Hayes Ferguson has decades of experience in the business world. Throughout the years, this exposure has shown her the importance of standing up for women in the industry.
“Early in my tenure at a startup, one of the investors invited the management team to go to a golf club,” Ferguson said. “The problem was, it was an all-male golf club, so I didn’t make the cut.”
This incident, Ferguson estimates, was between 15 and 20 years ago, and since then she has seen more awareness come to the industry. But there is still room for improvement. "The bottom line," she said, "is far fewer women pursue entrepreneurship" for a variety of reasons, possibly including a lack of funding or lack of confidence.
Now, Ferguson is the associate director of The Garage and manager of the Propel Program, an initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship by empowering female students interested in starting a business. Currently, 24 students have been accepted into the program, eight female mentors have dedicated time to advise the students and eight student ambassadors have helped spread the word about the Propel Program.
“I think by investing time and money and resources into women students today, we are increasing the likelihood that we will have [more] women leaders tomorrow,” Ferguson said.
Students who are accepted into the program receive stipends of up to $1,000 each to help grow their business. The Propel Program also connects student participants with a female mentor who makes herself available to help them as they begin their startups.
Startup culture is growing: Medill senior Isabella Jiao realized this when she was in San Francisco last year. As she spoke to people there, Jiao found that many of them had a startup – or multiple. They made it seem so easy.
“Through all the networking and talking to people, I realized over there the culture is so different, and starting a company is almost like nothing at all,” Jiao said. “And so that really inspired me. But at the same time, I’ve always wanted to start something.”
With help from Propel, Jiao is now operating a business called Wearever. It offers clothing rental for travelers who want to pack lightly. Jiao and a small team of other students received $500 from the Propel Program, and with that money, they have been able to fund user testing for Wearever.
Beyond the money, Jiao said that having access to The Garage and the resources there has been great. Students also benefit from getting to know each other and going through the process of beginning a startup together.
“Just knowing that you have this group of women to support you is a very comforting thought,” Jiao said. “It’s a comfort in its own, knowing that other people are on this journey with you together.”
Many of these young female entrepreneurs are looking to enter the business industry, which is overwhelmingly male. When Jiao was speaking to entrepreneurs in San Francisco, most of them were men, she said. But the Propel Program helps to connect these female students with successful women in the industry.
“The Propel Program introduces you to strong woman entrepreneurs, and typically that’s not something that you find because the field is so heavily influenced with men,” said Weinberg freshman Yasmeena Faycurry, who is working on a social media app through the Propel Program. “But it’s nice to hear that there are a bunch of amazing woman entrepreneurs as well who are doing just as amazing things. It’s very encouraging.”
Ferguson said that even at The Garage, they have had more men than women apply to certain programs. But through Propel, they aim to change that.
“This was a way for us to try to attack a much bigger problem at the localized level,” Ferguson said. “And we can do that by encouraging women to come to The Garage, to use our space and other resources, and to make sure that they understand that there are others like them doing the same thing. And we hope to see great success from them.”
Editor's note: This article has been corrected to show that there are eight, not 20, student ambassadors for the Propel Program. NBN regrets the error.