BOSTON—What do the founders of a mobile electronic health records (EHR) application, a virtual platform for real-time voting, and an on-demand private jet coordinator for patients waiting for organ transplants all have in common? These founders, as well as about eighteen other women across Harvard University, are meeting every other week at the Harvard Innovation Lab as part of the Women's Founders Forums to help each other evaluate and potentially launch their businesses.
The participants, all students at Harvard Business School (HBS), Harvard College, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and Harvard Medical School (HMS), are at different stages of the business development process, from idea conception to prototype development to meeting with venture capitalists.
The forums are being facilitated by Janet Kraus, a Senior Lecturer at HBS and serial entrepreneur, who champions other female entrepreneurs. According to Kraus, having a cohort of entrepreneurs who meet regularly to share knowledge and help each other navigate challenges is one of the most valuable techniques for increasing the value of an enterprise.
"When I was an entrepreneur," she said in a recent interview, "I belonged to a CEO forum that met two days each quarter, and those two days were always the most valuable of that period. To have a group of CEOs who are leading venture-backed start-ups at the ready to help me develop solutions for my most pressing issues was unlike anything else I had in my arsenal of tools. While my board and my management team were both very strong, there was nothing quite like turning to a group of entrepreneurs who know you well and want to help you succeed."
Each meeting of the Women's Founders Forums covers a key topic presented by Kraus, followed by a Q&A session and a Member Challenge, where two to three participants present the group with an issue they are currently facing in their business development. Topics have included defining a product's value proposition, determining the product/market fit, launching a lean start-up, identifying co-founders, negotiating equity splits, assessing priorities, assembling and managing a team, raising money, and building a board of directors.
"One of the key benefits of the Forum for me has been the ability to learn from the successes and challenges of other entrepreneurs," said Lindsay Duncan (HBS ’12). "The Forum promotes an open environment where we can candidly share the challenges we face and seek advice from each other. Since we are all at different stages in creating our businesses, we can see what challenges lie ahead."
The Forum will end with four industry-specific feedback sessions focusing on fashion, consumer technology (two sessions) and healthcare/social impact. Each founder will have a chance to present her business concept and model to a group of experts, who will provide strategic and tactical feedback and ideas to enable these women to move their businesses forward. Sessions are scheduled each evening from April 23 to April 26.
"It's been a pleasure to connect with other women entrepreneurs pursuing ambitious enterprises," says Annmarie Ryu (Harvard College ’12). "Entrepreneurship is typically dominated by men, but in the Forum, I am surrounded by women. I think we're better able to relate to each another and are more open about the challenges we're facing. You know you won't be criticized or stereotyped because of the problems that you're facing, so you're open in discussing them. It's refreshing. "
Participants and their businesses include:
Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 80 open enrollment Executive Education programs and more than 60 custom programs. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who have shaped the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.