During my 25-year career in technology commercialization at the University of Florida, the UF innovation ecosystem made significant advances in bringing together the core elements needed to start and grow companies emanating from university research discoveries. We paired entrepreneurs with opportunities and introduced them to investors. We built incubators with office and lab space. These initiatives attracted an array of service providers who set up offices in Gainesville supporting and complementing the existing resources. We grew licensing of patented research discoveries to startups tenfold from just a couple per year to a record year of 20. More than 200 companies were created that garnered hundreds of millions of dollars of venture funding and generated thousands of high-wage jobs, a true testament to the innovation capacity of our community.
The progress we achieved in just two decades convinces me that our community can tackle our current innovation challenge: How do we include and support more women and minorities in the innovation lifecycle? Of the 200 companies that spun out of the university, only a handful were founded by women and minorities.
Even though women are completing undergraduate and graduate degrees at a greater rate than men, and make up almost half of the workforce, women are woefully underrepresented in all stages of the innovation lifecycle. Women are entering academia at approximately the same rate as men, however, only 38% of tenured faculty are women. And, these women faculty are not participating proportionally in patenting their research discoveries. Only 12% of US patent holders in 2016 were women.
Osage University Partners conducted research on 6,000 university-based startups and found that, in 2016, only 11% of these had a female scientific founder or co-founder. That same year, $69 billion of venture funding was invested in startups, yet only 3% went to women-led businesses while minority founded companies got less than 1% of investment dollars. This is despite the fact that when women are involved in managing startups, the overall rate of return for the investors was significantly greater.
Even though some progress has been made, at the current pace, gender parity in innovation will not be achieved in our lifetime. And, while this is certainly an ethical dilemma, it is also an economic dilemma. The lack of opportunities for women in innovation translates into lower earnings directly contributing to the gender wage gap and earnings inequality. If women were paid the same as men across Florida, it would mean $28 billion in additional income and spending power for women and their families. Parity nationally could contribute $12 trillion to US GDP.
The benefits of diversity are proven—new ideas, better results, and greater profitability. According to a Dow Jones study, a company’s likelihood for success increases with the more female executives it has at the VP and Director levels. MIT economists reported that shifting away from an all-male or all-female office to a more gender-diverse group increases revenue by up to 41%. According to OECD, more gender-diverse companies performed 53% better than less diverse companies. A report by Blue Wolf Capital notes that inclusive cultures result in a 31% increase in responsiveness to customers’ needs, which allows organizations to better support and attract new markets and consumer segments.
Recognizing the lack of diversity and inclusion in our innovation ecosystem is the first step toward changing the paradigm. We must then embrace the challenge and ensure that we leverage ALL the talent that resides in our amazing community which will not only help us fortify our reputation as an innovation hub but as a diverse and inclusive innovation community. I welcome the opportunity to dialogue with anyone interested in embracing this challenge and taking deliberate action to make change happen.
“You can choose to do something, or you can choose to do nothing. Either way you are helping shape the future.”