Ep 36 – It Takes an Entrepreneurial “Village”



Dr. Sameeksha Desai is Associate Professor; Director, Manufacturing Policy Initiative; Associate Director, Institute for Development Strategies at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University. 

Dr. Desai joined O’Neill’s faculty in 2010. She specializes in entrepreneurship, competitiveness, and economic development policy. In her research, she explores the conditions that influence entrepreneurship and the regional economic and resilience outcomes of various types of entrepreneurial activity. Desai’s work focuses on access to entrepreneurial opportunity and inclusive economic development pathways.

Dr. Desai was the Director of Knowledge Creation and Research at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. She has been the (U.S.) co-chair of the Transatlantic Policy Consortium, and she was previously with the Ratio Institute in Stockholm. She was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena, Germany.

She has received numerous awards, fellowships, and grants for her work. Her work has been supported by government, nonprofit, and international organizations.


Why is it important for women to understand the “view from the balcony”, and not just stay on the dance floor?

What’s the surprising barrier to entrepreneurship you never heard about?

Why do you need to be extra vigilant as a woman with entrepreneurial ambitions?

In this episode, Dr. Sameeksha Desai, Associate Professor, and Director, Manufacturing Policy Initiative at Indiana University, talks about the “iceberg” problem of entrepreneurship, why the step before the first step is so critical, and so overlooked for women, how women can push the odds in their own favor despite a challenging system, and much more.

Episode Highlights

  1. How entrepreneurship can be the ticket to opportunity and success, no matter where you come from
  2. Why society is missing out the biggest crop of potential entrepreneurs
  3. How to spot invisible entrepreneurs, and why they matter
  4. The hidden pipeline of women entrepreneurs and how to open the spigot
  5. Why women abandon their dreams of entrepreneurship and how to stem the damage
  6. How the entrepreneur stereotype hurts women and how we can fix it
  7. Why representation in the financial world matters to women entrepreneurs and what will move the needle
  8. Why the “whole person” approach is critical to advancing women entrepreneurs’ success far more than for men
  9. How the entrepreneurial ecosystem can better support women entrepreneurs
  10. Why it’s critical for everyone to learn entrepreneurship skills

Links and Resources:

Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation: A private, nonpartisan foundation that works with communities in education and entrepreneurship.

Center for Women & Enterprise: A nationally known nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people start and grow their businesses.

Interview Transcript

Shubha Chakravarthy: Good afternoon, Sameeksha! Thank you so much for being on Invisible Ink. We are so excited to have you!

Sameeksha Desai: Thanks for having me.

Shubha Chakravarthy: You’ve done an incredible amount of research on entrepreneurship and especially in entrepreneurship by gender and race. What got you interested in the first place?

Sameeksha Desai: I always thought of it as something where you have a business and therefore you must be interested in entrepreneurship. I wasn’t interested in starting a business or owning a business. It actually seemed like something that was very hard and not up my alley at all. What I really cared about was advancement and economic resilience.

I grew up in Asia. I grew up in the Philippines. I spent a lot of time in countries where you would see the same cycle happen again and again. In the Philippines, for example, in the late seventies and early eighties, we saw the cycle of economic instability and political instability.

I always was really interested in what breaks that cycle. What can make communities, societies, and whole countries better positioned to actually do better and have more opportunities for people to access, not just for a small share of the population, not just people that control capital assets, but understanding what leads to more opportunities.

So, I always thought about that as more of a social activism kind of field. It was really when I was studying the origins of conflict and instability, that it really hit me that, a big part of the story is about access to assets and that is an entrepreneurship story, right?

That is a story about who gets to start a business, who gets to take a job in a business, and who gets loans for a business. Those are really intimately and almost inherently connected to things like political structure, policy corruption, concepts like fairness and justice.

I always thought about entrepreneurship more as a tool for social and economic advancement and to pave the way to opportunity and less as an individual business concept. So, that’s really where I came to entrepreneurship.

Shubha Chakravarthy: What is the beacon on the hill that keeps you inspired, motivated, and focused on this field?

Sameeksha Desai: It’s the path to opportunity. I think too much of our lives are determined by things that are out of our control. We know this and we have tons of research on this. We see this with our own eyes every day.

You can be born into poverty and then the chances are that you will stay poor. You can be born into a rich family and the chances are that you will still have money.

So, I think for me it is really about how we make that path to opportunity and the path in particular to business ownership and entrepreneurship. Something that is within reach for everybody. I’m not saying that everyone has to start a business, but I’m saying that if there is a talented person who just happened to be born in a school district that was underfunded or happened to have parents that couldn’t afford to send them to STEM camp, that child should have the same chance at really developing something incredible as an entrepreneur in the future that any other child would.

The reality is that we don’t know where the next great invention is going to come from. We don’t know where the next lifesaving innovation is going to come from. It is not always the people that we think are going to do the things we think.

Shubha Chakravarthy: What part of the work is the most rewarding for you?

Sameeksha Desai: I really enjoy it when I feel like information sharing is advanced by my work. So, for example, I’ve been involved with some large data projects where the goal has been to find some new avenue that we haven’t actually considered. When I see policymakers using that, that is really rewarding for me.

Then obviously, I’m a professor and so it’s also really rewarding on the academic side and the teaching side when I see students really think deeply about things like access to opportunity and much more about what happens from an individual’s birth to an individual’s death as opposed to at the age of 30, what policy matters now.

Shubha Chakravarthy:  One of the biggest things I learned from your research is this idea of how we think about and count women entrepreneurs and the fact that you have to have, “started a business” to count as an entrepreneur. What do you mean by that? What prompted you to even think about this and what is the impact of this methodology or approach?

Sameeksha Desai: I think we are missing something really important when we only talk about entrepreneurs, right? Which sounds a little backwards when we say we want a better environment for entrepreneurship. Why aren’t we talking more about people who aren’t entrepreneurs?

But I think this is actually our blind spot when it comes to all types of entrepreneurship support, whether it’s at the federal policy level or it’s what small business support centers are doing. That is that by the time most people enter into our jurisdiction or purview, when we are in entrepreneurship support programs, it is too late.

What I mean by that is that nobody just wakes up and says, “I’m going to start a business. At nine o’clock I’m going to go down to the business development support center. I’m going to go and start my business and at 10 o’clock I will be a business owner, right?”

That is just not how it works. Most people take a path of some kind. Maybe it is long, maybe it is short. But most people think about starting a business. Some people will test the waters. They might talk to their friends, their mentors, or other people working in a company that is in the industry that they see the opportunity in. They might talk to their colleagues at work. They might Google or they might even make a prototype.

There are a lot of things that people can do before we actually see them as entrepreneurs, before they actually formally become entrepreneurs. So, the reason I think this is a blind spot is because when we think about barriers to entrepreneurship, if we only talk to entrepreneurs, we still of course need to know what the challenges they face are, but we don’t really have visibility into the people that never make it there.

So, supposing I’ve been thinking about starting a business for some time. What I find as I’m talking to people is that it is just is going to be very expensive to finance this business.

Then I look around, I look at the numbers, maybe I talk to my local bank, and I find that people just aren’t supportive. It doesn’t look like I’ll get the money. It will be six months before I can make a profit and in the meantime, who is going to pay my rent? Then I just don’t do it.

So, where would we actually find me? I wouldn’t go to the incubator; I wouldn’t go to the small business support center. I wouldn’t be collected in the data because the data often captures people when they start a new business.

But maybe I had a really promising idea and it was this combination of my unique personal circumstances that prevented that idea from reaching the market and from benefiting broader society. So, I think one thing that we really need to think about is, “Who are the group of people for whom barriers to starting a business were actually existential and they never actually got to start?”

Obviously there are huge economic consequences. There are social and welfare consequences, but just think about this and these people, you could call them withdrawn entrepreneurs, which is what a big project that NORC has recently released calls them.

I’ve done some work on them, calling them pre-entrepreneurship believers. Some people might call them lost entrepreneurs or potential entrepreneurs. We are referring to a group of people that was interested in starting a business, took some action along the way, but ultimately withdrew from the process before start.

In the United States, that can range. So, depending on where you are it could be five to 16% of the population and that is actually a really large number. So, I looked up a couple of states before we chatted and in Kansas where I used to live, 16% of the population that was surveyed was withdrawn.

So, what this means is that these are people who could have started a business but didn’t. In Illinois, not far behind about 15%. Indiana where, I live and work, it was about 12%. Some places will surprise you. In California, which we think of as a hotbed for entrepreneurship, it was about 10%. That means one in 10 people walking around in the adult population isn’t starting a business, but wanted to and even took some steps to explore.

It is more interesting when we compare this with the current business owners. If we go back to Kansas, 14% of the population are current business owners, 16% are withdrawn. When we look at Indiana, 13% are current business owners, 12% are withdrawn.

So, we are talking potentially about doubling business owners in a state like Indiana if all the people who withdrew before they started actually continued. Now the big caveat is that it isn’t necessarily that everyone who stopped the process would have done well and should have continued.

Sometimes people withdraw from the process because they do some background research, or they do a prototype, or they talk to their contacts, and they decide that their idea is not a good and viable one.

So, in those cases, of course, we are not talking about the same thing as when someone is withdrawing because they keep getting doors slammed in their face when they go to ask for loans. When we think about the cost for us and the aggregate, it is actually tremendous.

I think the other thing that is really interesting about this group of withdrawn entrepreneurs is that we still have very little insight into who they are and what they do. As far as data goes, that is not something we have been collecting over 30 or 40 years.

It is also not a question that we are in the habit of asking. When we say we want to support entrepreneurs, we usually go to entrepreneurs or people who are still in the process and ask them what they need. I’m not saying that this should replace that, but I think in addition to that, we need to understand who these people are that are dropping out of the process if the barriers that are forcing them to drop out of the process are artificial, structural, and can be addressed by some targeted support.

Shubha Chakravarthy: That brings up a couple of really interesting questions. You talked about the fact that there is not going to be a hundred percent conversion of these pre-entrepreneurial folks.

To what extent do you think it is fair to say that it is really the quality of the entrepreneur that drives a process because I can always throw in one idea and come up with a different idea if I had the right access to resources? Do you have a take on that based on everything you have seen?

Sameeksha Desai: I have an intellectual take on it not a practical one. It’s a classic debate, right? Is entrepreneurship a person? Is entrepreneurship a process? Is it an employee? Is it a way of thinking? Certainly, we know that people are entrepreneurial.

So, there are people who can problem solve. There are people who see opportunities. But does it mean you have to start a business? I don’t know. The way that I approach it is that entrepreneurship has to be some combination of behavior in action. It is a really interesting question and we could spend hours debating whether someone could be entrepreneurial if they haven’t started a business.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Good point. Well taken. What do we know about pre-entrepreneurs? Do we know what draws them into entrepreneurship? Can you draw any inferences based on what that means for lost opportunity and for these people?

Sameeksha Desai: One thing that is quite interesting are the numbers, particularly among women and men might be surprising. They are very interesting gender dynamics.

Again, I’ll take the example of Indiana here. Among current business owners, for example, see that about 57% in recent data were women. We also see a very similar trend among withdrawn entrepreneurs, but it is interesting.

I think a lot of people would be surprised when they find out that 57% of current business owners in Indiana are women. So, when we see that number among the withdrawn entrepreneurs, we want to also be thinking about how these numbers look together. In Illinois, we see that about 4 in 10 business owners are women, and a little over five in 10 withdrawn entrepreneurs are women.

I think we want to pay attention not only to who is dropping out, but who actually makes it into the process because that tells us a little bit about what happens in terms of the process.

The other thing that I think is really interesting is nationally across age groups women tend to withdraw from the process more than men. It is over 50% across the age groups. I always find that interesting because I’ve seen a lot of interest in entrepreneurship by age, for example, particularly among those that are 18 to 29, less than or right around 35% of people in that age group that withdraw our men.

So, that leaves a very large share that are women. That is actually surprising. It really surprises me as well because I would expect to see numbers closer to 50%, or a 48-52 kind of a split.

The other thing that is really interesting too is that people withdraw from the process for a lot of reasons. Some that are not surprising and some that are actually quite surprising or maybe more multi-layered than we think.

For example, women are more likely than men to report lack of time as an important reason. They both report lack of time. But women are more likely to report lack of time.

I don’t think the conclusion that we make from is that women just don’t have enough time because they can’t make time. I think there are some pretty obvious next questions that we need to ask when we hear that women are more likely to say that lack of time is a barrier to continuing the process than men. So, the why really matters.

The other thing that I find really interesting is that when it comes to promotion at work, which was one of the reports in a recent NORC survey, stated one of the reasons you could report was promotion at work and men are more likely to report a promotion at work, not by a lot actually, it is close to 50-50.

But that split is much more different than what we see with lack of time. Similarly, lack of finance. It is not surprising that women are more likely to report lack of finance as a reason they withdrew from the process. “Too risky. Potential lost focus, lack of support, or major life event.” Those are all reasons that people withdraw from the journey and also reasons where we see that women are more likely to report than men.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So, this brings up an almost an intractable question of “How do you get them?” What are some promising seeds that we could look at to bring more of these people, especially women, into the fold and perhaps get a greater yield of entrepreneurs from?

Sameeksha Desai: I think the first thing is that most of what we do at the program and policy support level is targeting people who have already made it past quite a few humps. So, starting earlier in the process and getting people on the path earlier and keeping them there, I think is a really big opportunity, especially when you are looking at numbers, like the numbers we see in Indiana.

I think a lot of that is tied to things that are not specifically about entrepreneurship. So, when we look at lack of finance, that is really a question about fairness in financial markets and that is really a question we already have a lot of answers to.

So, we know a lot about gender discrimination in financial markets. We know a lot about the experience of women in accessing funding, whether it is loans from banks, venture capital, entering into the angel market, or looking for financing from their personal social networks.

We actually have a lot that we already know about that. I think we want to think more in terms of “What are the pieces of the puzzle that form that part of the journey.” Not quite visible to us, that pre-start piece of the journey. We also know that having access to good mentors and having access to role models has been really important, not only for entrepreneurship but for a lot of things.

So, I think about young girls in sixth grade or seventh grade or eighth grade having access to mentors and role models, right? I think there is a lot we can do in terms of programming and in terms of social media. We have really great technology now.

So, when I was in sixth grade, we didn’t have things like virtual reality to try to see what a day in the life might be like. We had the parents of classmates come to class and tell us about their jobs. That was the extent of role modeling and career exploration for us at that young age.

Now you have a lot of technology and so, there is a lot of opportunity there and I’ve heard about different programs that are really meant to share different career paths with people who might otherwise not know about them.

The reality is that for most children, and I’m not a researcher on children at all, so this is my take on the research that exists, but the reality is that for most children what you are exposed to can be fairly limited and technology can expand that just as it is for, adults too.

So, when we think about the entrepreneurship path, we want to think of it not so much as a linear path but a path where there can be many obstacles or there can be many sort of triggers that can push someone into entrepreneurship. It is also not linear in terms of age.

For example, in the United States, we see a lot of attention right now to caregiving and motherhood and it is a mixed bag when we talk about entrepreneurship and motherhood as well. I’ve heard people say things for example, like, “She has young children to take care of and she can’t do a full-time nine to five. She can’t commit to full-time work. So, she can start a business. She should be an entrepreneur”

It is not that simple. I think we also need to rethink the idea that entrepreneurs have to be of a certain age, of a certain look, and make it accessible at all stages in the journey, right? So, if you are 40 or if you are 18 and you are a woman and you think you have a really good idea, what can we do that would basically not discourage you from pushing that idea forward?

Shubha Chakravarthy: It makes total sense which leads me to my next question, which is, you talked about on ramps and off ramps, and I want to talk about off ramps to begin with because it is the easiest way for people already considering entrepreneurship.

How do we keep them rather than get off the ramp? In this pre-entrepreneurship stage, what do women typically do and which of those are the biggest off-ramps, do you have any data from your research on that?

Sameeksha Desai: There are a couple of different sources for data on this. One of the things that I think is really interesting is that in some ways there aren’t many differences between what men and women are doing, with a few exceptions, right? It seems to always be like this with entrepreneurship.

So, one of the things in some research that I did with a colleague when I was at the Kauffman Foundation was in terms of things like market research, talking to people consulting experts, and there weren’t massive differences between men and women.

But in other ways there were. For example, in learning about financing options outside of personal sources, we saw some difference there, in discussing the ideas and whom you discussed the ideas with, we saw some differences there.

I think it is probably worthwhile from an entrepreneurship support perspective for us to really think about not only what the steps are that women are taking, but also what the broader cultural and social environment is because almost everything points to these levers that are cultural and social.

Shubha Chakravarthy: If you had to wave a magic wand, for example, what would have to be different for us to be able to have a different tone of conversation with these women that help them see paths through entrepreneurship that they are seeing today there isn’t?

Sameeksha Desai: We are seeing that to some extent, although I’ve seen some mixed findings from the last couple of years, but more representation, right? It is a really important thing for women to also be in decision making roles and to be in positions of power where they are making decisions about who gets funded.

They are thinking about markets as part of a team that is making decisions. We see that when we have more representation, we see better decision making. Women owned firms and men owned firms have very different pathways in terms of financing. But in many cases these pathways don’t actually have to be different.

So, the questions that women are asked during the financing process and the questions men are asked during the financing process don’t have to be different, I think that just having more women in financing, on the other side, not only having more female founders, but having more women that are in meetings and saying, “We are going to look at it this way.” Talking about what the benefits would be from other perspectives that maybe you wouldn’t think about would go a long way.

I see that as a systemic effort that we are seeing in banking. We are seeing in in the venture finance world. It is happening, but it is frustratingly slow and sometimes the things that we think will work don’t. You see really interesting grassroots new financial models developing all over the place and I think that is really promising.

It is not a matter of saying we need more women to start businesses. Sometimes as we say, we need more women to start businesses and so let’s set a goal of 500 women or let’s set a goal of 50 women, asking women to start businesses in an environment where they are going to face barriers in financial markets and where their businesses are going to grow to a certain point and then getting that last round, is also difficult to do.

So, I think we need to think both about, “Is the ecosystem supportive? Can we show women that the ecosystem is supportive so that they are willing to start those businesses?”

It is never a lack of ideas. It is never a lack of talent, skill, interest, or ability. It is the other things.

Shubha Chakravarthy: We talked about access to finance, or at least perceptions of access to finance, but there is also the question of all the other stuff in terms of a path to a viable firm.

What do women need to see that they are not seeing today that would help them get over the hump? What can existing infrastructure, such as incubators, do to help get them over the hump that isn’t happening today?

Sameeksha Desai: I think those are basically two questions. One is really about creating a welcoming and an inclusive environment for women entrepreneurs. Then the second is, “Do we actually treat the whole person when we are trying to provide entrepreneurship support?”

I think we know what to do, we just haven’t done it. We need to reduce barriers. We certainly need to see more representation of women. We also need to make things more friendly to women knowing the other types of concerns that women are dealing with. That really means supporting the person.

There is actually a program that I think is really great. It is the Center for Women in Enterprise. They have offices in Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire and even in the way they describe their mission, it is very clear that they are talking about economic empowerment. It is an inclusive economic empowerment organization.

What they are really talking about is the whole of the person. So, that is where I think it is almost a missed opportunity for incubators and for accelerators as well, but certainly for incubators – to really only look at the business or to really only look at the business-related dimensions of the person when there is so much more to what goes into a decision to start a business.

We have data on the reasons that people even are interested in starting a business and then the reasons they drop out of the process. I’m not saying that entrepreneurship support programs should be doing things like family interventions or anything like that.

But I do think that many of the barriers that emerge for women are emerging at the family level, the household level, the individual level, and the societal level. So, those are barriers that are really difficult for an incubator to assess and address if they are not looking for them.

If it is only about the bottom line and there weren’t any other barriers, we wouldn’t see all this concern about why women aren’t starting businesses. We just wouldn’t. So, I think taking the approach of what is right for the person makes the most sense.

In some cases, it may not be starting a business. In some cases, it might be wage employment or it might be waiting to start a business, or it might be starting a business. I think considering what a person’s goals are and the reason for starting a business is really crucial.

Shubha Chakravarthy: It is almost arguing for a, I don’t know the right metaphor for an incubator. It is like an “egg laying” mechanism I guess, which is a pre-incubator that says, “Hey woman, come in! Here is what your economic goals and aspirations are. Here are your paths and if this is one of them, let’s help you understand and flesh out how good of a fit entrepreneurship is and then we will send you off to an incubator and if not, we will send you off on some other path”.

A prequel to an incubator is what I’m hearing you talk about. Is that a fair characterization?

Sameeksha Desai: Yes, that is absolutely fair. I think, we have to stop thinking about entrepreneurship at the program level. Among incubators and among policies and things like that as the number of new businesses that are started or the number of women that start new businesses, we certainly saw this during Covid with many people starting businesses out of necessity. They had to. Sometimes those businesses are good stop gaps, but when the economy bounces back and the job market looks good again they may move back into employment.

I think thinking about entrepreneurship less as the outcome and as more of a process and a state that people can select into or choose into in order to meet their needs and their goals is a really good way to think about it. As real economic empowerment means as a woman that I can choose whether or not maximizing my goals is through starting a business and the practical reality is that maybe it is or maybe not.

Coming to that answer is something that I think is a huge opportunity for entrepreneurship support to be more effective. I love your idea. I’d love your idea of a pre-incubator.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Okay. I’ll put it down and see if we can do something about it. Coming from an academic, that does mean a lot. Thank you for that.

So, what I’m hearing you say, “Let’s first help you figure out if this is the right tool and the right vehicle for you to realize whatever aspirations you have that have an economic outcome. Then if it is, let’s make it as easy as it is for men and not add all these extra barriers for you to get over.”

Sameeksha Desai: By the way, you know, it is not just for women, right? I mean, we are talking about women because that is what we care about. But you know, this is really important for men too. I think, we have this narrative in America about entrepreneurship being this sort of end goal. It is really amazing in many ways.

I’m not doubting that or questioning that. The data does tell us though that some share of the population turn to entrepreneurship because they don’t have any other choices. For that share of the population, I think we really need to think about “Can entrepreneurship work? How do we make it work better?” or “Was this really your only choice and is there a way to expand your choice set?”

Shubha Chakravarthy: Got it. But just to play devil’s advocate for a little bit, my response to that would be, if you have already made the choice, the first thing that we can do to make your life easier is to make sure your odds of success are as high as possible so that you have earned the cash cushion and the economic resources to then take a step back and say, “Okay, is this still the right answer?”

So, regardless of what that choice would have been, it still feels to me like making entrepreneurship easier and her odds of success higher is a no regret move and we have to be doing that.

Sameeksha Desai: Yes. Easier to get in and easier to get out.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Agreed. I want to go back to that research. I was reading this paper and you talked about this big difference between men and women who are thinking about starting a business.

In that report you mentioned that three times as many women were put off, and I think I’m quoting you, “By a lack of perceived inclusion as compared to aspiring male entrepreneurs.” To me, that is a huge bombshell. What are these perceived barriers of inclusion? How do they show up in the path of women considering entrepreneurship?

Sameeksha Desai: This is where I think we really underestimate the importance of social and cultural factors and the broader environment. I have to check which report you talking about because there are a couple that have looked at this in the last few years.

But, typically what we will see is women walking into a room and seeing no other faces that look like them. That’s why inclusion matters. It doesn’t mean that everyone else in the room is going to be hostile. It’s not so much that it’s, and certainly it could be that, but what I hear a lot about is relatability, understanding and having some shared knowledge about things like the industry, the product, from the perspective of someone who goes through the same experiences that a woman is going through or that that particular woman is going through.

That also I think points to, again, it not often being things like, “I’m not smart enough”, or “I don’t have a good enough idea”, or “There isn’t a big enough market.” But it is really this idea that, I have to walk into a room and find suppliers or find customers and this idea of walking into the old boys’ network, it just makes things harder.

It is difficult to identify all of the social, cultural, sometimes regional factors that will shape that inclusion in the environment. Some of it is very tangible. So, things like where business decisions are made, who is in the room when there are networking events, and where networking takes place. Those are pretty tangible.

Then others are, again, things like, “Are there people that have had your same experience or that have been in a similar position that are going to be in the room when you are pitching for funding.”

So, inclusion really is about creating or enabling a more supportive environment that is welcoming of everybody that is where I think they will have a long way to go for women.

You hear it anecdotally all the time and so that is where I think there is really a role for entrepreneurship support programs as well, to again ask about the things that we don’t see in business plans or we don’t see in financial statements, things like social support, engagement, inclusion.

Shubha Chakravarthy: I heard loud and clear that representation is important because it has so many downstream implications on what a woman feels like about taking the step into entrepreneurship. There is representation. There is also a piece around process in terms of what does the process of learning about entrepreneurship and engaging in those first few steps look like and how well are they fitted to how a woman thinks about it and what issues she is facing.

Are there other dimensions that you can put in a box and say, “Change this, this, and this”, that an incubator or an organization can take away as a to-do list?

Sameeksha Desai: Yes and no. I think going back to the motherhood example, I had never really thought about motherhood as a major economic event, as a young person or even doing my training, because I was solidly really focused on policy and I had a colleague, her name is Jessica Lu and she is absolutely brilliant.

She had done a lot of work on motherhood. We had a few conversations where I was thinking, do we need to think about unique situations when we are looking at the aggregate? Jessica would look at me and say, “How can you not think that?”

What I learned from her really blew me away. When we think about things like the intersection between a business and economic decision and a personal and family decision, that intersection is actually much larger and much more sort of all encompassing than we think.

So, caregiving is a really big constraint. It is a constraint in the labor market. It’s a constraint for manufacturing firms to hire. It’s a constraint for entrepreneurs. Just because you start your own business, and you can work from home with your computer does not mean that the caregiving stops becoming a problem with small children in particular.

We know that women disproportionately spend more time on care. But your small children in particular are still going to be screaming whether or not you are taking your zoom call at your kitchen table or in your office two miles away, right? So, I think the caregiving problem is one that we really need to consider from a support perspective.

Incubators, I think, should be very seriously thinking about this question also as a business opportunity. Not only are the female founders that are coming in as part of the teams or single founders or solo founders coming into the incubators as potential investments, but they are going to be affected by their caregiving status, their resources are going to be constrained by their caregiving status.

I think it is something we need to think about, and we need to stop thinking about that as a family problem or a household problem.

We have seen firms start offering caregiving resources to keep workers in. So, similarly, we need to think about keeping people on the path to entrepreneurship with a caregiving component. I don’t know how that would look or how that would work, but it is definitely a barrier and we see it again and again. It is also a huge opportunity. We talk often about the demand for caregiving. Caregiving is really expensive, and people are spending on it. There is also a supply problem. I think there is an opportunity too, to seed more caregiving facilities.

Is it going to be the massive venture style return that you would get if you were investing in a high-tech firm? No, probably not. But there is also a lot of opportunity there, I think, in really rethinking how we operate caregiving as an industry because it is inherently holding back entrepreneurs and it is holding back competitiveness.

So, it is a collective problem and people who think entrepreneurially can probably solve it, right? That’s what they do.

Shubha Chakravarthy: You talked about representation, and we talked about caregiving. Are there other ways in which the entrepreneurial ecosystem, particularly incubators and what I’ll call the point of first contact, maybe university programs and stuff like that, what else can they be doing to get women earlier in the pipeline to even consider it for longer periods of time or take more actions that are consistent with starting something entrepreneurial?

Sameeksha Desai: We see a lot of success. I don’t want to, for example, boast about my own university, but Indiana University has a great entrepreneurship program. So, this is definitely happening.

But spreading entrepreneurship as a concept, as a theme, as something that people need to learn to be good at regardless of whether they are going to start a business or not, what I mean by that is across universities, schools that are not business schools have entrepreneurship curriculum.

They take core courses now, or they offer core courses now at a lot of universities. I think that that can be particularly effective because if you are training, for example, in music, you are learning all of the sophisticated fine art. There is a point at which being an entrepreneur in that field may actually be the right path for you.

Suppose you are in dental school and you are going to open your own practice, your own clinic. It would be a lot easier if you had some skills that you learned that would help you actually manage that clinic, right?

If you are studying music and at some point a part of your income portfolio or of what you do is opening a school for giving music lessons, then this idea that entrepreneurship is not only starting a business but really is the whole of the person engaging in something is really meaningful.

So, to get people in earlier, we need to raise the idea earlier. We need to teach the skills to recognize opportunity, to think creatively, to innovate, to put together resources at a much younger age. That is happening and that that seems to be working.

Shubha Chakravarthy: I love this idea that you bring up, because what it is telling me is that you are teaching entrepreneurship in general and thinking as a business person specifically as a capability that anybody in any profession has, and the specialist in entrepreneurship is actually going to make that their whole life and say, “I’m going to be an entrepreneur and I’m going to start a business.”

Sameeksha Desai: I think everyone should have those basic skills. I’m not in a business school. I’m in a policy school, so, I don’t teach any of these things. But I think there are people who want to open a business, who know that that is their path.

They will be business owners; they are going to open a very successful business and they’ll figure out how to do it. But I also think that we see a lot of people who never had the goal of starting a business. They had the goal of becoming an expert violinist, working in advertising, getting an advertising degree, and then doing really cool creative ads for non-profits.

At some point the mode of activity for them may be being a business owner, so I don’t know that everyone who starts a business didn’t always want to do that when they were children or even before they started the business. At some point, the whole of the person assessed something and felt that starting a business was the right path.

So, for those people, having some inclination about what you need, what it looks like, how it might work, some experiential education or some previous exposure, whether it is through role models or popular narrative, it gives you a greater ability to actually know what you are getting into or even consider that you could get into it.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Excellent. I love it because it gives me two things, what you just discussed, that there is a whole field where you actually go and actively teach a bunch of professionals. You mentioned a couple of organizations.

You talked about this organization out of the Northeast that was doing the pre incubation stuff. But are there other entrepreneur support organizations that you see who have adopted good models that are doing more of the stuff that you just talked about? Would you discuss their models briefly?

Sameeksha Desai: I think there is one that does a really nice job and I really like the approach of the whole of the person and it comes across, I mean, you can see even from the way that the organization is staffed, that it is not only “business support.” It is inclusive economic empowerment, and that includes business support. But that also includes thinking about a lot of other things.

Look, I’m a little bit biased, I’ll say that upfront. I think the Kauffman Foundation is an organization that has really thought very deeply about what entrepreneurship means. I think that some of the work that the foundation does is really meaningful, like really thinking through barriers particularly that might exist across social groups and across demographic groups. That is very promising.

I am a big fan of the research work because I led the research strategy for some time there but on the programmatic side, I feel the work that Kauffman has been doing is really ground-breaking and you see the investments pay off over time.

So, things that the foundation did decades ago make so much of an impact and now it seems obvious to us because we have seen it for some time. But I think that foundation in particular has done some really ground-breaking support work and has seeded some things that are just things that have fundamentally changed the way we think about entrepreneurship.

Again, I will fully admit that this is a very biased opinion. But they do great entrepreneurship support work.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Moving on to a slightly different topic, a big part of entrepreneurship support that you mentioned a couple times in our conversation is this role that mentors and peer networks have on your development as an entrepreneur.

What challenges do you see in how mentorship is provided today to women and women of color in the entrepreneurial process?

Sameeksha Desai: I think we have a representation issue even though the data from Indiana tells the majority of women are entrepreneurs. We also know that there are some sort of clear industry and firm success, firm growth, firm size distinctions as well.

So, with mentoring, it really is about the two components of entrepreneurship again. You have got the business, the industry, and the things that we typically think about.

Then you have got the walking through the experience piece. That social, cultural, personal piece that can be unique to each person. But we also have a challenge around this idea that entrepreneurship is only a business question. The reason I say this is when you look at why people seek business advice or mentoring.

So, this is some work that the Kauffman Foundation actually did that I think is really great. Half of employer business owners didn’t even seek business advice or mentoring, so one of the things is really getting people to understand what the benefits are of doing that. So, of course you want mentors to commit but also getting people to understand, “Hey, there is something really tangible and something of value that came from this, right?”

Those types of programs can be really important. The other thing that I thought was really interesting was the reasons that people who sought mentoring actually did. For example, taxes and accounting, legal advice, and how to grow sales were mostly it.

So, when we think about entrepreneurship and mentoring, we are still often strictly thinking about it as a business question and less of a sort of coaching-personal engagement type of a question.

When it comes to the sources of mentoring too, this is some data that the Kauffman Foundation has shared out, that the sources of mentoring can vary significantly. There are people that are seeking mentors largely from colleagues or from family. So, is that mentoring? Is it social-emotional support?

I think we want to be a little bit more careful about structured mentoring programs and what type of communication or what type of signal we are sending particularly to women entrepreneurs about what they offer. Maybe we should also think about this idea that you need all of the things that mentoring programs do and there are other shared experiences that people may need to talk about or that they may need to have access to mentors to sort of work.

Shubha Chakravarthy: You touched on one thing, which is this question of imbalance between demand and supply. I think there are a lot more people who might want the mentoring and they are suitable people who are willing and available.

So, outside of the fact that there is an imbalance, have you seen models that work or that somehow get over this supply-demand problem or that somehow improve the situation, especially for women entrepreneurs?

Sameeksha Desai: So I won’t say “get over” but I think technology has just been incredible because before you were able to set people up with mentors over the internet and have digital meetings and things like that, you had to have them within a certain geography around you.

That would make inclusion in particular geographies especially sticky and hard to change. So, you’d be caught in a “not enough mentors-need more mentors” situation.

Some of these online platforms have reshaped the way we have access to potential mentors. I think we’ve also had a sort of systematic research approach to mentoring programs to have identified things like best practices, what actually works the best in terms of firm performance, what kind of impact we might see from, for example, more frequent mentor meetings or having a very specific type of agenda for mentoring. There is quite a bit there, but technology has been, in my opinion, a game changer.

Not just for mentoring, but also for some of the things we talked about before, like role models. You only know what you are exposed to and so particularly for young girls who come from disadvantaged backgrounds or communities where they don’t see role models I think technology has really made it so that we can deliver so much more information and so much more content and opportunity to be inspired and to think beyond what you can see only in front of you, which is what it was like 20 years ago for most people.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So, we talked about mentoring specifically, but there is a related but separate issue, which is access to networks. To what extent are you seeing that to be a challenge in the data for women entrepreneurs?

Is there anything else you would add in terms of what could be made better or what solutions would need to be in place that would be unique to the challenges women face?

Sameeksha Desai: The access to network piece is really important because anytime that you can grow those networks, you are also increasing the chances that you are growing other things, right? So, bigger networks that have more women in them also mean more potential mentors and potential relationships.

The thing we have to be careful about with mentoring in particular, and where I think access to networks can really be helpful, is that you are the only woman or when a few women on a team and then you are asked to do the things that would advance opportunities for women. Of course, that is very important, and you want to but then that is extra work, right? You already have other things. So, we want to also be mindful of those types of things when we set up mentoring programs.

Access to networks, I think, is almost something that can never go wrong because you are just increasing the density and depth of networks. You are making things more accessible to people. I think anytime you create more points of interface and interaction where information can flow, the better, right?

The more information people can have access to, the more they will learn about things like access to capital, potential suppliers, potential consumers, and markets. Access to networks, in my opinion is almost a “can’t go wrong” thing.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Have you seen any innovative, effective, and new approaches to increasing that access, particularly to women entrepreneurs and potential women entrepreneurs, because that is where they are getting the information from on what is involved in entrepreneurship and what their odds of success are?

Sameeksha Desai: Yes. We are on the right track. I just think we need to start earlier. I think part of what we are looking at is when we build relationships and we make sure that information flow starts at a younger age, then we see more opportunities for all of the other things that come out of access to networks.

For example, networking events are a common thing but is it the right way to do it? I’m not sure. I don’t have the data on that, so, it is very hard for me to say yes or no. But with Covid and particularly so much of what we did going online and becoming tech-based, there are a lot of really interesting opportunities there to expand access to networks. So again, you can have virtual networking events.

You don’t have to be in the room at the Chamber of Commerce at the time that they are hosting the event at 8:00 PM when you can’t find childcare. I think this unique relationship between networks flow is really important. But this is what you work on, right? You are talking a lot about that. You are the expert on that.

Shubha Chakravarthy: I wouldn’t call myself the expert, but definitely it’s on my radar, particularly the role models, the representation and the access networks is a big part of what I do and why I do what I do. So, that is definitely on point.

Taking a big step back. What are your thoughts on improving the outlook for women earlier in the game so that they have more exposure, more affinity, and more opportunity to pursue careers in STEM that will then lead to more downstream entrepreneurial activity?

Sameeksha Desai: ASU was doing some really interesting stuff on engineering education in particular and many schools are doing a lot for understanding the reality that you have to make engineering education more inclusive and more tangible to people and rooted in what people are seeing and what kind of problems they want to solve. I think what we are seeing, particularly around things like training, again, there are huge opportunities for commercialization of science, right?

There are huge opportunities to take something that you’ve been working on, you’ve developed as an engineer, or that you’ve seen an opportunity for, and to commercialize that. So, that is why I think things like experiential education really matter, but also the idea that teaching skills to people across fields, not only in business schools, but in engineering schools in high schools. How do you solve a problem? How do you put resources together? Those things are really important.

We can teach about creating a product and we can teach about making things but then the next step is, “How do I commercialize this? How do I bring this to the market? Product development and getting financing?”

Those are all problems that you can solve. I think democratizing entrepreneurial education is probably one of the most promising things we can do, particularly with STEM.

Shubha Chakravarthy: There are a couple of big takeaways that are all coalescing for me from this conversation. Number one is that it needs to be a more holistic view, or even a definition of what entrepreneurship means and who that is appropriate for those.

The second thing is the fact that need to be able to disseminate that information or make that accessible to a much broader set of individuals than we are making today, regardless of gender, discipline, and stuff like that.

Number three, to me, most importantly, the big takeaway was that really a lot of this is a top down, and there is not a lot that individual women can do beyond what they are already doing to make the environment more favorable to their own efforts. What is your take on the last one?

Sameeksha Desai: The last one is hard because look, women start businesses every day and do exceptionally well, right? So, it is not a situation where we are saying, “Don’t start a business because the cards are all stacked against you, and it is going to be really tough. So, just don’t do it. Save yourself the heartache.”

That is not at all the case. I think what we have to acknowledge is that it is easier for some women to start a business than others. Access to resources and your starting point, if you would like to put it like that, matter quite a bit. So, it is easier for some women to grow a business than others.

When we look at the numbers overall, these systematic patterns that show differences between men and women in industry and firm performance and access to capital, those are concerning, we can’t pretend they don’t exist.

The way that we have more role models is more women starting businesses and doing exceptionally well. The fact is the ecosystem for entrepreneurship doesn’t favor women and creates significant barriers.

So, I don’t know that it’s a, “Let’s throw the whole thing out and wait until we have a perfect situation for women to start their businesses.” We’ve made some progress and we just need to get better at creating an inclusive environment.

It is not saying that “Now we have got to redesign everything to be really great for women.” It is really thinking about what are the things that are holding women back” because they are also, in a lot of ways, holding everyone back.

Shubha Chakravarthy: So, to conclude then, if I’m a woman, I understand all of the realities that you just laid out, what advice or guidance would you give as an academic and as somebody who sees the big picture that is very grounded in data, to give myself the best shot at success?

Sameeksha Desai: I should not be giving anyone advice. You should be giving the advice, but if I were to think sort of more generally about the big lesson for me in my own work, the question that I ask myself a lot is, “What is holding the individual back from the freedom to pursue the economic future that is the best for them?”

I think thinking in terms of what is the whole person going to benefit from if I take this path or if I take that path is really important.

So, I think questions like viability and happiness are questions that really should factor into any individual’s decision about whether or not pursuing business ownership is the right path for them. If it is, then obviously, finding the right match with entrepreneurship support programs is crucial and it really matters.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Great. Thank you. Is there any question that I should have asked you and I didn’t?

Sameeksha Desai: No. I’ve listened to some of your previous podcasts and it is fascinating how much one person’s experience can teach you. I’ve listened to a couple of them, and I’ve just been blown away by what I’ve learned just from even one person talking about the path that they’ve taken.

That is why I think it is so important to have podcasts like this. Somebody somewhere is going to be listening to a story that a woman is telling about her own experience and how she did something and even hearing that opens up your world. So, thank you for doing this. You are really doing a big service.

Shubha Chakravarthy: Thank you. That is my ulterior goal, to make sure that we are showcasing a lot more women role models and experts like yourself, so that somebody who is going in gets the best possible shot at knowing what she needs to know, learning what she needs to learn, understanding how others have solved this problem before.

So, on that note, I want to say thank you. This has been an amazing conversation and I think it is really important for folks like us, current and aspiring entrepreneurs, to not only hear from others who are role models, but also to hear from people who view this at a much more objective level so that we understand the system that we’re dealing with. So, I want to thank you for your time and for sharing your insights so generously!

Sameeksha Desai: Thank you so much for having me on! It was a real honor!