The New Entrepreneur

By Sofía Ferrándiz

Young professionals and corporate executive officers in the finance, tech, and healthcare industries arrived to The Uptown Restaurant and Bar in Manhattan’s West Village on a recent Thursday night, dressed in their finest suits and ready to mingle. The 25 to 35-year-old demographic in attendance held ticket receipts ranging from $125 to $5,000 in one hand, and business cards, to casually exchange, in the other. Just three days earlier at the final America Needs You-New York development team meeting, leading members of the youth-mentorship non-profit were scattered around a large, round conference table, with calendars and company pipeline documents printed out. Having spent months in advance organizing Thursday’s event, they collectively brainstormed last-minute strategies to still try and incentivize more corporate figures to purchase tickets to their annual Youth Leadership Board Spring Party Fundraiser.

Adrienne Boykin, 27, who was part of those meetings as the Fellows-Alumni Coordinator at America Needs You-New York, cordially greeted corporate sponsors at the auction table beside Uptown’s upstairs bar. She was attempting to sell bids for a basket of fine wines. As a first-generation Afro-Latina college graduate who got her accounting degree at Fordham University and later went on to earn an MBA, Boykin said that a youth program similar to America Needs You granted her access into the finance industry years ago. Early last year, she ditched the white, male-centric world of numbers to pursue her calling within the non-profit sector, instead.

“With fellows, I see the same struggles that I faced learning the ropes on my own,” said Boykin rolling her eyes.

“In these traditionally white male industries, it’s not unlikely that their families also came from and maybe even paved the way for their children to enter certain fields.” Boykin experienced what it was like to be the only Senior Accountant and Associate female of color on her teams at Balchem Corporation and Pricewater Coopers, where she worked prior to joining America Needs You-New York.

“As a female in general, the challenge was exclusion –missing out on conversations that took place after hours at sports bars, for example, that could potentially advance my career,” Boykin said, shaking her head. Although she doesn’t think she has experienced racism she does not deny that race played a part in her discomfort.

“I was very self-conscious,” she paused, switching from her usual, upbeat tone to a more serious demeanor. “I’d ask myself, ‘Do I have to wear my hair back? I’ve got an ethnic body and am a little curvy, so I’d worry a lot about wearing certain clothes and perceptions I’d give off.”

Since Boykin’s time in accounting, gender and racial disparities within the finance industries continue to exist in the United States and extend among the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields as well. Programs like America Needs You were created to combat this trend to fight for economic mobility among the ambitious, low-income youth they serve. However, college students enrolled in such programs, that are more female-heavy in nature, are finding it difficult to land internships and jobs today for various reasons–despite the professional development grants and one-on-one mentor coaching that are provided over the course of two years. A majority of the undergrad females enrolled in the America Needs You-New York Fellows program were recently rejected from summer internships at several tech, health care, and Wall Street firms because companies said they did not stack up to more competitive applicants.

As an alternative, an increasing number of women of color are now turning to independent, business consulting gurus, like Nathalie Molina Niño and sites like PowertoFly.com, to learn how to market their acquired B.S. skills globally online or become their own entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is growing in popularity among women and expected to boom, especially among minority women across a varied socio-economic spectrum. They are looking to learn how to better network their degrees, work remotely, or pave a different career path altogether.

Scholars blame high school programs lacking strong preparatory curriculums and stereotype threats within society generating self-doubt on the bases of gender and race to the decreased likelihood for Black women and Latinas to pursue their developing interests in science and math. There is a predicted gap in ethnic/gender representation within the professional workforce this year because of sociologically determining factors and the increasingly competitive nature of the fields.

According to U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in general make up 47 percent of the total American workforce, with 13 percent concentrating in engineering and 25 percent in computer and mathematical science. Minority women make up less than 1 in 10 of these figures.

Statistics of minority women actually employed in STEM fields indicate that they still remain far behind Black and Hispanic men and white women–two groups which are considered to be in the minority within the STEM field compared to Asian and white men.

“My sense is that the low proportion of women of color in STEM fields is a combined problem of the low representation of women in those areas compounded by the even lower representation of minorities underrepresented traditionally in science,” said Susan Antón, a professor for the Study of Human Origins at New York University and Director of the MA Program in Human Skeletal Biology.

“A fairly small percentage of the already small percentage of underrepresented minority students who enroll in undergrad degrees have the necessary science and especially math background, and that’s largely attributable to the tight correlation between lower SES schools and quality of math/science training,” she added.

A 2014 Catalyst Census report measured that women make up 19.2 percent of leadership board seats–80.2 percent of whom are white. Employers of these large corporations complain that there is not enough diversity in the work place.

Sites like PowertoFly.com challenge this assertion. In a published interview with Fortune Magazine this April, Katherine Zaleski, one of the co-founders and CEO’s of PowertoFly.com, suggested that the online startup company was born out of the desire to bridge the gender gap in the tech and finance industries, and to solve some of the problems of family-work life unfriendliness that female minorities experience when trying to get a foot in the door and advance their careers in the corporate office.

“We’re offering a service where we present vetted female talent. There’s this line that keeps repeating that women in tech don’t exist and that not enough women are graduating with tech degrees,” Zaleski told Fortune Magazine. PowertoFly.com was created for women–and especially those of color–to expand their possibilities of employment globally by creating an online profile.

Registered users from all over the world display their professional skills, get matched with an employer, and undergo a two-to-four week paid trial, before making the final decision to work remotely at the company they were initially paired with. Such programs re-empower women by expanding their career opportunities through the internet, as opposed to traditional in-person application and networking methods, which have demonstrated less success in terms of employment and professional advancement.

The site embraces social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, which applicants can connect their profiles to for greater exposure.

“I see a lot of high profile positions being done remotely in various industries–not just in tech. Companies need to change the way they work and the cultures they support,” Zaleski said.

Women can choose to work between 20 and 40 hours per week, and are not penalized for going on maternity leave and missing out on potential ladder-climbing opportunities that may arise. This issue exists within the corporate workplace and inhibits many women from professional advancement, which male coworkers are less likely to face.

“I just got back from the Middle East. In Palestine, over 50% of women graduate with IT degrees, but only a small fraction have jobs because their families don’t want them to leave home. One of our goals is to give more women paychecks so they can support other women by paying for childcare or buying more goods from friends who are producing in their villages locally,” Zaleski said.

According to Jessica Milli, a Senior Researcher at the International Women’s Forum, STEM and finance fields are notoriously unfriendly towards women and not only discourage them from early-on interests, but also have dramatically high turn overrates for the gender demographic as a whole.

“Women are leaving after a few short years to work in another industry–and while one couldn’t say that it is the cause of it, the two are certainly correlated,” she said about Finance and STEM specifically.

While fewer minority women are successfully entering the STEM and finance industries, there is growing appeal to apply backgrounds in math and science in a business setting and to embrace independent, entrepreneurship as a second option.

Nathalie Molina Niño is one of the co-founders and advisors at The Athena Center for Leadership at Barnard College in New York City, where she exemplifies the renaissance-woman model that clients wish to emulate. As someone who founded her first tech company when she was twenty and pursued her love of theater on the side at Columbia University, Molina Niño now also finds herself teaching young women how to market their skills–whatever they may be–along side her other passions.

“We love the idea of getting women excited and sort of bitten by the start up bug,” she said. According to Molina Niño, self-confidence and solid communication skills are crucial to developing a business mindset. She relays these tips to young women looking to apply their diverse backgrounds towards entrepreneurial end-goals.

In 2013, Molina-Niño co-founded Entrepreneurs in Training, a program that aims to provide training and education to “underrepresented and highly undercapitalized women entrepreneurs.”

While most of the programs offered at The Athena Center cater specifically to students enrolled at Barnard College, the Entrepreneurs in Training program allows any female high school student to apply. During the intensive, 10-day summer program, those enrolled practice designing their businesses, pitching their plans to respected investors from the start up sector, and gaining exposure to core entrepreneurial concepts.

“The goal at the end of our 10-day boot camp is to get students understanding that not only do they have the skills already to be able to start their own business if they wanted to, but the skills were always there,” Molina Niño said. When she isn’t offering her mentor coaching support physically during workshops, Molina Niño is publically speaking at events, filming videos to publish online, and writing personal, weekly “love letter” e-mails to those subscribed to her website.

“I come from the world of start-ups, so I know what its like to be the only woman in the room. And, I think that the best way to change that, apart from changing the culture of the start-up world, is to equip women to come into the space ready for success,” Molina Niño said.

Workshops like Molina Niño’s are appealing to STEM students like Anne Chen, 19, a Math and Statistics double major at Columbia University, interested in exploring the entrepreneurial route.

“I feel like math skills will sort of be another tool to sell yourself, but at the end of the day, to even get your foot in the door with jobs, you have to depend on interpersonal skills and soft skills. Business teaches you that,” she said. Chen said that as an Asian female in STEM, she is disinclined to pursue research because of the gender/racial divide noticeable. She sees herself maybe running a business in the future.

“The problem about the gender/racial divide is not new. We definitely have enough awareness. But simple awareness doesn’t and hasn’t changed the problem,” she added. “All it makes me want to do is not pursue the fields because of the disparity visible.”

While men still make up the majority of all businesses that can be classified by gender of the owner, Milli said that since 1997 women have been making advancements compared to men in entrepreneurship.

“Between 1997 and 2007 the number of women-owned businesses grew by 44 percent, while the number of men-owned businesses grew by only 22 percent,” she said.

A recent study commissioned by American Express OPEN estimates that that growth continued on through 2014, despite the recession, and estimated that between 1997 and 2014 the number of women-owned businesses grew even more by 68 percent.

Milli also addressed that this growth has been even more pronounced among women of color. While women of color own only 30 percent of businesses, in just 5 years between 2002 and 2007, the number of businesses owned by black women, for example, increased by 67 percent as compared to the number of businesses owned by white women, which only increased by 14 percent. These figures account for women with and without degrees, and are representative of a broader socio-economic demographic than of a wealthier or college-educated class, alone.

“Despite all of this, businesses owned by women of color still face issues and barriers. Women of color tend to have lower annual sales than businesses owned by white women, yet they are more likely to depend on the businesses as a primary source of income,” she said.

Hispanic, Black, and American Indian women are more likely to not have any start-up capital when they found their business. If they do have some start-up capital they typically have less than white women. This suggests that they may have difficulty obtaining business loans at all or at least ones with reasonable terms.

In response to the disparities that exist, Molino Niño said that she aims to combat the self-doubt that she witnesses as being the most limiting to minority women’s successes in white and male-dominant industries.

“I hope that all people of color realize that it’s in their advantage to use their ethnic background and multilingual abilities to market themselves and their skills,” she added.

According to the source, recent graduates can also no longer rely on their expertise in one subject area to secure the job in math or science. For example, Molina Niño said that whenever she looks to hire someone for her tech companies, she seeks diversity of experience and someone who embraces an international lens.

“I need someone who thinks outside of the box. Specialists don’t do that well. People with different career changes are most attractive because they have done a lot in their lives,” she added. She also sees global media communication as a viable solution.

Molina Niño’s encouragement of international visibility through online platforms is inherent from her public and actively updated “3rd Premium status” LinkedIn account with 500+ connections. Her personal website is also constantly updated to reflect her values and latest accomplishments, stating, “Business Strategist, Artist, Global Misfit,” at the top.

Just as Molina Niño advocates for a diverse skillset through online media, PowertoFly.com also encourages users to increase their marketability digitally.

“Racial, gender, and cultural differences are something we try to solve,” Milena Berry, the other co-founder of PowertoFly.com said.

“When I decided to start Powertofly, people kept talking about how underrepresented minority women are not around. I said, ‘I can find people from all over the world.’ So far I have proven it,” she said.

Anuja Puranik, 24, who studies computer science at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering Graduate School, realized the importance of diversifying her skillset in light of her ongoing job hunt for when she graduates in May.

Despite the U.S. Bureau Labor of Statistics website indicating projected pay increases within the math and science fields between 2015 and 2020, securing employment after graduation has proven challenging because of the competitive nature of the fields that applicants with the same degree are equally equipped for. This has been an additional burden to minority women with limited English skills who wish to gain entry into STEM or finance.

As a foreign student from Mumbai, India, Puranik said her parents are making extreme economic sacrifices to send her to school overseas. She said she is interested in pursuing business studies in the future to give her an edge against other grad-level peers. Despite an unpaid internship at Iberia Fashions in New York in 2014, where she developed and managed the start-up fashion company’s website, Puranik admitted that the full-time job hunt has not been as easy as she first anticipated when she was first applying to New York University.

“I love computer science because it keeps me thinking logically. New technologies keep changing up daily, which attracts me. But, the job search is terrifying,” she admitted. “It’s currently a pain in the ass.”

According to Puranik, relying on career service centers, like New York University’s Wasserman Center for Career Development, are not enough because it takes more effort than just sending out applications to jobs listed on a massive server for opportunities to arise.

“It’s getting harder and harder each time to get the interview for the internship or the job you want because everyone is extremely qualified and taught the same research/coding skills,” she added. She said she hopes entrepreneurial skills will allow for her to independently take control of her career aspirations. Puranik said that then, if she is unable to work in research or attain a job in web development, specifically, she can build her own business from the ground up.

Puranik is not alone in her developing interest to further her passions with a business degree.

“We expect the number of businesses owned by women of color to continue to increase. When you look at the growth of all businesses owned by women from 1997 to 2014, the number grew by 68 percent. That’s an increase of 216 percent,” Milli said.

While that growth rate was calculated over years past, Milli indicated that the overall trend suggests that this is something that is going to continue well into the future.

“I think that as a woman of color, looking at my own trajectory, the concept around assimilation is very important and it’s hard to shake that,” Molina Niño said. “But, the best advice I’ve ever received, was from a mentor coach when I was first starting out who told me, “you are the source of your own supply,” she added.

“Those are the words I live by.”

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