Growing up, it never occurred to me that there were limitations on what women could do. My mother was a Ph.D. scientist with her own career. At home, we did math problems for fun. It was only years later, after earning my engineering degree and starting my professional journey, that I fully realized the challenges many women experience or anticipate in STEM-related jobs
As we reflect back on Women's History Month, I want to celebrate the cultural change now underway and honor determined women entrepreneurs who are defining the future. They do not let the environment—or anything else—hold them back.
As President of GE Ventures, I take great pride in seeing how many women break both obvious and subtle barriers. The obstacles are real, but there are many passionate, driven female leaders who push past them and keep going! When Evidation Health CEO Deborah Kilpatrick was 22, she worked as a structural engineer for military aircraft engines. At the time, the women in the company had to wear heels. Instead of flinching when those noisy heels drew attention as she clicked across the concrete floor, Kilpatrick knew people were looking – and realized it was an opportunity for her to stand out in other ways. She made sure she was always ready to say something that let colleagues know she was a good engineer and deserved to be there. We’re glad she did: today, she’s a stand-out leader in GE Ventures’ portfolio of companies.
There were plenty of times earlier on in my career when somebody looked at me and presumed that I wasn’t supposed to be in the room, until I introduced myself and started the conversation. Despite the misconceptions, I embraced my seat at the table and focused on how I could show up as my best self. How we carry ourselves may be the most practical way to level the field when we start out in a biased environment.
Women entrepreneurs are chartering their own course. They aren’t afraid to take on the challenging problems. After working her way up the state government ranks and honing her expertise on electric power systems, Susan Kennedy decided it was time to improve energy storage. In 2013, Kennedy founded Advanced Microgrid Solutions (AMS), which uses advanced energy storage and load control technologies with state-of-the-art data analytics to design, build and operate customized fleets of energy storage for large commercial and industrial users and utilities. AMS’s growing customer list includes numerous electric utilities and global companies like Walmart.
Women are also standing up to control the narrative in business and investor meetings. When asked about downside risk for their startups, for instance, women entrepreneurs are flipping the question and instead talking about their upside potential. That kind of active stance is changing the dynamic.
It isn’t always easy. Even highly qualified women sometimes need convincing that they belong in a room or the corner office. Although Stacey Epstein had a strong track record of driving growth in senior marketing roles, she didn’t think of being a CEO until a mentor helped her see how qualified she was. Stacey went on to become the founder and CEO of Zinc, a successful startup that is improving communication for field workers.
Zinc is one of some 6,700 startups launched since 2009 that has at least one female founder, according to Crunchbase. These account for just 17 percent of all venture-funded companies—a number that has plateaued since 2012. And research shows that VC funding rounds for women entrepreneurs are consistently lower than those for companies led by men. This likely reflects bias that has been noted among some investors.
Biases are fading, but we can do a better job of teaching girls and boys that gender, does not limit career options or anyone’s ability to excel at science or math. We need more women entrepreneurs, executives, board members and venture capitalists. Capable women are out there. Let’s make sure we open the doors and continue to invite them in.
I’m inspired by the women leaders I see spearheading companies today and I’m convinced there are many more on their heels. I’m also excited about the male leaders and investors who are actively championing women entrepreneurs. Together, we can build a gender-equal world in business that creates more value and growth for everyone, producing results that we can celebrate every year during Women’s History Month.