system is better suited to serve lower acuity patients, those who need a certain level of help which can be managed with therapy and in some cases mild medication. But for someone who needs a bit more help than just therapy or medication prescribed by their primary care doctor, it is often hard to access the care they need.
Enter Hyka, where our mission is to break down barriers to access around the latest mental health treatments. We do this through a care navigation platform that helps telehealth providers connect their members to the latest in interventional psychiatry, from brain stimulation to psychedelics.
These novel mental health treatments are mostly offered by thousands of small, independent private practices. Our vision is to continue to build a kind of distribution hub, thereby bringing tech-enabled efficiency to a space that hasn’t seen a tech revolution yet. By connecting all of these small practices, we help people gain access to the most promising therapies while helping private practices serve patients in a more efficient way and stay independent.
Meet Natalia Moreno Hendrickson
I am Co-Founder and Chief of Product at Docosan, a health tech startup dedicated to improving access to healthcare in Vietnam and beyond. My family is from Mexico. My grandparents had 12 kids, and they came to the U.S. with no education or career background. Eleven ended up getting degrees in the U.S., and I was the first in my family to go to an Ivy League school. I was also raised by a single mother who passed away from cancer during my freshman year. I felt so out of place when I arrived on campus, I wondered if it was possible to succeed given my circumstances. But I am this identity and these identities, and if I can do it, you can, too. I want to represent the underrepresented. We are both a product of our multiple identities and so much more than our circumstances.
Still, some identities are easier to hide than others. So often people feel they must hide part of themselves. And sometimes, if this identity is revealed, there are very real consequences. That’s something I understand. I can’t hide that I’m Latina, but I’ve been hiding the LGBTQ+ piece for so long.
What are the barriers & opportunities for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs?
The best way to serve a customer’s needs is to understand the customer deeply. Having diverse perspectives within an organization, especially in leadership, means reaching a wider, more diverse base of customers in more creative ways. Plus, there is immense power in representation. As an entrepreneur, support in the form of resources, networks, and opportunities is crucial–and these are things I have been grateful to have as a Harvard alum–but representation is just as important!
Problems Docosan is solving
When we started, we wanted to change the way people access healthcare. We wanted to make it easier and solve a lot of the problems people are experiencing in Vietnam. As we grew, we found that a lot of the areas that people were most drawn to and utilized most often were those most stigmatized: mental health, sexual and reproductive health, LGBTQ+-friendly care (e.g. clinics that are LGBTQ+ friendly, gender affirmation surgery, safe HRT, therapists with experience in LGBTQ+ issues,, and so on). We’re also digitizing the HIV/AIDS treatment guidelines free for doctors across Vietnam. Many of the people who use Docosan are looking for stigma-free care.
I’ve always been interested in mental health, I have a degree in Psychology, and I was always interested in becoming a practitioner… I didn’t expect entrepreneurship to lend itself to helping our community here in the way it has. We do this work because we care. A lot of our clinic partners are small organizations with one or two doctors. We want to make it easy for them to market themselves, do scheduling, and manage their business.
Read more about Docosan in TechCrunch and in our story, “Women-Led Wednesdays: Building New Entrepreneurial Futures.”
Meet Yaxuan Liu
I’m a founding member at Archslate and the co-founder of Design Yard Sale. When I came to Harvard, I was excited to meet other students and find a vibrant queer student community, but academically it was a different experience. I felt isolated professionally as a gay person because I felt like expressing my queerness was not deemed as professional. Although I’m lucky to live in a city where queerness is celebrated, I tend to hide my sexuality when I meet people professionally because of subconsciously worrying about spoiling a relation or receiving adverse comments.
I believe deeply in the power of architecture and design to shape a better and more just built environment. In my experience, queerness is not a widely accepted parameter for design, especially for buildings, but it is so crucial and helpful to creating an inclusive and friendly product because being queer is not just being LGBTQIA+ but being other than the mainstream.
What are the barriers & opportunities for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs?
Many members of the queer community still suffer career setbacks because of who they are. I feel fortunate to have access to all of the resources and opportunities at Harvard, so I would say the barrier I experience is more of a psychological one: I constantly question if I can be myself and be professional, or if my perspective is valid and I deserve to be here. I contribute this to the lack of representation of the queer community in leadership in the business world, which still represented by an overtly toxic masculinity. On the bright side, we queers have more fun! All jokes aside, I truly believe that the queer community is extremely creative and resilient because we are able to make light of whatever dire situation the society throw us in.
Problems Archslate is solving
Archslate is a talent marketplace incubated at the Harvard i-lab in 2020, specifically tailored for architecture and design. We started Archslate when we saw underrepresentation of marginalized communities in architecture through our personal experiences. The field is statistically one of the least diverse industries in the States. As a response, we decided to work on the downstream of the education-career pipeline in architecture.
Our mission is to help both the employers and candidates find their best match and create a better, more inclusive, and more diverse workplace. To do so, we have created a bespoke one-stop shop for architecture hiring where employers can post jobs, browse candidates, schedule interviews with applicants, make an offer, and more all on one platform. But Archslate is more than just a hiring site; we strive to create a beautiful and diverse online platform for the architecture community that showcases both talented designers and companies.
Design Yard Sale was a month-long fundraiser for racial justice we created during the summer of 2020. As four out of five of the team members are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, we—especially as minorities—felt the urgent need to stand alongside the Black community. We wanted to use our creativity and skills to support these community leaders in projecting their voices and leading the profession and society towards a better, more equitable future. We are not activists or politicians, but as minority designers and students ourselves, we wanted to contribute to the movement in whatever small way we can. So we created this online platform to sell and auction our and our friends’ design work. In the end, we raised more than $125,000 in a month for two racial justice organizations.