Washington University in St. Louis: Bellwether-funded project tackles funding gap for female, minority founders

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In 2021, just 2% of venture capital money went to female business founders, according to recent reports. Likewise, founders identifying as Black/African American, or Hispanic/Latinx, each received just 2% or less of the total venture capital last year.

“This funding gap shortchanges not only underrepresented founders but also the vitality of the entire innovation community,” said Doug Villhard, director of Olin Business School’s entrepreneurship program at Washington University in St. Louis.


Villhard
Developing policy-based solutions for the historically lopsided funding support available to underrepresented minorities and women will be the focus of a new initiative led by Villhard and scholars from Washington University and the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Washington.

The team has also recruited a nine-member commission — comprised of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and public policy experts — to oversee and guide the project while providing input and insight from the perspective of innovation practitioners. Together, they hope to address important questions such as: What are the root causes of this inequity? What impact does this have on the economy? What solutions can address it?

“Rather than simply talk about the past, this commission intends to identify meaningful public policy solutions to drive more equitable funding, unlock more potential and further spur our economy,” Villhard said.

Continuation of key partnership
The project is the second backed by a $750,000 grant to Olin Business School from The Bellwether Foundation. The grant called for three separate annual commissions — formed jointly with Brookings — tackling “megatrend” issues affecting the quality of life in the region and across the country.

The first Olin Brookings Commission project concluded in April. Participants developed an artificial intelligence-driven tool to flag suspicious shipments of prescription opioids and developed policy recommendations designed to empower the tool’s use among federal agencies, law enforcement and industry.

In November, the commission will host a national conference of researchers presenting work focused on unearthing the root causes for disproportionate funding and informing any potential public and private policy solutions to address the yawning gap. The conference will be held at the Brookings Institution. Daniel Elfenbein, professor of organization and strategy at Olin, will serve as chair of the conference.

Informed by veteran innovators
In addition to Villhard and Elfenbein, the project will be led by WashU faculty members Dedric Carter, Olin’s professor of practice in entrepreneurship and WashU’s vice chancellor for innovation and chief commercialization officer; and Gisele Marcus, professor of practice.

A key component of the Bellwether funding calls for student involvement. Ming Zhu Wang, a fifth-year Olin PhD student in strategy, will organize related research, along with five entrepreneurship fellows pursuing master’s in business administration degrees, who will assist with planning, research and feedback.

Commission members include:

Christine Aylward, founder and managing partner at Magnetic Ventures
Charli Cooksey, founder and CEO of WEPOWER
Lori Coulter, co-founder and CEO of Summersalt
Morgan DeBaun, founder and CEO of Blavity and advisory board member for the Black Economic Alliance
Gaurav Garg, founding partner of Wing Venture Capital
Lisa Morales-Hellebo, co-founder and general partner at REFASHIOND Ventures
Martin Hunt, CEO of Swanlaab USA Ventures
Andre Perry, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Akeem Shannon, CEO and founder of Flipstik
Over the next 10 months, commission members will collect and distill data and industry input over several meetings — including the November conference — with plans to release a comprehensive report of its findings and recommendations by April 2023.

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