I visited the Venture for America training camp at Brown this week, and was duly impressed - great program (read more here), awesome staff and above all, more than 100 outstanding fellows! However, 3/4 were biologically ‘fellows’ too. Only 17 of this year’s 68 VFA fellows are women.

We heard a few hypotheses from the staff about why they’re so far from a 50/50 class, including: women are worried about safety in VFA cities (Cincinnati, Detroit, etc); women think they have to be engineers to apply; and women are looking for social enterprise jobs and aren’t willing to work for a business-minded for-profit.

This final theory is the one that stuck with me. It reminded me of research presented in Women Don’t Ask, which shows that the majority of the pay gap between male and female MBAs’ salaries 10 years after graduation can be attributed to men asking for more money at every evaluation and women not asking.


The connection I drew between these salary negotiations and young women’s strong preference for a non-profit employer is that perhaps women’s relationship with money has become so unhealthy that we aren’t even comfortable asking for money from our customers for our employers. Even if it’s just an implicit ask, by virtue of taking a job at a for-profit company.

There are many issues in the emergent social enterprise space about money: can you solicit donations for a business? Aren’t seed stage investments basically ‘donations’ (write-offs) anyway? Should social entrepreneurs earn private sector or non-profit salaries? What level of profit is acceptable for a B Corp or a for-profit social enterprise?

And now, overlaying the gender issue with these money-related concerns, I have two questions:

  1. Is the social enterprise trend dangerous to women, because it will encourage them to continue to undervalue their work, only now in a for-profit context withOUT the safety net of donations (easier to solicit than salary or customer prices) to support their efforts and organizations?image
  2. And/or will the greater proportion of women leading social enterprises (compared to traditional enterprises) be an obstacle for the financial viability of the sector, by perpetuating a trend of pro bono and low bono services, cost-plus low-end pricing, and sacrifice of bottom line for optimal performance and quality? I treasure the nature of social enterprises, concerned with profit AND their implications for the people and planet they touch. BUT there is a great need in the sector to protect the financial considerations of each venture to ensure that it is able to become a viable and so sustainable business. Will women’s reluctance to ask for adequate cash for them and their businesses get in the way of that progress?

Clearly, women offer great value to the social enterprise sector, but to optimize that value, it is important to consider all aspects of this involvement. Just as men’s involvement could threaten a social enterprise’s commitment to mission based on traditional ‘male’ qualities of being cold and analytic.

I know these are controversial points, but I feel strongly that it is important to discuss such points honestly if we are to do the best for each other and the next generation of entrepreneurs and investors. Plus, don’t you always enjoy an intelligent debate?