Last fall, in a showcase of women-led startups at MassChallenge, 37 new ventures across the Energy & Clean Tech, Healthcare & Life Sciences, High Tech, and Social Impact industries shared the innovations that brought them to the renowned accelerator program. I had the opportunity to engage with a few of these female leaders and get a peek into their companies and budding successes. Surprisingly, the biggest observation I made had nothing to do with gender. In a room full of brilliant entrepreneurs leading the development of new products and services, they all appeared to be doing some type of following.
Boston is a hotbed for innovation and new ventures, and women-led startups are thriving thanks to initiatives like Women in MassChallenge, founded in 2012 to “provide better access, education, and support for the unique challenges that face female founders”. Now known as the Women Founders Network, it& is the first initiative under EMPOWER@MassChallenge, a broader umbrella program aimed at celebrating diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship. The Women in Mass Challenge showcase was an evening highlighting the women-led startups of that year.

The showcase opened up with a succession of female founders, from three different generations of startups at MassChallenge. Through personal anecdotes they collectively shared the growing efforts MassChallenge has made to support women in entrepreneurship over the years. You might say that MassChallenge was doing it’s own share of following, listening carefully to its community and adapting to the needs of its female leaders in residence.


Follow the Leader


The first woman, accepted into MassChallenge in its debut year, 2010, faced a male-dominated workforce, made even more pronounced by her pregnancy and the physical changes that came with it. She was a working woman, newly pregnant, who couldn’t help but muse if going into labor in front of potential investors would impact her chances of securing funding. (It didn’t, if you’re wondering.)

By contrast, the final woman to speak in this introduction was from the current cohort of Boston startups- a group that can boast that 42% of its startups are co-founded by at least one woman. Inspired by an environment that embraced and enabled female entrepreneurship, she started bringing her school-aged daughter into the innovative space to show her many models of female entrepreneurship. This had such an impact on her daughter that following in the footsteps of her mother and the female leaders in front of her, she started her own company at the age of 9 just this year. If you aren’t aware, she reminded us, women (and men) are changing the world at MassChallenge. And there’s truth to that. It was apparent, after being in the room for just a few minutes, that you were surrounded by intelligent people solving real-world problems with the most innovative solutions. And what connected them all was this continued thread of innovative leadership reinforced by strategic following. Here are just three of the ways I saw this being done:

1. Follow the market

Pzartech is an Israeli company that developed a “3D recognition technology that enables industrial manufacturers to quickly identify failed spare parts”, which helps the manufacturing industry cut down on unexpected and costly downtime. It was interesting to learn about their consideration of global markets when deciding to relocate to the US. They discovered in Israel that business development progresses at an incredible speed, but that a limited market meant they could not take advantage of this. In France, another market they considered, they found the opposite: a bustling marketplace, but one that was met with slow-paced business development. By coming to the US, they hoped to benefit from a growing Material Handling Equipment market that, according to a recent report by Grand View Research, is expected to reach $41 billion by 2025. They showed that paying attention to markets and business influences can contribute to successful market fit for a product.

2. Follow your users… wherever they are

#1 is a novel treatment for urinary incontinence that allows users to practice pelvic floor muscle therapy (PFMT) in the comfort of their own home, and with minimal invasiveness. The solution “combines wearable superficial sensors and an engaging application to allow users to assess, track, and record progress with PFMT”. While speaking with co-founder Dr. Jeanne “Mei Mei” Chow, we were joined by a third woman who began to openly share her experience living with incontinence. Her openness was admirable, and created a unique opportunity for Dr. Chow to acquire new insights into her key user. While her company had already engaged over 100 face-to-face interviews with users, physicians and industry experts, she still capitalized on the opportunity to take notes and acquire user information- an ad-hoc research session. As I helped her ask questions in this impromptu interview, I saw the value of always being available to listen and learn from your users in all contexts.

3. Follow those who have been there before

Therapeutic Innovations is a company seeking to “redesign and reduce the cost of medical devices in developing world pediatrics”, beginning with their first product, a prenatal Bubble CPAP machine engineered to treat infants with respiratory distress. Managing Director Garima Bhardwaj was eager to hear of my experience with another company, Embrace, that, from a Stanford class on “Design for Extreme Affordability”, developed an affordable infant warmer for premature infants. Embrace, already familiar with designing a low-cost medical product for developing nations, had knowledge in an area that Therapeutic Innovations was just beginning to enter. In addition to our conversation, in a following interaction with another showcase attendee, I observed her engaging a gentleman on his knowledge of existing manufacturing distributers and partners in India where the medical device will first launch. It was evident that tapping into the existing knowledge of people and organizations that have tackled similar issues was a critical component of continued successful progression.
When I look back on these conversations, it’s incredible to think that they all took place in one room, in one evening, in one hour. MassChallenge is crafting environments that provide entrepreneurs with the tools and opportunities they need to succeed, and making sure that women can equally benefit. They’re enabling conversations that not only help entrepreneurs, but that allow the greater Boston community to share in the growing innovation across the city- conversations that allowed me to capture a wonderful lesson. Whether it be role models, or markets, or users, or others who have ventured before them, these entrepreneurs showed that a good leader, man or woman, can get much further with a little bit of following.

Leahanna Savain is a Marketing Specialist at Essential Design.

Essential Design is a leading Innovation Strategy & Design consultancy. We work across the healthcare, consumer, and commercial industries, helping our clients conceive and drive to market comprehensive digital, physical, and service experiences.