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What Male Stanford B-School Students Learned When They Took A Female Entrepreneurship Class

When a few men decided to take a course about entrepreneurship from women’s perspective, they learned what their MBAs were lacking.

What Male Stanford B-School Students Learned When They Took A Female Entrepreneurship Class
[Photo: Flickr user John Keane]

Some men aren’t afraid of participating in something that seems aimed at women.

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When Johnson Ci Yu Fung, Elliot Greenwald, and Andrew Yaffe signed up for Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women at Stanford Business School last year, it was because they wanted to better understand the real-life challenges and decisions that you have to make as an entrepreneur. These topics are not typically discussed in a traditional MBA setting, which tends to focus on the strategic and tactical side of starting a business.

None of the men were deterred by the word “women” in the class’s title, believing these issues to be people-issues, not just women-issues. They also didn’t think that they would be the only male students enrolled in the class.

Fung signed up because he was about the start The Grammaticus, a summer school program that bridges business studies and liberal arts, with his girlfriend and “wanted to better understand and empathize with her perspective and possible challenges she might face.” He also wanted to explore topics that he hasn’t had the opportunity to while in B-school.

Both recent graduates of Stanford, Greenwald, who now works at a small venture capital firm in San Francisco, and Yaffe, a management consultant, became interested in the class after seeing the big name speakers–both men and women–on the course’s syllabus, which included Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz, Medallia’s Amy Pressman, and a long list of prominent VCs.

The course started about 10 years ago by the business school’s dean Garth Saloner (then a professor who wanted students to see different examples of entrepreneurs). The class has always been made up of mostly women and while favorably recognized, didn’t become increasingly popular until last year when Fern Mandelbaum took over as instructor.

This year, the class which has a limit of 60, had 80 students, and Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women will be offered as a full, quarter course for the first time. Mandelbaum, managing partner at Vista Venture Partners, says she hopes that the class will attract more men since the issues are important for both genders.

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“There are lots of fabulous female entrepreneurs and VCs, and I think it’s important for women and men to hear about their experiences,” she tells Fast Company. “The more we listen to each other, and are inclusive of people with varying backgrounds–sex, ethnicity, race–the better the companies we create will be.”

All three of Mandelbaum’s former male students agree that the class’s focus on managing expectations and emotions when starting a business was extremely important lessons for them to hear.

“A lot of business school is discussed like, ‘this is what it’s like to be a CEO’ and that’s nice and all, but getting really practical advice like that in a really high quality form was a unique aspect,” Greenwald tells Fast Company. “Through the speakers, I learned that everyone has a unique perspective based off of their background, their personality, how they view the world, and that informs how they make career decisions and tradeoffs. It’s an obvious lesson, but having speakers come and talk about the textures of the trade-offs that they made in their career was valuable.”

The Reality of Entrepreneurship

Fung says that the everyday, real-life issues and battles faced that no one discusses was crucial for him when starting his own business.

“Consequently, when men think about entrepreneurship, it’s much more rooted in facing the strategic and business challenges–raising capital, product-market-fit, optimizing early revenue, but as we met a dozen successful entrepreneurs of both genders, it became obvious that the biggest untaught variable in entrepreneurial success is appropriate self-confidence and relationship management,” he explains. “The former is about balancing your own doubts and facing ambiguity with courage, and the latter is about supporting your team in the same journey.”

Yaffe says that the class topics and panel discussions helped him see entrepreneurship in a more realistic way, like when to start a family and what you’re willing to give up to get your business off the ground. One panel discussion really stuck out in his mind when a speaker told the class that she doesn’t have time to pick her daughter up from swim practice anymore so she sends an Uber to get her. That’s a trade-off that this speaker was willing to take and the honesty and openness of the story is something that you don’t get in many MBA classes, he says.

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“In a lot of the other classes, you hear the stories of winners … not to say that you didn’t hear it in this class, but the tone of it was more about the trade-offs that you have to make along the way,” continues Yaffe. “We had both male and female speakers in the class addressing topics in term of how often they were able to see their children, when they started their company, what was the initial pay they took. I found the male and female perspectives valuable. I would say the biggest lessons I took away were about realistically thinking through that if I ever started a company, when would I do it? What would be the impact on my personal life? How would I think that through with my fiance? I think, in general, there’s kind of a push to start something immediately … it painted a much more realistics and murkier picture of what’s an entrepreneur.”

These are men’s issues too

But if Fung, Greenwald, and Yaffe got so much out of Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women, why hasn’t the class gained more popularity among male students?

Fung says the personal aspect of the class may not be something men are ready to admit they need to learn in B-school. “I have the impression that it’s more socially acceptable for women to be expressively vulnerable, to themselves or others, than it is for men … for men, we’re often so entrenched in a society that was built for us that we have blind spots that we’re never made aware,” he says. “What better way to generate innovation than to see it from a perspective that the other half of the population experiences?”

Yaffe says the class’s higher popularity among women could simply be the difference in what women and men are dealing with when they enter B-school.

“Business school is an interesting time for gender dynamics because the vast majority of people are 26 to 30, going pretty deeply into debt, and they’re thinking, ‘Okay, how do I pay off my debt and if I ever want to have a family, when do I start?’ And, just biologically speaking, that’s just more of an immediate question for the women in the class than it is for the men. I think that’s where the whole timing aspect becomes more relevant. I think that’s where the root of the discussion is a much more relevant question for women.”

Mandelbaum believes it has a lot to do with the course’s name. People read it and assume it’s a class for women, but the instructor hopes men will take it regardless of the name, because the topics are important for future business leaders of either gender.

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“The only way change will occur is if men and women work together to create inclusive environments … which will lead to increased innovation and productivity,” she says. “Hearing about some of the challenges, and issues, and even seemingly small things like understanding the confidence gap will create increased understanding.”

The instructor is also open to officially changing the name of the course if anyone has good suggestions.

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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