Women-Led Wednesdays: Surfing the Highs and Lows of Entrepreneurship
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Women-Led Wednesdays: Surfing the Highs and Lows of Entrepreneurship

Graphic image with words Women-Led #womenledwednesdays

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.

Kate Terry: Surround Insurance

Kate Terry (Harvard Business School, Class of 2005; Harvard College, Class of 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.”

Kate Terry headshot

Ruha Shadab: LedBy Foundation

Ruha Shadab (Harvard Kennedy School, Class of 2020, 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.”

Ruha Shadab headshot

Jamie Mittelman: Flame Bearers

Jamie Mittelman (Harvard Kennedy School, Class of 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.”

Jamie Mittelman headshot

Sakthi Jagadeesan: Artus Therapeutics

Sakthi Jagadeesan (Harvard Medical School) is Co-Founder and COO of Artus Therapeutics, a pre-clinical stage life science company that is developing first-in-class therapeutics for barrier dysfunction diseases with an initial focus on Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Of the more than 3 million people affected by IBD in the U.S. alone, IBD causes more than 300,000 hospitalizations per year and more than 70% require surgery. Artus’s lead molecule has the potential to address this highly unmet need, Sakthi says. For IBD patients, Artus’s lead program has the potential to achieve and maintain remission and halt progression towards severe disease.

Founded in 2019 by a team of experts in genetics, immunology, and chemistry, Artus Therapeutics wants to reduce patients’ suffering and enhance their quality of life. In addition to IBD, Artus’s drug is also a potential therapeutic for other barrier dysfunction diseases including atopic dermatitis, celiac disease, necrotizing enterocolitis, alcoholic and non-alcoholic liver disease, oral mucositis and ocular indications. Sakthi and her team successfully raised their seed capital in Q4 of 2019. Since then they’ve licensed key patents to support their platform and have been accepted into the Life Lab at Harvard Innovation Labs.

How has COVID changed the way you work?

“Being a mother and an entrepreneur, it was very demanding both physically and mentally to get accustomed to the new norm. My kids were confused and bored always being at home. Slowly, even my 2-year-old came to understand what a meeting is and how to behave when there is a Zoom meeting! I give full credit to my kids for being so understanding and supportive. That is the only way I can get work done.

At Artus, we support each other and work as a team to keep our program running. Even before COVID, our work depended on multiple worksites and CROs. Working remotely isn’t new to us, but balancing personal and work is the major challenge we face every day. During difficult times, I stay positive by being grateful for all the things I have in my life and take one day at a time. There is a powerful saying in Tamil: “Iduthuvum kadanthu pogum,” which means, “This too shall pass.” So, this too shall pass.

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

“Being an entrepreneur is both challenging and rewarding. You wake up to a challenge and end the day with a potential solution or a lesson. But being in science prepares you for such challenges as your brain is wired to expect both outcomes. Another thing I continue to learn is how to get out of my comfort zone and keep my best foot forward. I’ve also learned how to manage difficult conversations, which I think is critical for venture growth.

Running a startup in a global pandemic adds another layer of complexity—especially when it comes to balancing work and life. The pandemic brought life to a standstill. You realize this more when the daycare is closed as you now need to manage the company and two toddlers from home. I am grateful for the support I get from my family and our team. What surprises me is in spite of the hardship, it is enjoyable because we work towards making people’s lives better.”

Sakthi Jagadeesan headshot

Cheri Ackerman: Concerto Biosciences

Cheri Ackerman (NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard 2018-2020) is Co-Founder and CEO of Concerto Biosciences, a life sciences company that builds custom microbial Ensembles (combinations of microbes that restore health to a microbiome) to accomplish novel functions in human health and agriculture. “We know that health comes from complex biological interactions,” Cheri says, “but historically it has been hard to develop products that improve health by harnessing these interactions.” Concerto’s technology “kChip” enables them to build products based on knowledge of interactions among a system’s components.

Concerto’s first products are aimed to rebuild the microbial ecosystem that protects skin, addressing an overlooked cause of widespread skin disorders like eczema, and, they say, “allowing millions of people to enjoy life free from inflamed, itchy skin.” In addition to achieving early wins in pitch competitions and entrepreneurial fellowships, Concerto was named Runner Up in the Health and Life Sciences track in the 2020 President’s Innovation Challenge. Launched in June 2020 and located at the Pagliuca Life Lab, they’ve also received awards from the Harvard Allston Venture Fund, the Hertz Foundation, and the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund. This early funding, Cheri says, was a springboard for being able to successfully raise a pre-seed round in Fall 2020.

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

“I have to make decisions with imperfect understanding and still figure out how to leverage the outcome of each decision to our benefit… I noticed this when I was learning the norms of fundraising. It’s tough to tell how interested or committed a VC is or to know when a VC perceives our words as commitment… I still had to decide who to keep talking with and what to agree to. One good surprise is the power of customer research. I learn so much faster and make better decisions just by asking people what they know rather than only reading a report or paper. I’m totally hooked. No matter what I do going forward, I will design projects after soaking my brain in the knowledge of a hundred other people. Another surprise is the incredible generosity of the entrepreneurial community. So many people have advocated for us and provided advice and encouragement.”

How has COVID19 changed the way you work?

“Our team used to spend almost every Saturday together. Since COVID19 started, we’ve only been in the same physical space a handful of times. We’ve had to learn to care for each other virtually, which has meant finding time to just hang out or intentionally check in one-on-one. We try to be intentional about building strong relationships. COVID has also directly changed how I do my job. I don’t travel or commute now, so I take meetings back-to-back-to-back anywhere in the world. We raised our entire pre-seed round virtually. I haven’t met the vast majority of our investors in person. Pitching virtually took some getting used to, but the entire industry adapted. I’m glad that I didn’t have to fly all over the place to raise the round… Geography does not need to determine who gets funded.”

Cheri Ackerman headshot

Richa Gupta: Labhya Foundation

Richa Gupta (Harvard Graduate School of Education, International Education Policy, Class of 2021) is Co-Founder of Labhya Foundation, an India-based international nonprofit dedicated to developing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in vulnerable youth. Labhya’s leadership team is intentionally diverse and includes young people with experience in teaching, entrepreneurship, mental health, policymaking, capacity building, and more. Labhya is focused on co-creating SEL learning programs at scale, largely through partnerships with other organizations doing work in the same area.

In collaboration with UNDP India and Head Held High Foundation, Richa’s team is currently developing a SEL program that includes counseling and career guidance for 100,000 marginalized youth across 7 states in India (Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Maharashtra and Punjab), plus personalized SEL and career guidance sessions for over 7,000 youth across these states. They are also creating a web series of 50 expert sessions aimed to share “relevant, skills-based, and contextual career-related guidance relevant for the post COVID-19 world.” Given that public schools have been shut down since March 2020, Labhya is exploring methods to reach children by disseminating digital content through low-tech solutions like IVRS (Interactive Voice Response Systems), SMS, and animated Youtube videos. Since India’s nationwide lockdown was announced, Gupta has encouraged her team to stay agile while staying rooted in purpose.

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

“I’ve learned about the value of instinct. My childhood experiences led me to be less trusting of my instinct. As a young, middle class girl, I grew up valuing safety and certainty, which led me to trust planning more than instinct. My self-doubt not only stopped me from pursuing opportunities relentlessly, but it affected my team. As Labhya was creating India’s first scalable SEL programs, it was essential for me to trust my own leadership in the face of multiple rejections. Not doing so led to missed opportunities in the beginning. My experience as an educator has been my biggest strength, but it still took time, practice, and my team’s support to trust myself and lead with authenticity. I am still growing, but I know that trusting my instinct is what has led Labhya to spearhead SEL in India. It is what helps me nurture a team of entrepreneurs who are co-leading Labhya in many ways today. The biggest surprise for me was to see myself as an entrepreneur after not being able to imagine myself as a leader until I was 19. But that is what SEL is about… children being able to realize that they are truly infinite.”

How has COVID19 changed the way you work?

“The pandemic raised the importance of SEL among children as well as adults. In March 2020, as public schools in India were shut down, our entire program had to be shifted to an online setup. Due to these pivots we are seeing higher engagement and added a layer of transparency in communicating our impact. Going forward, we believe these new solutions play into our long-term strategy as we aim to holistically engage all stakeholders effectively to create safe spaces for children. We’ve also partnered with a MIT student to create a low bandwidth, low-tech SEL web application to ensure that there are no barriers to the support and skills required to cope with this unusual reality that is currently harming many young people in India.”