Business Plan Contests: Where Are the Women?

Many groups are trying to increase female participation in competitions for promising ventures

Something bothered Jane Pak when she served as a judge for a regional competition of the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA) at the University of Southern California last summer: All the contestants were male. "Where are the girls?" she asked the two other female judges. "It was so obvious to us that this was a problem," says Pak, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. "No one else seemed to notice."

Women often go missing from the 100-plus entrepreneurial competitions held annually in the U.S., where winners take home prizes ranging from cash and trophies to contacts that can lead to opportunities. In the GSEA's 2010 contest, just 25 of the 145 competitors were women and the winners and runners-up were all male. Since 2007 only 13 percent of the event's 117 finalists have been female. The scant presence of women in such events "makes me want to put my head down and weep," says J. Janelle Shubert, director of the Center for Women's Leadership at Babson College.

While no formal statistics are kept, several people connected with business plan and entrepreneurship competitions say women represent at most 20 ercent of entrants. That's even though they launch 40 percent of all private companies, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship. "Fewer women are still finding their way into spearheading their own idea," says Sara Gragnolati, 33, the first solo woman to win the top prize in Babson's MBA business plan contest, launched more than two decades ago. She took home $20,000 for her company, Cocomama Foods, which sells gluten-free breakfast cereals. "I felt kind of honored," Gragnolati says, "but I found it surprising and sad" that it had taken so long for a woman to win.

Experts in entrepreneurship—both women and men—say a lack of confidence and bluster, an aversion to risk, and a continued scarcity of women in engineering programs may explain the shortage. Pak believes the problem starts in childhood. "Even the most progressive parents don't assume their daughters are going to be primary breadwinners," she says. Babson's Shubert says women are less likely to belong to organizations that sponsor contests. Although more than half of graduate students are female, women "are not driving to positions of influence," says Sharon Vosmek, CEO of Astia, a nonprofit that supports women-owned companies. "You have to be ready to toot your own horn in a way that we're not seeing women doing."

More practical considerations may also contribute. Elif Hanna, an MBA student at the University of California, Irvine, was the only mother to enter her school's annual business plan competition. "It was very hard for me to participate," she says. "Most of the meetings were after seven." Rejected in the first round, Hanna started an online wedding invitations company, funding it herself.

Efforts are under way to boost participation by women. Ernst & Young set up its annual Entrepreneurial Winning Women contest in 2008 to strengthen promising female-led businesses by connecting them with potential partners and investors. This year, Kauffman Foundation and Astia are sponsoring the first Women in Science and Engineering Business Idea Competition.

Tech networking group Women 2.0 says its annual pitchfest—in which teams presenting ideas to potential investors must include at least one woman—is attracting more venture capitalists. A 2010 participant pitched technology that lets immigrants send money home via mobile phones, says Women 2.0 CEO Shaherose Charania. It's "something that a Sand Hill Road [VC] guy is never going to use," she says, "but it solves a real problem instead of just making rich peoples' lives more cushy."

The bottom line: Few women entrepreneurs participate in business plan contests. Now many groups are trying to boost their numbers.

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