Iconic image representing startup funding: coins stacked in ascending heights from left to right with a plant sprouting from the highest stack.
Bellwether-funded project tackles funding gap for female, underrepresented minority founders

Staggeringly disproportionate startup funding available to founders who are women or underrepresented minorities has inspired the next project by the Olin Brookings Commission.

Doug Villhard

Scholars from WashU Olin Business School and the Brookings Institution have recruited a new nine-member commission—comprised of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and public policy experts—to develop policy-based solutions for the historically lopsided funding support available to underrepresented minorities and women.

Consider these numbers:

  • Women represent 50.5% of the US population, yet recent reports suggest only 2% of venture capital money went to female founders in 2021.
  • Individuals identifying as Black or African American represent 13.6% of the US population, but Black founders received only about 1% of venture financing in 2020 and 1.4% in 2021
  • Individuals identifying as Hispanic or Latinx represent 18.9% of the US population, yet data from Crunchbase, a database of startup funding, suggests Hispanic or Latinx founders receive only about 2% of venture funding.

“This short-changes not only underrepresented founders but also the vitality of the entire innovation community,” said Doug Villhard, faculty commission chair and director of WashU Olin’s entrepreneurship program. “Rather than simply talk about the past, this commission intends to identify meaningful public policy solutions to drive more equitable funding, unlock more potential and further spur our economy.”

Continuation of key partnership

Dedric Carter
Dedric Carter

The project is the second backed by a $750,000 grant to WashU Olin from The Bellwether Foundation. The grant called for three separate annual commissions—formed jointly with Brookings—tackling “megatrend” issues affecting the quality of life in the region and across the country.

The first Olin Brookings Commission project concluded in April. Participants developed an artificial intelligence-driven tool to flag suspicious shipments of prescription opioids and developed policy recommendations designed to empower the tool’s use among federal agencies, law enforcement and industry.

Gisele Marcus
Gisele Marcus

Among the initiatives the 2022-23 commission will undertake will be a national conference of researchers presenting work focused on unearthing the root causes for disproportionate funding and informing any potential public and private policy solutions to address the yawning gap.

That conference is planned for November at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. The conference organizing committee is chaired by Olin’s Daniel Elfenbein, professor of organization and strategy.

Informed by veteran innovators

Dan Elfeinbein
Dan Elfeinbein

In addition to Villhard and Elfenbein, the project will be led by WashU faculty members Dedric Carter, Olin’s professor of practice in entrepreneurship and WashU’s vice chancellor for innovation and chief commercialization officer; and Gisele Marcus, professor of practice, diversity, equity and inclusion.

A key component of the Bellwether funding calls for student involvement. Ming Zhu Wang, a fifth-year Olin PhD student in strategy, will organize related research, along with five MBA entrepreneurship fellows who will assist with planning, research and feedback.

A nine-member commission has been named to oversee and guide the project while providing input and insight from the perspective of innovation practitioners. Members include:

In the next 10 months, commission members will collect and distill data and industry input over several meetings—including the November conference—with plans to release a comprehensive report of its findings and recommendations by April 2023.

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