Why Girls Say No To Entrepreneurship

By Amy Chan

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Mason, Jack Dorsey, Mark Pincus. What’s missing on this list of superstars? Female representation.

The percentage of women entrepreneurs overall is shockingly low: Y-Combinator, the “harvard of incubators,” reports just 4% women in its program. Paul Graham points out that only 1.7% of VC-backed startups are founded by women. Looking at our own course materials, only 1 out of 12 cases featured a female protagonist (Rent the Runway).

In an era when women are occupying an increasing percentage of high-profile occupations, why is Silicon Valley – one of the most liberal locations, in one of the most progressive states, in the most advanced country in the world – so behind?


When thinking about this question, there are a few humdrum answers I simply don’t buy:

“Silicon Valley discriminates, it’s a boy’s club”

I see no barriers to a woman asking her more successful male counterparts out for coffee for advice, or barriers to her taking on a male mentor. We don’t live in a time when this type of behavior is deemed inappropriate. Furthermore, unlike in mainstream corporate settings, there are no exclusive male golf clubs (“where business gets done”) in the tech industry – just garages. Due to its casual-nature, tech, at a minimum, can’t be anymore of a boys club than every other industry.

“A woman’s biological clock”

Some seem to suggest that entrepreneurs are getting the startup bug right around the time when women want to start a family. However, Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg all started during their college years. It’s quite rare to find college-educated women eager for kids during her early 20s.

Girls are inherently more risk-adverse than guys

Women not risk averse, study finds, Financial Post, Aug 2011. 

Entrepreneurship as a Sport

If there is one thing that this course has instilled in me, it is that entrepreneurship is like a sport. You have to train for it. For example, if you want your child to become a professional Major League Baseball player, you enroll him in Little League, take him to batting practice, and so on. Similarly, if you want your child to be a career entrepreneur, you must teach her certain skills at an early age. From Drew Houston to David Vivero, case after case, we find that two proficiencies are mission critical for launching successful tech ventures:

  • Coding. VCs often look for founders with strong technical backgrounds, not only because of the obvious (core product needs to get built), but also because those who have coded for a long time (think Drew) develop efficient ways of solving technology issues that are essential to lean methodologies. Historically, girls have shied away from computer engineering. The reasons for this are many, including social pressure and the lack of women role models in the profession. Whatever it is, not knowing how to code – and think like a hacker – is a setback. 
  • Selling Yourself. Entrepreneurship is all about selling yourself, whether it’s raising money from VCs, attracting the right employees or getting customers to trust your startup. But we know from data that women earn 17% less comp than their male counterparts. This gender gap showcases how women aren’t as good at selling themselves as men are, even when her capabilities are identical to his. 

Thus, girls are simply not trained to be career entrepreneurs. Without the skills and practice necessary to succeed in this type of environment, women continually say NO to the startup life.


Looking at the few current female-founded startups (i.e. Gilt Group, Birchbox, Rent the Runway), I am quite anxious to see if they materialize into significant exits. They are all undeniably successful early startups, but these companies have yet to scale/enter late-stage.

Indeed, unless our society changes, tech ventures on the whole will remain overwhelmingly male-dominated. I am optimistic though – Mattel created its first Computer Engineer Barbie in 2010. If our eight-year-old-female-Zuckerberg-equivalent starts learning to code now, we can expect a disruptive female entrepreneur to appear circa 2022. Alternatively, Professor Eisenmann suggests reading Caps for Sale to newborns.



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