Living Entrepreneurship Blog / Babson Entrepreneurs

Demystifying The Diana Project™: A Q&A with Candida Brush

Babson College’s Diana Project™ shines a light on women’s entrepreneurship around the world. The project was co-founded by Candida Brush, Nancy Carter, Elizabeth Gatewood, Patricia Greene, and Myra Hart. Dr. Brush is the Franklin W. Olin Professor of Entrepreneurship and the Vice Provost of Global Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson. I had the chance to talk with Dr. Brush to learn about why The Diana Project™ was created, its impact, and its future.

The Diana Project

The Diana Project

Why was The Diana Project™ created?
The Diana Project™ was founded in 1996 during the boom of entrepreneurship and venture capital (VC). At the time, there were almost 2,000 VC firms and 4,000 businesses receiving venture capital annually. My co-founders and I came across the statistic that out of all VC-funded businesses, women entrepreneurs were only getting 4% of capital. We knew that roughly 45% of businesses were at least 50% owned by women, so we wanted to know why women received such a small amount of venture capital funding. This question is important because, in order to scale a business, you need outside investment. Venture capital is critical. We wanted to investigate why women weren’t getting their fair share of equity funding to grow their businesses.

If someone claims that there is a problem, it is important to look at the data. If there is a big disparity, you need to understand why that disparity exists by looking at the problem from multiple perspectives. In our case, we were asking: Are women less qualified for VC funding? Are they being discriminated against? Are they in the wrong networks? Is it a geographic problem? We conducted a study to rule out each potential explanation (“Myths” PDF). In 2013, we decided to replicate our study (“Women Entrepreneurs 2014” PDF) from the early 1990s to see if anything had changed. Unfortunately, not a lot had changed. Even though more money was being invested overall by the venture capital industry, only 15% of all companies had a woman on the team. And, more surprising, only 2.7% of the companies receiving venture capital had a woman CEO. We also researched women decision-makers in the VC industry (“Gatekeepers” PDF), with the hypothesis that women investors would be more likely to invest in women entrepreneurs. We found this to be true- if there is a woman partner in the venture capital firm, they are much more likely to invest in a business with a woman on the executive team.

What is The Diana Project™?
The Diana Project™ is a research collaborative designed to understand how women start and grow businesses around the world. We host the annual Diana International Research Conference, which is the premier research conference showcasing studies about women entrepreneurs. Over 500 scholars are involved! Some of the studies presented at the conference may be the first study of women entrepreneurs in a particular country. In the context of Babson, we wanted to know how women can be successful if they choose to become entrepreneurs in their home countries. This research provides a way to identify and overcome obstacles and understand what women need in order to be successful. The quality of this research is extraordinary.

The WIN (Women Innovating Now) Lab continues The Diana Project™’s goal of supporting women entrepreneurs at Babson College. Before the WIN Lab was created, the winners of Babson’s B.E.T.A. Challenge had all been men. In the first year of the WIN Lab, a woman was a B.E.T.A. Challenge finalist and the following year, all finalists were women. Women entrepreneurs at Babson have performed even better since! 

What is the history of The Diana Project™?
After my co-founders and I discovered the statistic about women receiving so little VC funding, we decided to form a research collaborative in 1998. We went on a retreat in Santa Fe to write a research grant for our project because we needed data in order to make a strong case.  At this retreat, we wrote a grant to study women entrepreneurs access to venture capital.  We subsequently  received a significant grant from the Kauffman Foundation, which allowed us to continue with our project.

We spent the first two years mapping and analyzing every VC investment in U.S. businesses over a 30 year period. Our findings showed that there was no single year in which the number of investments in women-led companies exceeded 4% of the total VC investment. Over the years since, we have expanded to an international academic research forum for scholars to present papers about women entrepreneurs and their roles in economies worldwide. This is the leading conference of its kind; and there is no other conference that has such a high quality and scope of research.

What is your role today?
I am the only co-founder of The Diana Project™ who is still involved in the project today; the organization has a new generation of leaders. I am the leader right now, spearheading what will happen in the future.

 What impact has The Diana Project™ had on scholarly research?
The Diana International Research Conference was the first scholarly research conference on women’s entrepreneurship ever and we have active participants from more than 50 countries. We have authoredten books and edited 12 special issues of academic journals. Before the conference was formed, there was no scholarly domain for women’s entrepreneurship. Nowhere in any of the ecosystem frameworks was gender mentioned. This lack of discussion generally assumed that gender makes no difference and that all entrepreneurs have the same ability to influence ecosystems. Over the years, we have learned that gender does matter.  Now there is research exploring how women entrepreneurs influence ecosystems and how they are influenced by their ecosystems in the entrepreneurial process.

If there was one thing you wanted the world to know about The Diana Project™, what would it be?
We need an endowment to sustain The Diana Project™. In order to continue supporting and growing women’ entrepreneurship worldwide, the world needs an institution such as The Diana Project™ to continue to grow over time. Diana International is comprised of 500 top scholars that can help economies to better support all entrepreneurs. Based on research by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, our GEM women’s report shows that there are only five countries in the world with an equal rate of entrepreneurship between men and women. Even in innovation economies, there is a disparity in the rate of entrepreneurship. We know that women want to be entrepreneurs, so we need to figure out why there is such a difference in the start-up and growth rates.  We do not yet know the all the reasons that women are unable to become entrepreneurs or to grow their businesses.

What does the future of The Diana Project™ look like?
We will continue to host our annual academic conference. We expect the quality of the conference and the number of scholars participating to rise. With that will come a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing women worldwide and how we can help them find success in their entrepreneurial roles. The next Diana International Research Conference will take place in Bangkok, Thailand, and our 2019 conference will be at Babson!

How can students get involved with The Diana Project™?
When we hold The Diana International Research Conference in 2019, we would love to have students help organize the conference. Another great way to get involved is to help us with data analysis and to use the data for research. When students have a paper or project about entrepreneurship, they should seek to understand how the experience differs between genders. For cross-national data, the GEM Women’s Entrepreneurship Report is the best resource available.