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Jennifer McFadden

WE@Yale: Entrepreneurship as a Path to Gender Equality

Jennifer McFadden ’08 is the co-founder, with Cass Walker-Harvey, of WE@Yale, a campus-wide initiative to support women innovators and entrepreneurs. In April, the group hosted the WE@Yale Summit at Edward P. Evans Hall, presenting a fireside chat with Sheila Marcelo, founder, chairwoman, and CEO of, and a panel discussion titled “Women in the Workplace.” This post is adapted from McFadden’s introductory remarks. 

Let’s start with some facts about the state of women.

Given the past year, we’ll start with Hollywood. In 2017, women comprised only 18% of the directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films. Time is, indeed, up for this nonsense.

Let’s move on to the art world. Work by women artists makes up only 3 to 5% of the permanent collections at the major art institutions in the U.S. and Europe, despite the fact that the majority of art school graduates are women. The Metropolitan Museum just hired another white male as its director. This is the 10th white male to hold the role since the museum was founded in 1870. And the Met is not alone—neither the Louvre nor the British Museum, which round out the top three art museums in the world, have had female directors. When women do get directorship roles at museums with budgets over $15 million, which happens only 30% of the time, they earn just 75 cents for every dollar earned by male directors.

What about business? Read this exuberant quote from Fortune: “The Fortune 500 just got a little more female-friendly. After dropping to 21 last year, the number of women CEOs on the Fortune 500 has increased by more than 50%—from 21 to 32. That’s a new record.”

I graduated from the School of Management, so let me do the math for you: 6.2% of all Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. You go, girls.

The numbers get even worse when we look at future Fortune 500 companies, aka startups. Between 2010 and 2015, only 10% of the roughly $32 billion dollars invested in startups went to companies with at least one female founder. Women of color received less than 1% of venture capital funding. In 2017, all-women teams received just $1.9 billion of the total $85 billion invested by venture capitalists.

There are many factors that play into these statistics, but a significant contributing factor is the lack of diversity at VC firms. In 2017, only 7% of the partners at the top 100 venture capital firms were women. Sixty-two percent of these firms have no female partners at all.

Here’s another important issue: control of these companies. We know that VCs often take roles on the boards of companies that they’ve funded, which is another avenue to wealth creation and power that is typically bestowed to male partners. Only 6.2% of board seats on “unicorn” companies—those companies valued at more than $1 billion—are held by women. Sixty-two percent of U.S. unicorn companies have all-male boards. None of these companies have more than one woman on their board.

Lastly, let’s look at the tech industry, where the lack of diversity contributes to many of the issues around entrepreneurship and access to capital. Women are being left behind across all STEM fields, particularly in computing. In 2015 only 25% of the computing workforce were women. Only 18% of students studying computer science are women, down from a peak of 37% in 1984.

I want to stop for a moment and point out that every single one of these statistics is far worse for women of color and LGBTQ women.

I mention a range of industries, because these are issues that impact women regardless of the field in which they choose to work. Architecture. News. Politics. Entertainment. Restaurants. With #MeToo hitting industry after industry this year, many people—both men and women—have had to face the fact that gender discrimination—and worse, harassment and assault—is still a significant problem. Despite progress in some areas, women simply are not being given the same opportunities as their male colleagues. And, if we don’t find ways in which to include women in these fields, they will not have the chance to build wealth for themselves, and opportunity for others.

When women lead organizations, we not only see more inclusive products being built, but we also see more inclusive cultures being created. By providing pathways for more women to have founding or leadership roles within organizations, we hope to see more companies adopting policies that can positively impact all people. Paid parental leave, flexible hours, livable wages, more equitable ownership models, affordable healthcare, and modern hiring practices are just some of the policies that all companies can adopt to allow more—and, more diverse—individuals to enter into, stay and grow into leadership roles at companies. We think that having more women at the top of organizations will lead to the development of more human organizations.

So how do we plan to make sure that this happens?

At WE@Yale, we believe that entrepreneurship is the path to radical change in all industries.

I realize that this may sound outrageous, but let me explain.

Entrepreneurship changes you. It teaches you how to recognize and act on opportunities; to operate under constraints; to quickly and effectively make decisions; to iterate on ideas; to accept and learn from failures; to build and leverage networks; to communicate clearly with employees, investors, key stakeholders, and partners; to build, manage, and lead teams; and to operate under conditions of complexity.

Entrepreneurship also creates opportunities for students to learn the skills needed to contribute to the technical development of their products. Given the changing nature of work and the world into which our students are graduating, these technical skills are an invaluable asset for them to have.

Our goal is to expose as many women and non-binary femme students as possible to the entrepreneurial process in order to help them develop these skills.

And we do this by broadening the definition of entrepreneurship at Yale. We think that it is equally important to support students who are creating a new undergraduate student club, launching a creative endeavor at the Drama School, building a side project at the CEID, or developing a new documentary series chronicling what it means to be black at Yale, as it is to support students who are launching venture-backable, high-tech, high-growth startups. It is this process of putting something out into the world that teaches students the entrepreneurial mindset. And it is the process, rather than the outcome, that we encourage students to embrace.

We believe that if we arm more women and femme-identifying individuals with these skills, that they will be empowered to make change in whatever industry they enter. They will have not only a seat at the table, but an opportunity to lead and to impact culture within these organizations.

For too long, women have been kept out of these roles. We are here to change that.

We believe that universities have a unique role to play in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our goal with WE@Yale is to take advantage of this opportunity.

WE@Yale is a cross-campus community to support women and non-binary femme innovators and entrepreneurs. Our goal is to help 500 women launch new ventures and projects over the next five years, and in doing so, to help as many women as we can develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

We do this by providing skill-building and storytelling workshops; coaching and mentorship for Yale students; and community-building opportunities through our events and programs. We have an Allies-in-Residence program, which matches students with male allies from across campus. And, we have an interview series that showcases an incredible array of diverse founders, investors, and employees in order to provide new role models for aspiring entrepreneurs.

In order to increase the pipeline of women who are entering venture capital, we plan to launch an innovative summer program next year in partnership with universities and venture firms in New York, Boston, and San Francisco.

Through our one-on-one meetings with students, we encourage those who are interested in launching high-tech, high-growth ventures to take courses while they are at Yale that will allow them to be part of the process of designing and building products. Working with colleagues from across campus, we hope to create a more formalized system of support for these students going into the next year.

WE@Yale is a joint initiative between the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale and Yale SOM’s Program on Entrepreneurship. We also partner with many of the outstanding programs across Yale University who have already been doing incredible work to elevate and highlight the role of women in innovation.

Our goal is to give women equal access to the financial capital, human capital, and social capital needed to get their ventures off the ground. We are hoping to build an entrepreneurial environment at Yale where women are encouraged to be bold, to pursue different projects during their time as students, to experiment and act on ideas, and to be supported as they follow the path to entrepreneurship, even if that path leads to failure.

Watch a fireside chat with Sheila Marcelo, founder, chairwoman, and CEO of

Watch the panel discussion “Women in the Workplace”: