Chapter 5: Discussion, Limitations, and Recommendations

This chapter will discuss the research findings as they relate to the research questions and the theoretical frameworks of ambient belonging and gender bias. Limitation of the research will be presented. It will conclude with recommendations for future research and for developing and implementing educational programs like Ewits.

Discussion

This study aimed to understand whether educational interventions can help women succeed in technology entrepreneurship, a career field where women are underrepresented but where economic opportunity is high. Using a mixed method case study design, it examined the following three research questions: 1) How does Ewits strive to help women overcome barriers to entry into technology entrepreneurship? 2) What impact does Ewits have on participants’ entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions? 3) How do participants describe their experience with entrepreneurship? The following sections synthesize the findings related to each question and considers these findings in the context of the research literature.

Research Question One

How does Ewits strive to help women overcome barriers to entry into technology entrepreneurship?

The barriers to entry into technology entrepreneurship that Ewits sought to address include work/life balance choices, self-confidence, lack of training, lack of a mentor network or role models and self-initiative (waiting to be asked) (Ewits, 2017a).  Ewits aimed to help program participants overcome barriers to entry into entrepreneurship, first, by providing an experiential learning program designed to increase learner’s knowledge of the core competencies needed to launch a technology startup, and second, by creating a learning environment where the participants can explore their own understandings of gender bias and other barriers that impact their desire to enter entrepreneurship.

Experiential learning model

Piperopoulos and Dimov (2015) showed that individuals completing a theoretical only entrepreneurship education program often experience a decrease in entrepreneurial self-efficacy and resulting entrepreneurial intentions as compared to those who completed a practically-based entrepreneurial education program. Those in the practically oriented programs saw their self-efficacy and resulting entrepreneurial intentions increase. Ewits provided professional development to participants through an experiential learning project focused on increasing the entrepreneurial competencies and skills needed to successfully launch a technology venture.

 Shane and Venkataraman (2000) similarly contend that entrepreneurship education should include the process of discovery, evaluation, and exploitation of opportunities, including the individuals who discover, evaluate, and exploit these possibilities. Ewits was successful in providing most if not all of these elements through an experiential learning simulation where participants worked together to select a technology from the Office of Technology Licensing (discover), research the opportunities for marketing this technology (evaluate), and prepare to launch a technology startup (exploit). The simulation provided a realistic understanding of the challenges, dedication and effort that are required to gain success in a technology startup. Participants met with licensing officers, worked with entrepreneurial mentors and other team members just as if they were planning to launch a real technology startup. During the research and discovery process, and the investor pitch, learners received feedback and evaluation from experienced entrepreneurial mentors, angel investors and venture capitalists, and from each other. This feedback and evaluation served as further validation of achieved competencies. During the investor pitch competition, the participants observed the investor pitches from the other teams and heard the feedback provided to all the teams. This allowed them to learn more about how a real investor pitch would be evaluated for potential funding as well as compare their own competencies and understandings with other team members and experienced entrepreneurs.

Learning environment

Ewits created a learning environment where the participants are able to explore their own understandings of gender bias and other barriers that impact their desire to enter entrepreneurship. Santos et. al (2016) recommend implementing educational interventions that focus on the cultural environment in the field of entrepreneurship and that include successful female role models and guest speakers that do not reflect the norms of a masculine-dominated field.  Ewits attempted to do this first, by creating an authentic entrepreneurial environment where participants experienced entrepreneurship, second, by providing experienced entrepreneurial female role models as mentors, presenters, and judges, and third, by creating space where participants were able to freely discuss, as well as examine their own experiences and understandings of gender bias.

The program was hosted at the University of Florida’s Innovation Hub. This situated the learning environment within the context of entrepreneurship, both in the authentic nature of the simulation, as well as with the people who do entrepreneurship and in a place where entrepreneurship is conducted. The organizers and facilitators either worked in or were highly familiar with the role of the Innovation Hub in both licensing and housing startup ventures. As participants walked through the building, they could see pictures, awards and other evidence of startup companies and their successes.

Ewits provided participants with opportunities to engage with female role models through the experiential technology transfer project where learners and mentors closely collaborated and also through guest speakers and the investor pitch judges. Organizers specifically attempted to recruit successful entrepreneurial mentors, presenters and judges who could serve as role models throughout the program. The mentor-team structure of the program, allowed participants to engage with many highly educated female leaders in science, technology, and entrepreneurship.

The Ewits program attempted to address issues of gender bias through guest speakers who talked about their experiences as female technology and entrepreneurial leaders including the biases they had experienced in their careers. The weekly presentations served as a catalyst to engage the learners in discussions about how women experience gender bias and stereotype threat as leaders in technology and entrepreneurship careers. These discussions occurred during the weekly informational sessions often carrying over into the weekly group work sessions.

Research Question Two

What impact does Ewits have on participants’ entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions?

Entrepreneurial intentions (EI) are the result of an individual’s Perceived Behavior Control (PBC), or feasibility of entrepreneurship, and a person’s Personal Attitude (PA), or desirability of entrepreneurship (Shapero and Sokol, 1982, Ajzen, 1991). Ajzen includes the influence of the sociocultural context, or Subjective Norm (SN) as a variable which reflects the value culture (CV) places on entrepreneurship. Ewits had a positive impact on participants entrepreneurial attitudes and intentions. Through the experiential learning model, they were successful in helping learners develop an increased understanding of and confidence in their abilities to be successful at entrepreneurship (PBC & PA). Through the learning environment they were able to help learners shift their perception of the gendered sociocultural norms (SN) of entrepreneurship.

Confidence in entrepreneurial abilities

Ewits had a positive impact on learner’s perception of entrepreneurial competencies (PBC) and on their personal attitudes (PA). Learners report they feel more confident about their entrepreneurial abilities as a result of their participation in Ewits. End-of-course surveys show that learners reported gains in both the mastery of entrepreneurial competencies and their understanding of barriers to entrepreneurship. Ewits was also successful in increasing learner’s personal perception of their entrepreneurial abilities as measured by the increase in entrepreneurial PBC and PA on the 2016 end-of-course surveys. In the responses to the open-ended qualitative questions and interview learners noted increased confidence in learning new skills and experiencing validation of the skills they already had prior to the program.

Both the learners and mentors describe the rigor and frustrations of the challenge of the experiential learning exercise as well as the resulting confidence that was gained when they succeeded in accomplishing the task. The amount of knowledge and learning required was at first overwhelming, but as they applied that knowledge and worked out what it takes to accomplish the task, they saw their efficacy and confidence increase. This feedback loop allowed for confirmation and development of self-confidence in their entrepreneurial abilities. Because they had the opportunity to then test their knowledge and abilities in a realistic simulation, with feedback from experienced entrepreneurs, they were able then build confidence in their new knowledge.

Combating gendered sociocultural norms

Santos et al. (2016) found that when the cultural value (CV) of entrepreneurship increased, men’s PA would increase, however, the increase in CV had no impact on women’s PA. They argue that females do not see an increase in PA because they do not see entrepreneurship as a career option for them, and thus the value society places on entrepreneurship does not affect them in the same way as it does males. This difference in perception of cultural value could be a result of gendered social norms (SN) which do not value women’s contribution as highly as men’s in the masculine gendered environment of entrepreneurship. The premise that women do not see entrepreneurship as a career option, aligns with the theory of ambient belonging. If women do not see themselves as fitting in technology entrepreneurship, then they will not perceive increased SN, and will continue to have low PA, or desirability for technology entrepreneurship.

 What makes Ewits unique is the learning environment which placed a strong cultural value not just on entrepreneurship, but specifically on women’s participation in entrepreneurship. Thus, they increased the CV and subjective norm (SN) of entrepreneurship in a way that the female participants felt their contribution was valued. Ewits created this environment by (1) recruiting highly educated women, from science, technology, and engineering fields, for the all-female educational program, (2) including experienced female entrepreneurial role models as team mentors, presenters, and judges, and (3) creating space to talk about gender bias. In those efforts, they were successful in creating an environment where the participants felt they belonged. The lack of masculine gendered norms may have also created an environment where individuals did not feel the pressures of stereotype threat and where they were free to act according to their own identities (Steele, 2011). Zanna and Pack (1975) showed that individuals in a single-gendered group are less likely to act according to stereotypical social roles. They draw a connection between being in the presence of the other gender as invoking behaviors that confirm to societal gender roles. In a single gendered space, individuals must take on all roles, even those that might normally be reserved for individuals of a different gender. This gives individuals an opportunity to try on and gain efficacy in non-traditional roles.

Research Question Three

How do participants describe their experience with entrepreneurship?

Yardav and Unni (2016) suggest that women perceive entrepreneurship within the context of their social networks including family, society and personal relationships. This is different from the traditional view of entrepreneurship as creating economic value and puts more focus on the experience of doing entrepreneurship and the value it brings to their lives and their families. The participants in this study describe their experience with entrepreneurship in terms of experiences with role models, opportunities for innovation, or a desire to create something new.

All the interviewees could identify at least one entrepreneurial or strong female role model that inspired them and influenced their career choices including their own entrepreneurial identity. They talked about how these role models exhibited lifestyle choices and benefits they wanted to have in their lives. Even when they struggled to succeed financially, the participants could see how the experience was rewarding and provided many advantages in building networks, or providing quality of life benefits.

The participants see themselves as entrepreneurs, as innovators, and as supporters of entrepreneurship. They talk about their own entrepreneurial identity as being intertwined with an innovator identity. Some describe efforts to launch new startups after their Ewits participation, others describe an interest in participating in a startup if the conditions are conducive to their needs. Even the women who do not expect that they will launch their own startup venture, see themselves as innovators and as leaders that contribute to the development of innovative ideas and technologies within their current careers.

When the participants talk about their own entrepreneurial ideas they often focus on the intrinsic benefits of entrepreneurship. They focus more on the process of doing entrepreneurship rather than on the economic or financial benefits of entrepreneurship. They talk about having an idea they want to see happen or a problem they want to solve. They also talk about the barriers to success, the lack of capital, lack of networks and support structures. These experiences are consistent with those that were identified in literature (Fink and Haisley, 2015, Calas et al., 2009)

Envisioning Entry in Technology Entrepreneurship

Scholars have argued that PBC (entrepreneurial ability) and PA (entrepreneurial interest) are both necessary conditions for entrepreneurial intention (EI) and that intention is a precursor for behavior and actual participation in the field. Using feminist theory, the framework proposed two additional components to this model. First, it included stereotype threat and gender bias as potential filters or barriers that might prevent women from turning feasibility and desirability into intention and actual engagement in the field. Second, it reframed the notion of entrepreneurial interest as embedded in a broader sociocultural context of ambient belonging. Whereas stereotype threat might affect women’s sense of competency and ability, a lack of ambient belonging prevents women from choosing a career in this field. Figure 5.1 presents a simplified version of this original model.

The findings of this study suggest that this model can and needs to be further refined to account for decreased PA even in the presence of increased cultural value of entrepreneurship.

Model for Interuption of Planned Behavior
Figure 5-1: A model for understanding the impact of gender bias and ambient belonging on entrepreneurial intentions.

Limitations

While this research focused primarily on personal attitude and ambient belonging, we must not lose sight of the overall societal responsibility to end gender bias in a gendered field. It is not the minority participants burden to shift societal norms, but the burden of those who have the privilege of naturally representing the majority norms, that need to reflect on their own personal biases and begin to change the way we evaluate those who operate in a manner that is different from the gendered norm of society.

The researcher was integrally involved with the Ewits program throughout the course of the study, including participation as a mentor in the 2014 cohort and as a mentor’s mentor in the 2016 cohort. While every effort was made to ensure an unbiased representation of the data that was gathered from the program, there is a limitation in that the researcher might be more likely to portray a more positive representation of the program and miss negative representations.

There are limitations with the generalizability of the learner population. This is a highly educated, mostly affluent, group of women who self-selected into the program. These participants have resources and a certain amount of privilege which will help them succeed in spaces where others with less privilege may struggle. The results from this study will need to be compared with other learner groups who may not have the same level of privilege to support their self-efficacy and subjective norms. At this time, there are additional concurrent studies being conducted with StartUp Quest, a mixed-gendered implementation of the same experiential learning model. The Startup Quest studies can provide a comparison to Ewits results which will help to better understand the long-term effectiveness of the educational model and the generalizability of the research results.

Another limitation is the nature of the data collection. Phase One of the study relied on applications and surveys that were collected prior to the research period. While the survey results give us insight into the perception of the women completing the program, they do not validate their competencies. In addition, there was missing data from 2012, and some anomalies in the data set which made it difficult to fully interpret the responses. It would be useful in future iterations of the program if the questions on the End-of-course surveys could be vetted and validated to ensure they will produce the results that are intended. The organizers indicated that all of the learners were required to turn in their End-of-course surveys prior to entering the investment pitch competition. However, the number of surveys provided in the data set was lower than the number of program completers. This could be due to an imprecise method of ensuring survey collection, or could represent a potential missing set of data. Due to the number of survey’s available n=151 (completers n=170) it does not appear that the missing surveys would adversely affect the results of this study.

As a mixed-methods study, some of the data for this research is gathered from participant’s personal perceptions and anecdotal evidence. While the researcher reviewed the transcripts and coding reports several times, there are undoubtedly other themes that could emerge from a different reading of the data. Further study of the existing data may be needed to better understand the themes that emerged and to consider other perspectives in the analysis.

One limitation with the data collected in the End-of-course survey is that it only reflects the learners’ perceptions of their skill levels before and after attending Ewits. It does not reflect an external evaluation of their competencies. Learners are provided with feedback on their demonstrated competencies during the investor pitch competition on both their business plan and their presentation. Experienced venture capital and angel investors provide this feedback. While this data was collected during this research, it was not analyzed. It will be included in the recommendations for future research.

There is little data available to answer the question of whether this educational program has an impact on participant’s entrepreneurial behavior. While some of the participants do describe efforts to launch new startups after their Ewits participation, there will need to be further study to understand the long-term effects of Ewits on entrepreneurial behavior.

This study focused primarily on participant perceptions as such there is not independent review of those perceptions, nor is there an effective measure of external influences. Some of the limitations of this approach include: (a) there is no measure of actual gender bias, (b) there is no measure of actual stereotype threat, and (c) there is no measure of actual competency proficiency.

Recommendations

As a result of this study there are both recommendations for future study, and recommendations for the educational model.

Recommendations for the Educational Model

The following recommendations are based on feedback on the end-of-course surveys and interviews. They are not part of the findings, but are included here to give feedback on the overall effectiveness of the program.

  • Consider implementing a flipped classroom model where participants watch videos before coming to the weekly information sessions. This will allow more time in class for guest speakers, discussion, and team work.
  • Improve the educational component addressing stereotype threat and gender bias ensuring that it is based on research and effective intervention methods.
  • Continue with plans to develop a follow-up program with the Women’s Collaboratory as well as other resources to assist early stage entrepreneurs in achieving their startup goals.

Recommendations for Future Study

During this study, a wide variety of data was collected, and not all of it was analyzed for this study. This includes follow-up surveys, business plans and investor pitches, including judges scoring sheet and recommendations. The follow-up surveys have been administered annually since 2014 and captures data from learners over a period of time. Analysis of this data could provide insights into the long-rang impacts of the program.

Additional research needs to do a deeper dive into the effects of gendered norms in a gendered field and shifting individual perceptions of these fields. While Ewits was successful in shifting participants perception of the culture of entrepreneurship during course the program, an understanding of the long-term effects of this program on program participants could reveal insights into whether or not this experience was effective in shifting individual’s entrepreneurial attitudes, intentions, and behaviors.

Future research should include research into effective engagement practices in educational settings that not only impact gender bias, but help other underrepresented students engage in a way that they develop efficacy and a sense of belonging that will allow them to succeed.