All-star MIT women entrepreneurs pave the way for gender balance in tech

The evening's speakers, from left to right, Marina Hatsopoulos, Anantha Chandrakasan, Erika Ebbel Angle, and Cynthia Breazeal. Photo: John Gillooly, Professional Event Images, Inc.
The evening's speakers, from left to right, Marina Hatsopoulos, Anantha Chandrakasan, Erika Ebbel Angle, and Cynthia Breazeal. Photo: John Gillooly, Professional Event Images, Inc.

On Thursday night MIT held its first Women in Innovation and Entrepreneurship networking reception in the sparse and modern Gagosian-like gallery space of the MIT Media Lab.

The event was organized and hosted by two of MIT’s most prominent women in tech, Erika Ebbel Angle, founder and chairman of Science for Scientists, and Marina Hatsopoulos, founder and former chief executive of Z Corporation. These leading women entrepreneurs, along with keynote speaker Cynthia Breazeal, did not mince words as they took the podium. They were direct about their intention to improve the opportunities for women in tech. And they provided perspectives on running the million dollar companies they founded at MIT over the past few years.

As each women took the mike, she mentioned one of her latest moments of pride. Breazeal, who directs Personal Robotics Group at the MIT Media Lab, announced that she had closed a series A funding of $25.3 million on Wednesday for the company she founded, Jibo Robotics, which produces the world’s first family robot. Her Kickstarter campaign for the product this summer was Indiegogo’s most successful tech company campaign, having raised $2.6 million before Wednesday’s windfall. Ebbel’s charity, Science for Scientists, which is backed by the Boston titans Raytheon, The Boston Foundation, and Genzyme, was recently named by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce as the 2015 Pinnacle Award Honoree for an emerging executive. And Hatsopoulous beamed as she announced one of her twin daughters had just been accepted to MIT; she had chosen the school because she wanted to be an entrepreneur.

The room was filled with MIT alumni and friends of MIT. An engaged discussion followed the keynote involving funding and the dismal 3 percent of women-led startups that get VC attention. One MIT Sloan MBS alum encouraged the women in the room to gain mind-share in the VC community before the time comes to approach them for funding, explaining that the VC community backs who they know. By the night’s end, all three of the presenters continued to answer questions one-on-one with young female start-up executives like Nidhi Aggarwal from Tamr, who is backed by Google Ventures, and Marta Ortega-Valle, founder of GreenLight Biosciences.

“This is the most concentrated group of women on the MIT campus. It’s so exciting,” said Hatsopoulous. “The network of MIT entrepreneurs in Boston is outstanding.”

The event itself was a rather glamorous affair, and many of the women were draped in designer clothes that might have hung in the Derek Lam and Helmut Lang ateliers. But as they sipped their pinot blanc and snacked on tuna tartare, they also discussed the dark side of their field. One of the data points presented that evening was from a recent MIT survey that found when students were recently asked if they ever doubted that they could have the ability to be successful in a Course 6 major — the computer science coursework at the institute — 67 percent of women said yes, compared with only 28 percent of men.

“Women are significantly underrepresented in innovation and entrepreneurship even though more women graduate from college than men,” said Ebbel Angle.

Anantha Chandrakasan, the department head of MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program, and one of the only men in the room, presented four initiatives that MIT has implemented to improve support for both entrepreneurship and women in EECS. A women’s technology program for senior high school students invites girls to participate in an intense three-to-four week curriculum. The advanced undergraduate research program ‘Super UROP’ offers time and support for junior and senior EECS students to create new technologies and gain graduate-level research experience. Rising Stars has been developed to help top female PhD and Doctoral students navigate entering academia, and Start6 is focused on integrating entrepreneurship into classrooms and giving students an opportunity to present their ideas to venture capitalists.

With so much positive energy reverberating throughout the gallery space last night, it felt like we were finally getting somewhere. Breazeal, with her newly minted $25.3 million in funding finished her keynote with, “The world would be a better place with more women entrepreneurs.”

Let’s see if the male-dominated capital shows up to fund more of us.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Anantha Chandrakasan. The speaker was Erika Ebbel Angle.

Heidi Legg interviews visionaries and thinkers around us at TheEditorial.com 
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