Ensuring Oxford’s female leaders and entrepreneurs claim their share of the playground
Globally, on average, only 2 in 10 ventures are currently founded or led by females. The University of Oxford’s entrepreneurship centre, the Oxford Foundry, is launching the L.E.V8 Women programme to address this head-on, and to give Oxford’s female students the skills and resilience to become the strong leaders and entrepreneurs that they aspire to be.
The Oxford Foundry – the University of Oxford’s new entrepreneurship centre which was opened by Apple CEO Tim Cook in October 2017 – is launching its new L.E.V8 (pron. ‘elevate’) Women programme to support and encourage female students as they prepare to enter the workplace. The programme will contribute to supporting a strong and sustained flow of assertive female future leaders and founders coming out of Oxford University.
Led by dynamic, young Foundry Director Ana Bakshi, the L.E.V8 Women programme is as much for women who aspire to leadership roles within established organisations as it is for those who have start-up ideas that they want to develop, launch and scale.
Why target women, and why do it now? When it comes to recruiting women in leadership roles, or achieving salary equality, the vast majority of corporations and organisations still have a long way to go. Studies show that companies with women in leadership roles perform better across the board. However, globally, fewer than 2 in 10 organisations currently have a female founder or leader, and the percentage of venture-backed companies founded by women has stood still, at around 17%, since 2012*. The level of both conscious and unconscious bias that women professionals experience in the workplace even today represents a major global and societal challenge.
While the Foundry is developing a whole series of skills and training support focused on skilling up all students in technology, creative thinking and the entrepreneurial mindset, shaking up some commonly held preconceptions about entrepreneurship and gender through L.E.V8 Women will be key to the Foundry's activities in this area, as Foundry Director, Ana Bakshi, explains:
"Being taken seriously as a woman in a board room or in investor meetings is definitely still a challenge. Resilience is an important part of claiming our space: we need to change the rhetoric, shift the language used about women from ‘bossy’ to ‘assertive’, and from ‘very opinionated’ to confident, clear and direct. Studies show that from as young as 12 years old, young women begin to allow fear of judgement and the need to be liked and accepted to hold them back from embracing their true potential, taking risks and following their aspirations.
As part of L.E.V8 Women, the Foundry will be actively profiling female leaders and entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. As the adage goes: if you can see it, you can be it, and we know that the more examples of strong, successful women we can show, the more women will feel encouraged to take up leadership roles or engage with start-up life, and to step forward with confidence and resilience."
The L.E.V8 Women programme includes immersive learning workshops, guidance and advice from mentors, and access to a strong and diverse network of visiting experts, plus a suite of e-learning resources, frameworks and templates. Through an intensive, rigorous programme, the Foundry aims to inspire and skill up female leaders and founders to stride forward confidently into their professional lives post-University.
Key elements of L.E.V8 Women will include:
- Showcasing positive female role models – building an online resource centre specifically to highlight global female leaders and entrepreneurial talent, providing inspiration to those at the start of their journey.
- Female founders’ start-up clinic – hosting monthly drop-ins for women at the University who are interested in starting their own business, providing business guidance and advice.
- Practical workshops for team members of every gender, on topics such as recognising unconscious bias, active listening, and working and thriving under female leadership.
- Intensive practical skills workshops to help ventures move their early-stage business ideas forward.
- Access to a network of female entrepreneurs – regular 1:1 slots for female students with high-profile female entrepreneurs from a range of sectors.
One female founder who is already keen to apply to participate in L.E.V8 Women is Elisha Bradley, an undergraduate student studying for her PGCE at Oxford and founder of Luna Beauty UK, a vegan makeup brand that has already established quite a following. As she explains:
“As a female founder with a largely women-focused product it can sometimes be difficult to convince people what I am doing is worthwhile and has the potential to be a serious business. As someone who has absolutely no business background, I often feel like there is a whole other secret 'business world' that I don't get to be part of – and it’s mostly populated by older men. I don’t feel that I can relate to that.”
The L.E.V8 Women programme is inclusive: while it focuses primarily on developing female leaders, it will also welcome and encourage participation from men who are part of gender-diverse teams. Additionally, some of the programme will cover aspects such as recognising unconscious bias, active listening, and working and thriving under female leadership.
Additional plans include working with local schools and communities to reach and inspire young women and girls, to tackle stereotypes around business, and to show that entrepreneurship is a path open to everyone, whatever their gender.
The Oxford Foundry’s accelerator programme, OXFO L.E.V8, will open its next call for applications this summer. In addition to the existing application requirement that all teams need an affiliation to the University of Oxford – be that a student, a staff member or an alumnus/alumna - the Foundry is planning to add an extra layer that supports its pro-women stance: teams will be assessed on both the quality of their venture and the gender diversity of their team, where more diverse teams with strong venture ideas will be more likely to progress though the selection process.
*MSCI Women on Boards report, published November 2015, MSCI Research Insights.