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Innovation and imagination: women entrepreneurs

2 March 2017

The article at a glance

As International Women’s Day approaches we look at the joys and challenges of being a female entrepreneur – Cambridge MBA alumnae share …

As International Women’s Day approaches we look at the joys and challenges of being a female entrepreneur – Cambridge MBA alumnae share their stories.


In a space which is still overwhelmingly male, Cambridge MBAs with the XX chromosome are forging a path into entrepreneurship with start-ups as inspiring as they are diverse.

Helping families sleep better, offering wearable technologies to visually-impaired people, bringing investors and entrepreneurs together and a data driven approach to farming: innovation and imagination are evidently alive and well among female entrepreneurs post-Cambridge MBA. But what are the special challenges of being a female start-up? We asked four CJBS alumnae to share their experiences.

Finding your voice, finding investment, finding the right networks – female entrepreneurs may have to search harder for longer for the right toolkit to get on the start-up ladder, but the rewards are worth it. Cambridge alumnae Jessica Toh, Portia Asli, Christina Mackay and Veena Adityan would not be doing anything else.

For Jessica (MBA 2013), who took the entrepreneurship concentration as part of her programme, finding the right networks was crucial when it came to exploring options for the several start-up ideas. Settling on one – a product to help sleep-deprived parents – she and her team are achieving an 85 per cent success rate among the exhausted parents who sign on with Huckleberry Labs and its science and evidence-based bespoke programmes designed to transform the way families sleep. For Jessica, it all started with the links she made in Cambridge:

“As a female entrepreneur you need to take a good look at your existing network. Women tend to have mainly female networks (and men mainly male) and with the start-up space being so dominated by men, as a woman you will probably need to extend your network. As you network, the good news is you tend to stand out more and become more memorable, although I often found people assuming I was in a support role to a start-up rather than a founder! Going to entrepreneur networking events can be intimidating when you step into a room filled with men, so you need to work on your confidence to go up to people, especially investors, and talk to them convincingly about your ideas.”

Finding your authentic and confident voice is something Portia Asli (MBA 2015) can identify with. The co-founder of Vocalens, a social venture dedicated to empowering visually impaired people to live a high-quality life through wearable technologies, Portia urges aspiring female entrepreneurs to continually harness their communication, negotiation and selling skills:

“As an entrepreneur, you need to have a strong confident voice all the time, whether you are in the board room or meeting with an investor. You need to know what your company values are and stick to them. I would recommend attending communication classes and public speaking workshops so you can work on how to best harness your inner authentic voice. As the leader of your company, your voice is an important asset, whether it be negotiating for optimal resources, communicating strategic directions or selling your product or service to customers.”

Like Jessica, Portia also extols the value of the right networks. At Cambridge she left nothing to chance, availing herself of all the eco-system had to offer:

“While at Cambridge, I joined Hughes Hall Enterprise Society, Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE), the Entrepreneurship Special Interest Group and Enterprise Tuesdays. Through these clubs and societies, my co-founder and I developed business plans and pitched in front of a wide range of audiences to secure pre-seed funding. It was an excellent opportunity to receive early validation about our technology and win cash to transform our idea into proof of concept. I also got to network with like-minded entrepreneurs and attend talks by successful high profile entrepreneurs. These opportunities make the Cambridge MBA an excellent choice for pursuing entrepreneurship and that holds true whether you’re female or male.”

When it comes to seeking investment, women are at a disadvantage, with a tiny amount of investment going to female led start-ups – just 10 per cent of VC funding according to the CrunchBase Women in Venture report. Christina Mackay (MBA 2015), founder of online investment platform InEn (‘In’ for investors, ‘En’ for entrepreneurs), has this particular difficulty firmly in her sights:

“A pitiful amount of funding goes to female founded companies and this is an issue I am trying to solve. I think one driver of this is that there are so few women in investing (only seven per cent of partners at top 100 venture firms are women). I want to get more women into investing to help female founders get funding. I intend to do this through providing guidance on how to invest in start-ups and encouraging a ‘buddy’ system where a woman can join a group of men who invest and learn from them, which in turn means she can lead a future investment round.”

Christina is very optimistic about the rewards to be reaped by female founded start-ups to take the plunge despite the difficulties:

“I think now is a perfect time for women to start their own company. The revolution is happening and the next generation of unicorn ($1bn + company) tech leaders will be women!”

Veena Adityan (MBA 2014) agrees. The co-founder of Smartbell, a start-up bringing cutting edge data analytics to the world of farming, Veena is very excited by the prospects for female entrepreneurs, but she has a word of caution for established female entrepreneurs in talking to those coming through:

“I think we need to be careful what we say to up-and-coming young women entrepreneurs. I found I hadn’t noticed some things were potential barriers for me until someone else pointed them out. For instance my first experience of pitching was with all-male candidates to a mainly male audience and I didn’t think it was a problem. Then someone pointed out that it could be an issue and the next time I was in that situation I was perhaps more nervous. It’s good to be aware of the challenges that face us as women but we need to really focus on our strengths and our passion. Control what you can control and don’t worry too much about what you can’t.”

Credibility in a male dominated world like agri-tech has been a challenge for Veena but not one that she has allowed to hold her back:

“I find that you have to work harder to be taken seriously when you are female. You have to work harder with potential investors, because they are mostly male and tend to invest ‘in their own image’ and you also have to work harder if you are operating in a male-dominated space like agri-tech. You don’t look like a traditional farmer so why should they trust you?! But once you have proved yourself and your product, it gets much easier.”

Finally don’t forget that, for female entrepreneurs, one of their main resources can be each other. Portia Asli has found vital and on-going inspiration in her fellow female MBAs:

“One of my inspirations is my female classmates from the Cambridge MBA. I had the opportunity to be around strong and confident female classmates, something that I haven’t much experienced prior coming from the male dominated engineering industry. They became my role models to speak confidently, credibly, and assertively and this is something I practice at Vocalens everyday.”

Although the path of entrepreneurship may have a few more twists and turns in it for women than for men, these successful female-led start-ups are sure there is something valuable to be learnt from every situation – even the difficult ones.