Exactly one week before the presidential election, a group of more than 80 CEOs, startup founders, and business leaders are hoping to put women entrepreneurs on the policy agenda.
In an open letter to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, released today at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York, the group offered more than a dozen policy proposals to close the gender gap for female startup founders. The proposals include increasing investments in women-led companies, furthering accelerator programs, and encouraging more women to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
“In this election process, we weren’t hearing any rhetoric about job creation and entrepreneurship, particularly around women,” says Dell entrepreneur-in-residence Elizabeth Gore, who spearheaded the effort and spoke to Fast Company before the event along with some of the other signers. “We thought we could impact that and bring attention to it, both from the candidates and congressional and state offices.”
To kick-start the conversation and generate policy ideas, Gore worked with Dell, Deloitte, and Vanity Fair to organize a series of dinners across the country with female business leaders. There, each attendee presented a challenge that she had faced and put forward potential solutions, spurring discussions that eventually turned into the proposals announced today. Those include more incentives for individuals and organizations to invest in women-owned companies, expansion of government grant and loan programs, awarding more contracts to women-owned businesses, expanded access to affordable child care and paid family leave, and support for accelerator and mentorship programs for women.
“We were talking about what could change to offer women a leg up,” says Cindy Whitehead, founder and CEO of The Pink Ceiling, who attended one of the dinners and signed the open letter. “There were investors and CEOs, and I think we all had been touched by [these issues] in one way or another.”
The data surrounding women in startups are dire: A 2014 study from Babson College reported that 85% of all venture capital-funded companies had no women on their executive teams, and less than 3% of those companies had a female CEO. But Gore and the other signatories, such as Box cofounder and CEO Aaron Levie, SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan, and Birchbox founder and CEO Katia Beauchamp, were careful to frame the issue in economic terms: A McKinsey study published last year, cited in the letter, found that gender equality in the workforce could add as much as $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025.
“I think these particular recommendations span [political party] lines,” says Tiffany Pham, founder of Mogul, an information-sharing platform for women, who also signed the open letter and attended a dinner. “Ultimately, this is a universal issue.”
Along with the letter, the group is launching a social media campaign today with the hashtag #WhatWeNeedToSucceed, which Gore hopes will gain momentum in the days leading up to the election. Once the fate of the presidency is decided, she and the other signatories will work to schedule meetings with the president-elect’s transition team before Inauguration Day to discuss implementation of the policy proposals.
“We made sure that the actual recommendations are doable, they’re not too out there, and that they can do them in their first term,” says Gore. “No one can argue with job creation and a stronger economy, so both candidates would be very wise to take them on.
While both Pham and Whitehead say that the proposals have bipartisan appeal, Whitehead admits that a Clinton White House might be a friendlier ally. “There’s probably a different appetite for conversations around women with a female president in the Oval Office,” she says. “That said, last year the White House had the United States of Women Summit. You’d hope that once that conversation starts, it would continue in any White House. But we’ll see.”