Women in STEM can learn to become scientific leaders by taking a leaf out of the corporate skills handbook, says a panel at the World Economic Forum.
Contributors Mandë Holford and Ivana Gadjanski
Scientists may not readily identify themselves as entrepreneurs, but a comparison can indeed be made between the corporate business sector and the scientific enterprise. Are their skills that women in business have that women in science can acquire and benefit from? The intersection of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math), Innovation, Business and Women were recently addressed on a panel at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Summer Davos meeting in Tianjin China. Together with Justine Cassell, Tony Pan, Diva Tommei, and Lawrence Krauss we discussed ‘why aren’t more women entering careers in science and technology (in academia and industry) given the role of STEM in the future of economic growth?’
The reasons women are lacking in STEM industries and academia are multiple and complex, however one major hurdle we discussed is the lack of business knowledge among the women STEM scientists.
The current knowledge economy calls for educated specialists who can leverage their currency across multiple platforms. Scientists by nature are opportunity driven specialists who can, and should, be thriving in the knowledge economy. Running a successful laboratory is very similar to running a startup or a company. Principal Investigators (PIs) need to be good in fundraising, team- and project management, even marketing (e.g lab twitter accounts). Interestingly, the science-business interface can be a good opportunity for women scientists in STEM academia to get more exposure to these tasks and thrive.
The idea we suggested at the panel is that women STEM scientists should focus on acquiring more business skills that will help them thrive in STEM academia as well as in STEM industries, especially as the distinction between academia and business is blurring and basic research grants are diminishing. In other words, women STEM scientists need more effective “bench to business” skills.
Stats show that companies with women in executive positions are high performing – e.g. Fortune 1000 companies with a woman in the top role saw an average return of 103.4 percent over the women’s tenures, compared to an average 69.5 percent return for the S&P 500 stock index over the same periods. Another recent study reported in Forbes shows that the companies that perform best financially have the greatest numbers of women in leadership roles. Simply put, women are largely excelling in the corporate environment. Can this fact be leveraged to help women STEM scientists achieve similar success? One route to encouraging the entrepreneurial mindset in women in STEM is to provide corporate training.
Below are two examples of how applying MBA know-how can engage and invigorate women in STEM fields:
1. US National Science Foundation ICorps programme is a 6 week MBA 2.0 bootcamp built on the Lean Launchpad curriculum developed by Steve Blank*. These courses are being taught in universities and colleges throughout the US and will soon be launched globally. Several of the successful projects launched have women at the helm as CEOs who were formerly postdoctoral scholars or PhD students serving as Entrepreneurial Leads (ELs) in the laboratories of the technology. While the ELs end up becoming CEOs of a startup, the ICorps PIs generally remain in their labs having acquired the knowledge for translating their research to a market environment, which usually revitalizes the research they pursue**.
2. European Platform of Women Scientists is co-organising a series of events called “Bridging the Gender Gap and Accelerating Innovative, Sustainable Growth” with EUWIIN (the European Union Women Inventors and Innovators Network). This gender-focused initiative is part of the Innovation Convention, which aims to create an innovation-friendly environment that makes it easier for great ideas to be turned into products and services that will bring economic growth and jobs.
Corporate training initiatives not only empower women in STEM academia to rise to more prominent positions, but will also enable significant numbers of them to enter STEM industries, efficiently working on technology transfer (‘bench-to-business’) strategies. More programmes that borrow from the corporate sphere are needed in order to enable women in STEM academia to envision and achieve their potential. The women scientists participating in these programmes are leveraging their knowledge to the benefit of their research and society as a whole.
* Mandë Holford recently received an NSF-ICorps grant to launch a digital learning company for students in grades K-12 based on her research with venomous marine snails (Killer Snails).
** The PI = Lab Head whose technology is being developed into a company. EL = postdoc or grad student, usually from the PIs lab, but not necessarily, who will lead efforts to find out if technology can be commercialized. The EL is interested in starting a business and generally becomes the CEO should a company develop from the ICorps program (i.e . leave academia). The PI generally does not leave their academic career.
Mande Holford is Assistant Professor Hunter College, CUNY Graduate Center and The American Museum of Natural History. Ivana Gadjanski is a Researcher and Project Leader at the R&D Center for Bioengineering – BioIRC, and Assistant Professor Belgrade Metropolitan University, Serbia.