Chapter 4: Research Findings

This chapter presents Empowering Women in Technology Startups (Ewits) as the focus of this case study. The experiences of organizers, mentors and learners who participated in the program were reviewed, based on the analysis of documents, survey, and interview data. After presenting the program’s mission, curriculum, organization, and participant groups, the chapter discusses the program’s impact as reported by learners and mentors. The chapter will conclude by highlighting the ongoing support needs as expressed by the learners and other participants.

EWITS

Empowering Women in Technology Startups (Ewits) is an entrepreneurial education program designed to help women learn about the technology licensing process and gain the self-efficacy to succeed in technology entrepreneurship. The program focuses on “barriers to entry for women (work/life balance choices, self-confidence, lack of training, lack of mentor network, waiting to be asked) and strategies for overcoming them” (Ewits, 2017a, p. 3). They do this by providing educated women with hands-on entrepreneurial training and skills that will empower them for the rest of their lives (Ewits, 2017a). “Many think of entrepreneurs as business people, but entrepreneurs come from all walks of life” (Ewits, 2017b).

Central to Ewits is the authentic simulation “focusing on researching and understanding the commercial opportunity of an innovation.” This experiential learning approach immerses the learners and mentors in a realistic process of creating “company elements needed to move an innovation from the laboratory to the marketplace in a simulated environment.” The team and mentoring process is central to this approach, providing “a chance to network with successful female entrepreneurs, business leaders, and investors,” including, “mentoring by experienced women entrepreneurs and professionals,” and “a chance to be part of a team comprised of highly-educated professional women.”

The mission and vision of the program consist of the following:

  • Mission: To educate, inspire, and empower women to pursue leadership roles in technology-based companies worldwide.
  • Vision: A world in which gender issues are neutralized.

The program was conceptualized by Jane Muir and her team in the Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) at the University of Florida Innovation Hub as an effort to increase the number of women who were participating in the university technology transfer process.

Jane Muir, the founding organizer, tells the story of the beginnings of Ewits:

I started doing brown bag lunches with a few of my team members and said, “Hey, we need to do something about this [low participation of women]. What can we do?” So, we had a number of those where the conversation went from, you know, what can we do about this? […]. And at some point, I said, none of us have the bandwidth to take all this on, so we need to look at what our core competencies are, what’s synergistic with the mission of the HUB and so that we can justify allocating resources and where we can really have the biggest impact using the limited resources that we have. And believe it or not, we created that program and had it running – […] in either three or four months’ time – we had over 50 people in that room and we were just rocking it. (2016-11-18)

Since 2012, Ewits has been offered annually to cohorts of women interested in learning more about technology commercialization.

Program Description

Ewits is organized as a 10-week educational program with a content component (two-hour educational sessions) and a culminating investor pitch competition where teams present startup plans to an all-female panel of angel and venture capital investors. The participant handbook describes the program as:

Ewits® is an experiential learning program designed to provide educated women with an introduction to the processes required to form a startup venture and develop a commercialization strategy for cutting-edge, innovative technologies developed at research universities. Each week participants hear presentations on various aspects of technology commercialization and business planning from experienced, successful women entrepreneurs. Participants work in teams, and each team is assigned a specific technology. Each team is also led by an experienced woman entrepreneur or business leader who serves as the virtual CEO/mentor and guides the creation of a business plan for developing and commercializing the technology and an investor presentation. There are no exams or grades. Business plans and investor presentations are judged by a panel of women investors with recognition and awards presented to the winning teams during the last session of the program (Ewits, 2017a) .

Prior to each session, the program organizers select a variety of technologies from the OTL, and recruit experienced entrepreneurial mentors and female leaders who will serve as the “Virtual CEO” for the program’s start-up teams. As specified in the Training Manual for Program Coordinators (Ewits, 2015), “Mentors MUST be successful entrepreneurs that an OTL would trust with commercialization of one of its technologies.” The mentors then participate in a mentor training which includes information about the program, guidance on how to effectively mentor their teams, and a review of technologies available for the program. The mentors then review the available technologies and make recommendations for which technologies to choose for the program. During this time, the organizers are hosting a series of informational sessions designed to recruit learners for the program. Learners then complete a program application which is reviewed by the organizers to ensure the learners have the background and desire to be successful in the program.

The first session of the program is a mentor/technology matching session where the learners and mentors participate in a speed-dating style process designed to introduce learners to the mentors and their selected technologies. The learners then rank their preferences both for technology and mentor matching. Over the next week, the organizers work to assemble the program teams, taking into consideration the learner’s preferences but also trying to create teams that have a balance of scientific, technical, marketing, financial, and other expertise. During session two, the mentors and learners receive their team assignments. They work with this same team, mentor, and technology throughout the entire program. Each team is assigned a color and the teams are referred to by their color (i.e. “Blue Team) throughout the remainder of the program. They are provided with t-shirts matching their assigned color to wear during the investor pitch competition at the end of the program.

The weekly sessions start with an educational component, followed by a team work session. The sessions begin with a presentation from a successful female entrepreneur or innovator. These presentations usually consist of an overview of their entrepreneurial experiences including a discussion of barriers, challenges, or gender biases they have experienced in their careers and leadership roles. These presentations often serve as catalysts for in class discussions. The sessions then present an informational topic related to the startup process. The informational topics were video recorded in advance by a variety of entrepreneurial experts including experienced entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial support professionals, and consultants.

The final week of the session is an investor pitch competition. During this competition, one member of each team presents their startup plans to an all-female panel of angel and venture capital investors. One week prior to the competition, the teams submit their business plans for judges to review and score. Immediately after the investor pitch, the judges give the teams direct feedback on both their presentation and their business plans. The investor pitch and business plans scores are tallied at the end of the competition, and First, Second, and Third place winners are announced. There are prizes for the winning teams, often including iPads for the first-place winners.

During the program learners work together to research the technology, write a business plan, and prepare an investor pitch presentation. The mentors and learners are advised that this program is an instructional simulation and that business plans they are conceptualizing are not intended to be real business startups. As such, they are given the leeway to be creative and make educated assumptions about their technology and startup that are based on market research, but cautioned not to get too bogged down in the research and technical issues. The mentor’s role is to guide the team through the technology exploration process, business plan, and investor pitch development. The teams and mentors sit together during the weekly instructional sessions and work together afterward to apply the day’s topic to their technology startup plans.

To support these activities, the program offers eight weekly instructional sessions that cover topics related to technology licensing and the business startup process. These activities include value propositions, forming the management team, market analysis and strategy, commercialization strategies, intellectual property, financials, corporate structures, sources of funding, business plan development and company presentations. The program organizers originally designed the curriculum in conjunction with Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) who had expertise in each of the topics. The SME’s then video recorded their presentations so that they could be played during informational sessions and be made available online via a learning management system (LMS).

Additional educational curriculum is available online in an LMS, including a program handbook, articles and content related to technology licensing and the startup process, business plan examples and templates, and financial spreadsheet models. Mentors and learners have access to the University of Florida library and research resources throughout the duration of the program. During one of the weekly sessions, licensing officers from the Office of Technology Licensing come in to talk with the teams about their technologies and answer questions about the status of the technology and the licensing process.

Ewits Participants

Early in the analysis, it became apparent that the women associated with this program, regardless of their roles, described a dynamic process of learning and growth associated with their participation. To honor this shared experience, all the women involved in the program are referred to as participants. Four distinct categories of stakeholders were identified within the program participants. They were: 1) Organizers, 2) Subject Matter Experts, 3) Mentors, and 4) Learners.

Organizers and subject matter experts

 The Organizers included six women who worked in the technology licensing office, the UF Innovation Hub, and in various aspects of technology entrepreneurship who originally envisioned the need for the program and took part in the design and implementation of the program and curriculum. In addition, two additional women who worked with the program as facilitators, managing the daily program, and coordinating the informational sessions were also considered Organizers.

The Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) were successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and angel investors. They came from both inside and outside of the local area to serve as presenters and judges. They helped with the development of curriculum, recorded video presentations, presented during the course, reviewed business plans, rated investor pitches, and gave feedback to the learner teams. It was a bit more difficult to determine the exact number of SMEs who participated in the program over the five cohorts; however, there were at least forty documented in the program records. There may have been others who participated as presenters, or who reviewed curriculum and provided support to teams that were not recorded in the program records.

Mentors

The Mentors consisted of successful female entrepreneurs and businesswomen from the local community with a wide variety of expertise in startup companies, venture capital financing, and financial management. The organizers recruited them to serve as CEO’s for the mock startup companies. There were a total of thirty-five mentors who participated in at least one cohort. To date, only three of the mentors have participated as a mentor in more than one cohort. After feedback from the first two cohorts, the organizers added a mentor’s mentor, sometimes called a roving mentor, to provide support to the mentors and to fill in when a mentor was absent. The roving mentor sits in with teams whenever their mentor is absent during one of the informational sessions. The roving mentors were selected from among the most successful mentors in previous cohorts and were available to meet with mentors as they prepared to enter the program, giving them guidance, and helping to pass along many of the lessons learned and best practices from previous cohorts.

The end-of-course Surveys include several items intended to give program organizers feedback on the mentor relationship as well as on the overall effectiveness of the mentor-team collaborations. Three Likert-Scale questions address the mentor relationship:1) Knowledge: How would you rate your mentor’s knowledge regarding entrepreneurship? 2) Accessibility: How would you rate your mentor’s accessibility outside of the scheduled program meeting hours? 3) Overall: How would you rate your mentor overall? The response options are scaled as 1=poor and 5=Excellent. In addition, there is an open-ended response question which asks, “Please provide any additional feedback regarding the mentorship experience.”

Overall the mentor – team relationship feedback is positive. Figure 4-1 shows that the mentor feedback overall is 90% above the average scale of “3“, with knowledge at 89% above average, and accessibility at 80% above average. When the feedback data are analyzed by team, we can see variations among teams. Using a combined mean score for all responses, we see a range of 3.6 – 5.0 among all teams. Analysis of variance shows that both team and cohort have a significant relationship to mentor feedback scores, with an F-value for cohort of 3.28, and an F-value for team of 1.74 at a 95% level of significance. This would imply that learner experience may be affected by the mentor – learner relationship, team dynamics, or other effects attributable to the cohort that they participated in.

There were 78 responses to the open-ended feedback question, with 78% of them being positive and supportive of the mentor experience. The negative responses (22%) focused on a variety of issues including perceptions of the mentor’s technical knowledge, time availability, and or guidance to the team.

One example of a positive comment from the 2015 end-of-course Survey is:

Our mentor was great; she kept us focused and many times used her experience to keep us on track. The process was made easier with her feedback. She often steered us away from getting bogged down in details. We all enjoyed working with her.

In this response, the learner is validating that her mentor was effective in guiding the collaborative team process. She helped to guide them and keep them from getting bogged down in the details.

An example of a negative comment from the 2016 end-of-course survey is:

Our mentor was extremely knowledgeable and helpful regarding the technology licensing process and our chosen technology – but was not strong as a leader or facilitator for our team’s activities. She was often not present during weekly Ewits meetings, and (with one exception) did not join us for meetings outside of regular session hours. There was very little monitoring or guidance of our progress, and our group’s work was very chaotic.

In this response, the learner acknowledges that their mentor is knowledgeable and helpful, but that her absences made it difficult to benefit from her guidance. This caused the learner to perceive the process as chaotic. In later cohorts, Ewits implemented an adjustment to the program where they utilized roving mentors. These mentors were selected from mentors who participated successfully in an earlier round of Ewits. They provided guidance to current mentors, and were available to serve as substitute mentors when a mentor was absent from one of the weekly sessions. This ensured no team would be without a mentor during a weekly session.

Figure 4-1. Mentor Feedback

Learners

The Learners consisted of women who applied and were selected to participate in the program. Most had already obtained college degrees. Many of them had graduate degrees, while some were current graduate students. They made up the team members and founders of the mock startup companies. The learners were recruited through a variety of methods from the university and general community, including a series of information sessions that provided potential applicants with information about the program and an overview of the application process. The program accepted an average of 89% of applicants. Of those who attended the first mentor matching session, a total of 93% completed the program through to the investor pitch competition (Table 4-1). Those who did not complete the program cited a variety of reasons for leaving, including obtaining a new job, moving out of the area, or unexpected family obligations.

According to the learner applications for cohorts 2013-2015 (n=227), 82% of applicants had at least a bachelor’s degree (Figure 4-1) and 50% of applicants had a graduate degree or higher. Some were current graduate students; others were business owners, faculty, or women who were interested in the university technology transfer process.

The two reasons cited most as motivation for participating in the program were “Entrepreneurship Training” and “Networking” (Table 4-2). All the learners indicated having access to computers and the internet. They were adept at using a variety of software and technology tools, including statistical analysis software. Less than 8% of applicants reported having any prior exposure to patenting or technology licensing (Table 4-2).

The end-of-course surveys further illuminated traits of the program learners. Table 4-3 provides background information for respondents in the 2015 and 2016 cohorts (the only years this data was collected). The survey shows that the learners come from a variety of disciplines, with 62% of them coming from science and technology related disciplines and 38% of them coming from business or marketing related disciplines. They represented a wide range of ages with about 50% of them being under 35years of age. The participants were pretty well distributed by racial or ethnic heritage, with East Asian or Asian American being over represented and African American women being under represented. The median household income fell between the $35,000 to $49,999 and $50,000 to $74,999 groupings.

Table 4-1. Applicant Results by Cohort

  n Accepted %Accepted Attended %Attended Completed %Completed
2012 56 56 1.00 54 0.96 52 0.96
2013 54 50 0.93 47 0.94 41 0.87
2014 52 50 0.96 45 0.90 42 0.93
2015 66 57 0.86 47 0.82 47 1.00
2016 55 55 1.00 46 0.84 40 0.87
Totals 283 268 0.89 239 0.89 222 0.93
Figure 4-2. Distribution of Applicants by Degree

Table 4-2. Percent of Applicants Who Indicated Source of Motivation

What is your primary goal for participation in the program? (Check All That Apply)
  2013 2014 2015 2016 All cohorts
Gain Self-confidence 72% 81% 77% 69% 60%
Start a Company 74% 69% 65% 64% 54%
Networking 80% 83% 85% 82% 66%
Entrepreneurship Training 94% 92% 95% 85% 74%
Attending Seminars/Workshops 61% 60% 61% 58% 48%
Job/Career Opportunities 0% 0% 0% 25% 5%
Valuable knowledge and Skills 0% 0% 0% 51% 10%
Interest in Technology Commercialization 0% 0% 0% 45% 9%
All of the above 44% 52% 42% 38% 35%
Other 9% 6% 5% 0% 4%

Table 4-3. Learner background information for Cohorts 2015 and 2016

What is your area of expertise? (Circle One)
  Total 2015 2016
Business 13% 12% 14%
Computer/IT 9% 8% 11%
Engineering 17% 10% 24%
Finance 5% 8% 3%
Marketing/Communications/Design 19% 25% 14%
Other 3% 5% 0%
Science 34% 32% 35%
What is your age? (Circle one)
  Total 2015 2016
18-24 16% 15% 17%
25-34 34% 32% 36%
35-44 23% 22% 24%
45-54 18% 20% 17%
55-64 9% 10% 7%
Circle the answer that best describes your current situation.
  Total 2015 2016
Married or in a committed relationship with no children 29% 21% 36%
Married or in a committed relationship with grown children (18+) 15% 18% 12%
Married or in a committed relationship with school aged children (5-18) 12% 13% 12%
Married or in a committed relationship with younger children (under 5) 5% 8% 2%
Single parent with grown children (18+) 1% 0% 2%
Single with no children 38% 39% 36%
Which of the following best represents your racial or ethnic heritage?
  Total 2015 2016
Black, Afro-Caribbean, or African American 5% 6% 5%
East Asian or Asian American 11% 6% 15%
Latino or Hispanic American 14% 9% 20%
Middle Eastern or Arab American 3% 3% 2%
Non-Hispanic White or Euro-American 61% 69% 54%
Other 4% 9% 0%
South Asian or Indian American 3% 0% 5%

Table 4-3. Continued

What was your total household income before taxes during the past 12 months?
  Total 2015 2016
Less than $25,000 22% 23% 21%
$25,000 to $34,999 4% 3% 5%
$35,000 to $49,999 11% 13% 10%
$50,000 to $74,999 17% 17% 17%
$75,000 to $99,999 17% 17% 17%
$100,000 to $149,999 19% 20% 19%
$150,000 or more 10% 7% 12%
Please circle the option(s) that best describe(s) your current situation. OK to choose more than one if applicable.
  Total 2015 2016
Employed at a non-technology non-startup company 7% 0% 12%
Employed at a non-technology startup 11% 6% 14%
Employed at a technology non-startup company 12% 16% 10%
Employed at a technology startup 7% 6% 7%
Master’s student 11% 9% 12%
MBA student 3% 3% 2%
Owned my own non-technology business 3% 0% 5%
Owned my own technology business 12% 19% 7%
PhD student 11% 3% 17%
Postdoc 12% 19% 7%
Unemployed (not a student) 5% 6% 5%
Work part-time (not a student) 1% 0% 2%
Work part-time (not a student) 5% 12% 0%

Entrepreneurial Identities and Role Models

The interviewees were representative of the broader participant population as well. As noted in chapter 3, those who were learners in Ewits were well educated (50% graduate degree) and had some entrepreneurial experiences ranging from support services to multiple start up experiences. The interviews revealed two common experiences among the fifteen interviewees, regardless of their role. First, they have strong entrepreneurial and innovator identities. Second, they can describe at least one significant role model which gave them a first exposure to entrepreneurship or to a strong female leader.

Entrepreneurial Identities

Each of the interviewees had a story about a person or an experience that they can point to which introduced them to entrepreneurship. Twelve of the participants described a previous experience with entrepreneurship, either through a close family member or friend who was an entrepreneur or an experience in providing support services to startup companies. Regardless of their current role or position, the interviewees described themselves as innovators who were involved in the process of making something new happen. Natalie stated:

So, the company I work in currently, we are a small innovative arm. So, a lot of what we do – I play a pretty big role in launching new products, thinking about new products. So even though I’m working for a larger company, under our parent company, we still have pretty innovative roles.

Natalie’s entrepreneurial identity was integral to her work as she plays a leading role in creating products and bringing new products to market. She sees herself as an innovator within a larger company.

The participant, Deborah, talked about her entrepreneurial identity from the perspective of wanting to make something happen.

And it’s not that I really thought about, “Hey, I want to be an entrepreneur because that’s a cool sexy thing.” It’s just like, “I have this thing and I want to see this thing happen.” And my two things that I’ve been trying to do as an entrepreneur, they’re so completely different. They’re two different sides of – one’s more designed and the other one is more engineering. One’s definitely a lot more scientific than the other.

For Deborah, being an entrepreneur is connected to changing the world and is not limited to only one dimension but brings together her interest in design and engineering.

By contrast, Julia struggled a bit more with her entrepreneurial endeavors, yet she still maintained a strong entrepreneurial identity. She claimed, “This is for me,” and added, “I’m still pursuing some technology ventures and some small business ventures as well, that I want to incorporate some technology in.”

Role Models

All fifteen of the interviewees describe significant female or entrepreneurial role models who inspired them to succeed in their careers and as entrepreneurs. Nine of them described a strong female role model – a mother, grandmother, aunt, or other close family member who influenced how they saw themselves as a scientist, a technologist, or an entrepreneur. Twelve of them described someone in their close circle of family or friends who was an entrepreneur. Four of them describe working in a family business that gave them their first hands-on experience with entrepreneurship.

Nadine talked about her father and godparents who were all entrepreneurs:

My dad owns a number of rental properties, and then my godparents, they retired when they were 40. They were double income, no kids, making really nice salaries. […] I saw that, and I also saw the flexibility that owning your own business afforded them. They could travel wherever. They had a few months where they would just hunker down, and do a lot of their inventory, and all that kind of stuff. And he could work anywhere, really. So, I saw that, and that was also interesting. I thought about, “What could I possibly do?”

Like the other interviewees, Nadine grew up seeing adults engage in entrepreneurial activity and saw first-hand the benefits that this brought (“nice salaries,” ‘flexibility”).

Harriet described her mother as a role model and the experiences she had a result of working in her mother’s business. She stated:

My mother owned a very large marketing communications business. She did all of the franchising in the early days of the […]. It was not unusual for our family to have very high-level executives at our dinner table on a regular basis – because we operated the business 24/7. I entered that business in college and I worked for her, and I did all the billing for the company and a variety of things. I did market research for companies like […] . So, I entered the entrepreneurial environment at a very young age because that was our life.

Even though Harriet is not currently working for an entrepreneurial venture, she saw these experiences as shaping who she is as a female professional as well as her personal entrepreneurial identity. She stated, “I think that’s a result of growing up with a person like I did, my mother, who really set the bar at a very high level.”

It is interesting to note that several of the interviewees did not immediately recognize these role models. For example, when Natalie was asked if anyone in her family, or close network of friends was an entrepreneur, she initially replied in the negative but then observed that her mother operated her own business from their home,

No. No. But, my mom, […], she had her own business. […] where she would make, I don’t know, binding of books and printing, printing fliers, more like graphic design, so doing commercials – it was like a spare room in my grandfather’s house, and it was facing the street. So, she just opened that space and did it.

Natalie went on to talk about how that experience affected her perception of entrepreneurship. “But it was really tough. Securing the income, the customers, having the clients, […] having a constant source of income.” But she also saw that it was rewarding. She spoke fondly about the relationships her mother developed with her clients. “That’s one of the things that I like seeing, and she was very happy about it.”

When asked about role models, Gretchen also replied in the negative. “But I didn’t have any strong – I don’t recall having – besides my family just saying, “Yeah, go be an astronaut.” But it wasn’t strongly…” Later in the interview she tells the story of her mother who “founded the first Women’s Flying Club at […].”  She says, “I was three, and so she put me in the back seat with a coloring book and crayons […] while she is in the front seat practicing touch and goes.” Gretchen realized at that moment  that her mother was a strong female role model. She emailed several weeks later to share the following statement:

It’s interesting that after we talked I hadn’t realized how novel my childhood was and my parents’ contribution to my interests in science – a telescope when I was 9 was my prized Christmas present and I never realized how unique that was!  I want you to know that I wrote a thank you note to my mom right after that! 

Participants’ Experiences in Ewits

The analysis of Learner survey data and the interviews with learners, mentors, and organizers led to three motifs. First, the analysis demonstrated that participants in Ewits shared certain experiences that facilitated their engagement with the program. Second, participants described the impact of the program in terms of competence, empowerment, and awareness of gender bias. Third, two key conditions that made a difference per the participants were that Ewits created a safe space to explore gender inequities and that the program provided mentorship to help them navigate the process. Each of these motifs is described in detail below.

The Reported Impact of Ewits

All participants who were interviewed described Ewits as an experience that empowered them. It was not just the learners who described this empowerment, but also the mentors, the organizers, the presenters, the judges, and everyone else who had in some way been involved with the program. Empowerment emerged in three ways throughout the data: (a) the development or validation of the competencies necessary to patent, license, and launch a startup and an understanding of challenges for entering leadership positions in technology startups as women; (b) increased entrepreneurial intention and (c) a greater awareness of the effects of the gender-related issues in the field.

Competence building and validation

Ewits aims to impact learners’ confidence in the competencies associated with technology startups and the perceived challenges to entering technology entrepreneurship. It accomplishes this through the educational content presented at the informational sessions as well as the constructive and collaborative learning that occurs when the teams research their technologies and prepare their business plans and investor pitches for their technology startups.

Learners describe gains in their personal understanding of entrepreneurial competencies. The end-of-course survey provides insights into the learners’ perception of changes after participating in Ewits. Learners were first asked to rate their skill levels before attending Ewits; then they were asked to rate their skill levels after participating in Ewits. The difference between these two levels was quite significant as can be seen in Figure 4-3. For example, Learners rated their knowledge of commercialization before attending as 70% below the midpoint, 21% at the midpoint, and 9% above the midpoint. After attending Ewits, their perceived understanding of commercialization was 9% below midpoint, 29% at the midpoint, and 62% above the midpoint. These data show that learners reported an increase in their personal understanding for each of these five areas because of their participation in Ewits.

A second question on the End-of-Course surveys addresses perceived challenges to assuming leadership positions in technology startups (Figure 4-4). Learners were first asked to rate their perceived challenges before attending Ewits; then they were asked to rate perceived challenges after participating in Ewits. Again, we can see that the Learners reported positive impacts on their personal perceived challenges. For example, Learners rated Role Models as 36% above the midpoint before attending Ewits, and 79% above the midpoint after attending Ewits. This data shows that learners feel Ewits helped mediate perceived personal challenges to taking on leadership roles.

The interviews and short-answer items on the End of Course survey confirmed and further expanded on these patterns. The following comments were taken from the End of Course survey.

Ewits was a great opportunity for me to validate that I have the necessary technical skills to take a patent and create a product. It also helped me to visualize my strengths and what things I need to work on in order start my own business.”

Said another learner:

It was very validating for me. I realized I have much more skill and business knowledge than I thought I had. I am now contemplating starting a conference to tackle this issue. I would not have done that prior to EWITS.”

These comments show how the program provides an explicit validation of technical skills (competencies) that these two women had not necessarily experienced previously. For the first learner, it was the ability to patent and start a business. For the second learner, it was a validation of her business knowledge. Both women also note how the program helped them take initiative and take ownership (challenges) of their own professional development. In addition, they both described an intent to launch a startup or a new venture (entrepreneurial intention).

Similarly, Nadine talks about her own increased confidence, as well as the validation of feedback from her mentor. She says:

I think that my work or my participation in Ewits […] gave me a good amount of confidence that the work that I contributed to our project was sound because we had tons of feedback from our coach. And so, that was just another big confidence builder that I could do work that would help this product potentially go to market.

Her comments showed that she both valued the feedback from her mentor, and felt she had confidence in her ability to prepare to launch a technology startup. All three of these interviewees validated the data on the End-of-Course surveys by confirming that they either developed or validated the competencies associated with technology startups, as well as developed the confidence that they could launch a startup.

Figure 4-3. Self-reported impact on perceived competencies before and after Ewits
Figure 4-4. Self-Reported impact on perceived challenges before and after Ewits

Increased entrepreneurial intention

The 20 items from the Entrepreneurial Intention Questionnaire (EIQ) by Liñán, Urbano, and Guerrero, were added to the end-of-course survey in 2016. These questions were added to provide additional insight into the effectiveness of the program. The questionnaire uses a Likert scale with values of one to seven with one being low, seven being high four representing the mid-point. The questions are designed to evaluate entrepreneurial PA, PBC, SN and Intention. The questionnaire has been empirically validated for its effectiveness (SANTOS & LINAN).

In an attempt to understand the impact of Ewits on participants’ entrepreneurial intentions the questions were included on the survey twice. In the first presentation, participants were asked to evaluate the questions based on their perceptions after Ewits. On the second presentation, participants were asked to evaluate the questions based on their perceptions before Ewits. The results from those responses are included in Table 4-4 below.

The Ewits after participation scores were higher than all results from Santos et. al. with the exception of the Entrepreneurial intentions mean score for Bedfordshire men of 5.29 as compared to Ewits women mean score of 5.04.  The before Ewits scores were lower than all of the results from Santos et. al. Seville women. Entrepreneurial SN was only evaluated once on the questionnaire and was grouped with the after questions.

Table 4-4.  Mean responses on Entrepreneurial Intention Questionnaire (EIQ)
Before EwitsAfter EwitsDifference% Increase
Entrepreneurial Intention 4.110 5.040 0.93023%
Entrepreneurial PA 4.718 5.748 1.03022%
Entrepreneurial PBC 3.605 4.900 1.29536%
Entrepreneurial SN 5.620

Awareness of gender issues

The Ewits program addresses gender issues in two ways. First it is an all-female program in which the organizers, mentors and learners are all female. Second, the weekly information sessions include presentations and discussions designed to create awareness around both gender issues as well as barriers to entry that are more prominently experienced by women.

Increased awareness of gender bias in technology and entrepreneurship was reported on the open-ended questions in the End-of-Course survey and emerged in the interview data. One learner states, “It also helped me gain greater awareness of the gender bias that I face and has spurred me to take a more active role in dealing with gender bias in the workplace” (end-of-course surveys). Another learner addressed the low participation of women in the field, and noted that participation in Ewits as an all-female program helped to build the confidence to break through barriers to entry. She wrote:

In my estimation, women themselves are hesitant about getting into this field. I think programs like Ewits are the answer. The program offers guidance and builds confidence in the abilities of the participants that can then be used to break the self-imposed barrier of entry.

Not all the participants were as adept at describing gender bias. Some of them talked about the opportunity to work with other women, which they had not experienced before in their programs or careers. Nadine said, “I was just wanting to see how well I worked with other women because I didn’t really have that experience before.” Monique goes a bit farther and talks about the importance of building relationships with other professional women, learning to work both for and with other women. She describes a common gender bias about working for other women. She also expresses her wish that she could have had an opportunity to work for a woman and to have more female role models. She said:

I think it’s really important for women to bond and to understand the importance of supporting one another and cheerleading each other. We all hear that thing about “I don’t want to work for a woman,” and I think that’s B.S. I think I would love to have worked for more women. I would love to have had role models that were women.

Shari talked about finding her own understanding in relationship to gender bias issues. She said:

And I think sometimes the behaviors that I was attributing to gender issues were maybe relationship issues. And the relationship issues that I was attributing – you know, and vice versa. So, that was really interesting to see. There were enough women talking about their issues that it felt safe. And famous women, on video, for example. And there were also local women who came in, you know, not super famous, but very successful at what they do. Each one would kind of talk about how they overcame a challenge and what it meant to them.

Shari’s quote illustrates how the program encouraged reflection on gender issues in the work place. She evaluated her own understanding of gender issues as they related to relationship issues. She felt that having enough women talk about these issues created a safe space for exploration of her own understanding. Shari also made reference to the women who presented in class about gender challenges and how they overcame them.

Not everyone was comfortable with the emphasis on gender issues. Yet, they often acknowledged that they too had experienced some sort of gender bias or at least noticed the low participation of women in entrepreneurial spaces or in their own fields.

For example, one learner indicated:

Some women felt that the discussion around gender difference was slightly too much than what they realistically have experienced. However, reflecting on my attendance to the Celebration of Innovation event, I was really touched when I saw very few women there! I think the discussion of gender might be improved a little too, by adding more substantial materials such as scientific evidence and what gender researchers think about it.

The Celebration of Innovation event is an event that occurred at the Gainesville Hilton during the time of this cohort of Ewits. It is held in association with the UF Innovation Hub and the OTL, but was not part of the Ewits program. This learner would have attended because of a larger interest in technology entrepreneurship. As she described, she was surprised that with her new awareness of gender issues she was aware of how few women were participating. She also provided a critical recommendation to the program to include more scientific-based evidence on what research shows about gender bias. This feedback has been discussed with program organizers and they are implementing plans to include more research-based information about gender bias in the upcoming 2017 session.

From the interview and learner responses on the End-of-Course survey, it is difficult to determine whether the awareness of gender issues by participants came from the nature of the all-female program or from the gender related discussions in the information sessions. There was however, evidence that these women were more aware of gender bias and were attempting to process and understand how that new awareness affects their confidence and perception of technology entrepreneurship.

A Unique Learning Environment

Study participants described three elements in the Ewits program that made it a unique and empowering experience for them. First, the participants were both challenged and empowered by the experiential learning project. Second, the all-female environment created a “safe space” for participants that allowed for risk-taking and a kind of comparison of one’s own experiences with other women who have had similar gender-related educational and career challenges. Furthermore, the program created a collaborative learning experience where participants learned from the mentoring, mentorship, and team relationship. In the data, it is often difficult to differentiate between responses to the pure rigor of the project, the experience of working with other women, and the collaborative learning experience of working with a mentor and a team. It is apparent that these experiences combined to create a shared identity related to their experience as Ewits participants and as technology entrepreneurs (see Entrepreneurial Identities above). The following sections will attempt to highlight each of these elements along with how they relate to their shared Ewits identity.

Challenging yet rewarding

Participants described the business plan and investor pitch creation process as extremely challenging, yet rewarding. The challenge pushed their limits while confirming new skills and competencies. The learner below discussed both the rigor and reward of the program, as well as the experience of working together with other women, and her resulting Ewits identity. From the 2015 End-of-Course survey she said:

Ewits was at once an experience so challenging I sought to embrace it fully and so challenging I wanted to shed it. I would not have wanted to face the challenges alone – therein, lies Ewits’ strength: women from a variety of backgrounds and experiences joining together to learn, to share, to succeed, to get an experience, to empower – whether we’re starting a business or changing the world. We are Ewits – hear us roar!

This learner described her experience as so challenging she wanted to embrace it fully and to shed it all at the same time. She referred to the strength that she experienced in this shared space with the support of other women, who she saw as contributing a variety of backgrounds and experiences to the success of the project. She experienced this as empowering. This quote was also interesting as it referred to a shared entrepreneurial identity including both the options of starting a business or changing the world (see Entrepreneurial Identities above). She also referred to herself in a collective with the other participants, “We are Ewits,” thus connecting her identity to the identity of Ewits.

In a similar manner, Harriet also described the experience:

I will tell you, it was an amazing program […] and I think when you talk to the participants, for the most part, you’re going to hear the same thing. Every group takes on a life of its own, every technology takes on a life of its own. But ultimately, it was an awesome experience. It’s a little overwhelming to think about doing it again now, to be honest with you.

Here she again described the experience of the rigor of the program as being “a little overwhelming,” but within the context of it being an “amazing program” and “awesome experience.” She reflected not only on her own experience in this environment, but also on the experiences she observed among the other participants. Her language, and her enthusiasm illustrated a confidence, and an excitement, surrounding what the participants could accomplish in this environment of Ewits.

This was a reoccurring theme that participants described as a borderline overwhelming experience, that at the same time was an awesome experience they valued highly. This was an experience that pushed them to their limits, but allowed them to find their strengths, step up, and meet the challenge. Harriet showed that limit when she expressed that it would be overwhelming to think about doing it again. It seems that this combination of hard work, pushing them to new limits of their own understanding, combined with the elation of success after the investor pitch created a common shared experience which seemed to bond them together. Their participation in Ewits has become a part of their entrepreneurial identity.

Safe space

Ewits not only created a shared experience among participants, but it did so in a way that allowed women to experience it as “a safe space.”  This created an environment where they learned how to work with other highly qualified, competent women. For some, this experience of being a gender majority, not a gender minority, was a unique experience. Several of the interviewees specifically referred to Ewits as a safe space. They talked about how they felt that they had the efficacy and ability to be successful prior to participation, but that Ewits helped them test their abilities in a safe environment. As Natalie explained, “I feel maybe the confidence was already there. I didn’t have a safe environment where I could just go and express those.” 

Harriet also described the safe environment. She said:

I do think that it was – it made it a fun and interesting environment and – I can’t think of the right words to put this in – maybe a safe environment. I don’t think that people felt – if there was anything – I don’t think people hesitated as much as they might have if men were in the room. I hate to say that, but I really think that’s probably true.

Harriet alluded to the possibility of the safe environment being somehow linked to the nature of the all-female program. She felt this allowed the participants to reject hesitation “as much as they might have if men were in the room.”

The learners and interviewees also talked about the experience of working with other talented, highly qualified women. From the 2015 end-of-course survey:

It was wonderful to be part of a group of such smart and diverse women! Very empowering. […]  helped me view work life/salary issues from different perspectives […] It helped show individual value each team member adds to a project. Also – how to communicate and come to conclusions and solutions together. With all women!

In this comment, the learner expresses (with a bit of surprise) both the empowerment of working with “smart and diverse women,” and she explained that it helped her to work on her own barriers to entry and to gain efficacy through networking, collaboration, and communication.

Some of the women described the opportunity to validate their technical skills, while developing an understanding of their strengths and additional learning challenges.

From the 2016 end-of-course survey:

Ewits was a great opportunity for me to validate that I have the necessary technical skills to take a patent and create a product. It also helped me to visualize my strengths and what things I need to work on in order start my own business. As an engineer, I suffered understanding financials and marketing. However, after Ewits, I am not afraid of those areas, especially because I learned that it is OK to ask for help.

This learner talked about learning that it is “OK” to ask for help. This is an additional affirmation of the “safe space” theme, in that she found the space allowed her to be vulnerable enough to admit she did not know everything, and she could ask for help when needed.

Mentorship and collaboration

A core tenet of the Ewits program was the mentorship and team collaboration process. The Ewits Participant Workbook (Ewits, 2017a) described one of its learning objectives as an attempt to “Develop skills in working effectively in a team, creating a business plan, and delivering an investor pitch.”  This mentorship and team collaboration not only provided space for team members to work together on developing their startup plan, but it also created space for them to have discussions related to the challenges and barriers to being women in a masculine-gendered field. Evidence of these conversations showed up in the open-ended questions and in the interviews. Evidence of the rigor of the program again showed up in the conversations about the mentor-team relationship.

The interview data provided further descriptions of mentor-team collaboration. The mentors described a process of watching their teams develop, learning how to work with each other, struggling through learning how to work out differences, and developing trust relationships along the way. They related the struggles in the teams to the struggles they had experienced in their own careers. They described Ewits as a very lifelike and authentic experience. For instance, Kim talked about how she navigated that relationship as a mentor, maintaining her distance, but providing guidance along the way. She saw her role as helping the team to stay focused and on task as they worked together to accomplish their goals. She also discussed her own learning process as she learned to work with women who did things differently than she did.

She says:

The teamwork aspect of it was very intriguing, as it always is to watch how people interact with each other and with me. And you know, you almost always have dysfunctions on the team and experiencing not necessarily how I deal with it, because it’s not always about me as a mentor, but you back away from it, and watch how these women deal with dysfunction because that’s a part of the workplace. So, I learned a lot from slowing down enough to pay attention, because that was my job. To figure out how to help them win. And when I say win, I don’t [sic] necessarily mean winning that prize at the end. It’s asking, what is it that we’re here to accomplish? And learning to work with women that are different than I am. Not necessarily in personality and character, but looking at how they solve problems.

Kim described the teamwork aspect as “intriguing.” She explained how she as a mentor saw herself as part of this process, and how she learned along the way. She portrayed the team process as being authentic, requiring the women to “deal with dysfunction because that is part of the workplace” and learning how to solve problems with other women who may have a different approach.

Harriet found the mentoring process harder than expected. She talked about keeping her distance as a mentor, not stepping in to take over, but to provide guidance. She described the process of challenging her team to step up and make purposeful choices about how they wanted to see this challenge through. She said:

It’s an amazing experience. It’s like childbirth, literally. […] It was harder than I expected it to be. I’ll be honest with you. I did not expect it to be so hard. But I also was very disciplined with my role, and I maintained to them, “I can’t do this for you. I am your mentor. I can help you, I can guide you, I can direct you, but I can’t do this for you.” That was hard not to do it.

Because rarely are you working by yourself. Some things, of course you are. But watching them, especially at the end when we didn’t have what we needed to be able to complete our investment pitch because one of the members – this always happens right? Somebody doesn’t show up. Somebody doesn’t get the information. And then to watch them, and how… what choice are you gonna make here as a team? Not me, but them. We fold. We can’t get this done. Or we rally. And what is it gonna be? And what are you made of?

Again, we see the theme of challenging and rewarding as Harriet referenced the challenge of the process in her description. She talked about rallying at the end, stepping up, even in the face of adversity, to meet the challenge. Learning how to fill in the gaps, and how to make up for the team member who did not come through. Challenging her team about whether they would give up, or “rally.”  She placed the decision on them, and recognized that her role as mentor was to help them make decisions and then guide them through the process.

In both mentors’ descriptions, managing the team work emerged as a challenge. This struggle also showed up in the learners’ comments. They talked about the process of learning to work in a team, navigating the challenges and frustrations of team dynamics and figuring out how to get the job done. Rosa talked about the process of dealing with the internal frustrations and pulling together to complete the project.

I definitely learned a lot about all that it takes, and of just working together as a team, and how much that takes to put something together at a really quality level. And I think you can run into some challenges there. And on my team, we did have some internal frustrations by some of the team members and just trying to deal with that. It was a challenge, and that happens, though. […] Towards the end, it was kind of, “Let’s just get through and present.” And maybe, I don’t know, it’s hard to figure out how to better manage that, so I think that was something just kind of learned.

Rosa described the flip side of Harriet’s description, how she as a team member had to find her internal strength to step up to the challenge even when there were internal dynamics and frustrations among the team. She discussed the moment when they decided to just push through and finish the project and the ultimate recognition of learning that maybe it was something she “just kind of learned.”

Deborah talked about finding her own confidence in a team full of leaders. She struggled with how to speak up when she did not think the right choice was being made. She felt like she should have spoken up sooner, instead of waiting. As she explained:

I like to take charge but I thought in this case I shouldn’t do that because it was a whole table full of leaders. I admire every single person that I worked with. But on the other hand, there were a couple of us that were like, “Is this really the right choice?” And we really should have spoken up more and not worried about it so much. That’s one thing I learned.

In her statement, her struggle to find her own confidence and her own voice was clear as she attempted to step up and express her opinion when she felt like the team was making choices she did not agree with.

Some of the teams experienced normal everyday outside influences that negatively affected the team, including sick family members, a team member dropping out because they got a new job, or team members who had outside demands which took up too much of their time. As this comment from the 2016 end-of-course survey explains:

Overall, I thought it was a great experience. It went a little too fast, but then again, we had problems slowing us down… sickness, family emergencies, one person dropped out. But the learning environment was great and building a business plan together was a very positive experience.

This learner expressed the frustration of normal team dynamics, and unexpected issues of family, illness, etc. Even with the frustrations, she felt that the learning environment was great and described an overall positive experience with the process. Overall, the mentor-team relationships seemed to have created an environment where both learners and mentors were able to both test their efficacy in the competencies of entrepreneurship as well as their collaborative work skills.

After Ewits…

In both the end-of-course surveys and in the Interviews, participants expressed a desire for on-going support and networking after Ewits is over. Many of the teams have maintained ongoing relationships and have attempted to stay in contact with each other and with their mentors. One learner stated:

I learned so much from this program and from my team. I will miss attending Ewits, but I know I will remain close with my team. They were very special women, and it was such a remarkable experience in getting to know them.

Overall, most of the participants indicated a positive experience and a strong sense of bonding with those who shared the experience with them. There was a group of participants after cohort 2013 who attempted to establish an ongoing professional networking group for Ewits participants. However, due to the sometimes-transient nature of a University environment, many of those participants moved on to other locations and the group ultimately fizzled.

 Several of the learners interviewed have either launched or are attempting to launch startups. They described a need for ongoing support with their new ventures. From the 2016 end-of-course survey:

My recommendation is to start a transitioning program for those of us that have already identified a patent and are ready to start. A follow-up program will use our momentum to actually start our business.

They expressed a need for mentors, networks, funding, and access to resources. They wanted a place where they could ask questions and learn from others who had already experienced the struggles they are working through. One respondent stated:

I really think that we need to create a real network, where women can feel supported, receive the experienced advice at the right time and feel that we are not alone in this journey. Together we are stronger and can achieve more than every single one of us on their own.

Tasha indicated, “I wish I had gained more about how to get involved with university projects or into the hub, or getting things really rolling in Gainesville, and I don’t think that happened.” She expressed that she felt like after Ewits, she was on her own and there was not a lot of perspective in terms of other resources in the community.”  Later in the interview she expressed:

I think if you’d have interviewed me right after I did the class, I would have thought, oh my God, this is the best thing since sliced bread. But then getting out there and actually trying to apply these things, there’s so much more to know.

Monique also talked about a desire to maintain contact, and to continue the networking and mentoring relationships after the program was over. She said, “I think the only missing piece is that connecting, counseling, keeping in touch after the program is over and how you do that with people scattered all over the place?”

The organizers talked about wanting to create that next step. In fact, at the time of the writing of this report, they are preparing to open a Women’s Collaboratory, which will be a space where women can continue both with their entrepreneurial education and a space where they can connect, continue to network, and have on-going access to mentors. Jane talks about the vision for the Collaboratory:

Ewits is an amazing program but the shortcoming is that after ten weeks – we empower them with the knowledge, the confidence, and we provide them the role models and the mentoring and the network, and then, it’s gone. And when it’s gone, is when they need it the most. Because now they’ve got the knowledge and the empowerment, and they need somebody to take them through that next level, right? Where they can take their idea, and their concept instead of the university technology and really move forward with it.

And that’s the vision for the Collaboratory. And the reason we’re calling it the Collaboratory is because we want it to be not just a UF and not just a HUB thing. I’m hoping Santa Fe will come and be a player in the Collaboratory, I’m hoping that work force – whoever has expertise in things that they can bring to bear on helping those women get from that point forward. Or just opening it up to other people, they don’t necessarily have to have gone through the EWITS program to really continue to push the ball forward.

In her comments, Jane describes their next steps in establishing a Women’s Collaboratory that will provide ongoing support to take them to the next level. The organizers recognize that Ewits is a short-term contribution to a larger long-term problem. If they are going to effect lasting change in the number of women participating in technology startups, they need to provide more resources, education, and networking to support them through the licensing, launching and capitalization processes.

Chapter Summary

Chapter 4 presented the research findings from this study. The findings include both quantitative and qualitative results from the curriculum and artifact review, analysis of learner applications, end-of-course surveys, and the fifteen semi-structured interviews. The research found that the learners described increased confidence in their entrepreneurial competencies, teamwork and collaborative skills, and their understanding of gender bias and barriers to entry for technology entrepreneurship. They also portrayed the experiential learning component as rigorous, challenging, and empowering. Many described the all-female environment as a safe space where they could ask questions and learn from other highly qualified women in the program. The mentor-team relationships contributed to the dynamic nature of the learning environment. The interviewees reported previous experience with either entrepreneurial or strong female role models that inspired them. They described entrepreneurial identities as fluid, including innovation as well as entrepreneurship.