Female-founded start-ups and female-led businesses are becoming more commonplace, though their numbers are still disproportionately low. According to Statista, only 20% of start-ups globally had at least one female founder at the start of 2022.
But business schools around the world are playing their part to drive change, helping a growing generation of female graduates from their MBA, Masters, and Exec Ed programs to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. This International Women’s Day, we spoke with a number of female business school graduates that have successfully started a business.
They include Jordan Sale, an MBA graduate from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley. Sale was drawn to the small MBA class size at Haas, and the focus on social impact and exploring the intersection between doing well and doing good.
Women Who Leveraged Their Business School Education To Do Startups
Entrepreneurship runs in Sale’s family: her mother and grandmother both started their own companies, and Sale has followed this family tradition by founding 81cents, a salary negotiation platform that helps underrepresented candidates negotiate their pay.
“I’d always been interested in entrepreneurship,” she explains. “My mom and my grandmother actually started their own companies, so I grew up watching smart, ambitious women start things! I was also lucky enough to spend a few years pre-Haas working at an early-stage start-up so I felt like I had an understanding of what it might be like.”
Miriam Agüero Lorenzo, a Masters in Management student at ESMT Berlin in Germany, is another founder with an entrepreneurial heritage. “I have always dreamed of founding my own non-profit organization. My parents founded an NGO in Seville, my hometown, in 2000, so I have been volunteering in different social projects my whole life. You can say that social volunteering is part of my DNA.”
While studying at ESMT Berlin, Lorenzo wanted to volunteer with a non-profit in Africa, ultimately decided to forge her own path founding her own non-profit, the Meraki Smile School.
Focused on providing free and high-quality education for the underprivileged, Meraki Smile School provides education, food, and healthcare to children in Madagascar and is the first school in Africa to offer its students International Baccalaureate (IB) education for free. The Greek word ‘Meraki’ refers to when you do something with so much love and passion, you leave part of yourself with it.
“I think it is clear the future is female,” states Lorenzo. “More and more women are getting promoted into powerful positions among different sectors. We need more women stepping up and helping to shape this new century.”
For Altyn Bolat, an MBA graduate from Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business in Kazakhstan, it was her father who inspired her entrepreneurial journey. “My father runs an agricultural business; he owns quite a lot of land and his own machinery. I have been told since I was a child that any good career has a certain ceiling on earnings, while you can grow as much as you like if you have a business. The question was only in which area I would choose to start a business.”
The area Bolat eventually settled on was the education sector, founding Bridge, an educational company providing a number of different products. One such product is Bridge Kids which prepares children for top global universities – Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Yale – from an early age through programs such as “Super Brain” and “MBA Kids.”
Her advice for any women interested in potentially founding their own company is to not focus too much on public opinion. “Society needs women, first and foremost, to lead by example by showing that women are perfectly capable of getting an education and building a business.”
FORGING HER OWN PATH
Outi Somervuori, a Management Science Ph.D. from Aalto University School of Business in Finland had also always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur, and much like Lorenzo she had to find her own way. Somervuori grew interested in learning more about pricing. She originally looked for courses to further develop her knowledge but was unable to find a suitable course. A professor from Aalto University suggested she research the topic herself, which inspired her application as a doctoral student at Aalto University.
She went on to found Cambri, an advanced, easy-to-use consumer insights, and concept testing tool But Somervuori warns the road to entrepreneurship is sometimes a bumpy one. From her experience, her most important piece of advice is to surround yourself with similarly motivated and ambitious people.
“Before Cambri, I founded a few companies, but struggled to find a team with the same goals and ambitions as mine,” she says. “My advice is to find a good team, test and adjust your offering, and start selling as early as possible.”
Somervuori also proposes that women use their strengths to their advantage in entrepreneurship. “Don’t undervalue yourself and your skills, and with good prioritization, you can combine you work with your values, whether it is building a sustainable world or finding a good work-life balance.”
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH THE RIGHT PEOPLE
In contrast to the long-held desire of others to become entrepreneurs, Irina Gheorghiu, never considered it a goal to found a company. Gheorghiu gained an MSc in Digital Transformation Management and Leadership from ESCP Business School, studying at two of the school’s multiple campuses across Europe. But she didn’t conceive the idea for her company, ZIM Connections, until traveling to the Philippines.
“While traveling, we encountered a problem – connectivity. My co-founder, Giulia Acchioni, and I waited for one hour in queue to buy a local SIM card to be able to then order an Uber, as well as call our families to let them know we arrived safely. It was frustrating and this frustration became a great opportunity to start our own business in order to solve this issue,” says Gheorghiu.
ZIM is based on the concept that travelers want to be connected from the first moment they land and provides this by offering travelers local mobile plans through simple and easy eSIM technology.
Gheorghiu also advocates the benefits of entrepreneurial women surrounding themselves with the right people: “Being a woman in entrepreneurship is even harder. My biggest advice is to surround yourself with a great team. Create a great company culture that will allow your employees and management team to become your
This is a concept shared by Danya Sherman, an MBA graduate from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. “Believe in yourself, and invest in yourself. Surround yourself with people that challenge you and lift you up. Surround yourself with people of different life experiences and views.” Sherman says that in the early days of growing your company, people will give a lot of unsolicited feedback. “Hear it all. Absorb it. It’s not your responsibility to act on all of it, but only a fool does not listen.”
Sherman originally aspired to become a journalist. However, she pivoted in her career goals after noticing that the issue of drink spiking was not being reasonably, commercially addressed. To contribute towards this, Sherman founded KnoNap in 2017 with the goal of empowering, educating, and advocating against drink spiking.
“We empower through Knope, our discreet, portable, gender-inclusive detection device for rape drugs disguised in the aesthetic of a stick of gum,” she says. “Knope can be integrated into any social setting and used by anyone, circumventing the concern for consumers to choose personal safety or social comfort.
JUST DO IT
The advice from Angelica Conraths, MSc Entrepreneurship graduate from Trinity Business School in Ireland, is straightforward. “Just do it and get started. You will never feel entirely ready and you will face a lot of challenges along the way, but you will figure everything out.”
Using the skills learned from her business school course including brand management, finance, pitching, and networking, Conraths went on to found fembites, dedicated to closing the gender data gap in nutrition and draw attention to the specific needs of the female body during the menstrual cycle.
Conraths explains, “We started by developing a chocolate free of nasty additives, refined sugars, and supplemented with Vitamin B6, which contributes to the regulation of hormone activity. This makes it the first-ever alternative to conventional chocolates for the female body.”
Sold out in less than two weeks of launch, fembites now produces two more products: fempow, the first-ever supplement cacao power using Vitamin B6; and femgums, the first-ever gummy vitamin supplemented with vitamins to support the female body during the menstrual cycle, specifically catering to pre-menstrual sensitivity.
YOU CAN HAVE A FAMILY AND A BUSINESS
From nutrition for women to nutrition for animals, Valerie De Clerck, an MBA graduate from Vlerick Business School in Belgium, is the founder of CURAFYT which develops natural food supplements for dogs and horses.
De Clerck’s story behind founding CURAFYT is two-fold; first training as a veterinarian due to her passion for animals, she then felt the calling of a different path. “After a year in practice as a veterinary physician, the entrepreneurial urge itched and I decided to choose a different career path. I worked for two years as a researcher in two digital healthcare start-ups abroad and then for a large corporate in pet food. Soon I realized that I needed an additional business education to accelerate in the corporate world.”
She chose Vlerick Business School for her MBA as the school is known for its innovation and entrepreneurship, along with its large network of entrepreneurs in Belgium. When it came to starting her business, De Clerck was at a stage in her life where she also wanted to start a family and she was initially scared of doing both at the same time. However, now she has an eight-month-old daughter and is expecting her second child, while simultaneously shifting up a gear in their growth at CURAFYT.
“I don’t feel like I have to choose between my family or my business. I think you can combine both,” she says. “I don’t remember exactly in what words Sheryl Sandberg said it, but the message has always stuck with me: do not let opportunities pass you by because you have a desire to have children.”
While De Clerck started her business and family around the same time, Kathrine Molvik took the big entrepreneurial leap after becoming a mother. The idea to start a business came to her while on a course. “I suddenly felt a need to make a change and do something in a different way.”
Molvik decided to quit her job without telling her family. At the time she had four children between the ages of three and ten and suddenly felt her life was very unstable. However, she went on to found FeC, an expertise centre in welding and materials.
Molvik founded FeC before pursuing business education. “When I started, I didn’t know anything about business at all. I just had a gut feeling that this was something I really wanted to do.” She then joined the Executive Master of Management at BI Norwegian Business School in Norway.
“At BI, I learned a lot about myself and my self-confidence grew. For me, this was important. Education can teach you a lot of things, but in the end, it is the things you learn about yourself that make a difference,” she says. “By learning about myself, I also got to learn a lot about others. And as a woman in business, we face other challenges than men do, even in 2022. You need to believe in yourself, not everyone wants us to succeed!”
DIVERSITY IS AN ASSET
In a business world dominated by men, it is sometimes clear that people do not expect women to be at the head of a company or business. Hannele Anita Piipari, a Flex Executive MBA (EMBA) graduate from MiP Politecnico di Milano (MiP) in Italy, is all too familiar with the realities of being a female founder.
Piipari is the founder of Palazzo Florio, a boutique residence in Italy which opened to guests in June 2020 during the pandemic. She hopes more women will get the opportunity to become entrepreneurs and assume leadership positions, as this will be a huge benefit for everyone – diversity is an asset after all.
But to get there, Piipari is aware a lot needs to change: “I keep receiving emails addressed to “Mr”, and phone calls where the caller would like to speak to the owner and is surprised when I say they already are. Not to mention, face-to-face situations where people ask my husband questions about my business, in my presence. We’re still a long way from women entrepreneurs and business owners being a normal everyday occurrence.”
Piipari credits her time at business school for enabling her to successfully found and run her business. Her course of choice at MiP, the Flex EMBA, allowed her to complete her degree while traveling for work and living far from the Milan campus. Speaking on her experience on the course, “It helped structure my thinking and communicate the vision with more clarity. It taught me to collaborate with people from different industries, backgrounds, and viewpoints, and produce something viable under time pressure.”
“I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT AN ENTREPRENEUR WAS”
Some founders come from backgrounds not often associated with entrepreneurship. This is certainly true of Aurélie Hélouis, an MBA Strategy graduate from McGill University, Desautels Faculty of Management in Canada, and former officer in the French Navy. Hélouis eventually became interested in becoming an entrepreneur while studying at McGill.
“Before I was a Navy officer, I didn’t know what being an entrepreneur was,” she admits. Surprisingly, the skills she gained from her time with the French Navy have also been applicable when founding her company, infinityQ. “I knew I loved people, technology, and challenges. And I had good training to deal with stress and complex situations. I learned leadership, resilience, and perseverance, especially during operations onboard the aircraft carrier.”
InfinityQ aims to develop a new type of computer called “quantum analog”, and software solutions to tackle complex problems, impossible for classical computers. Right now, they are focusing on solutions for the gaming industry and have just closed a seed extension round to bring the next generation of their technology to the market.
DEVELOPING HEALTHY PRODUCTS FOR PEOPLE AND PLANET
For many talented young professionals, the MBA is an increasingly popular choice for those wanting to make a career transition and start a business. Tina Chen had worked at Accenture in Los Angeles for three years before heading to the UK to study at Imperial College Business School. She was drawn to Imperial for the diverse student body, distinguished lecturers, and the business school’s reputation as a home to innovation.
“I wanted to study for a one-year Full-Time MBA degree in the heart of London at a leading, world-renowned institution, so Imperial was a no-brainer for me,” she explains. “I was also impressed by the Full-Time MBA program which included a week abroad to learn about business in another country and the array of core courses and electives offered from finance to sustainability.”
After completing her MBA, Chen founded HumaniTea, a company that produces Oat Milk Tea Lattes in Matcha and Earl Grey flavors. The products are 100% vegan and low-sugar. As well as being the founder, Chen is also Chief Tea Officer and heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the business: “My goal is to continue to bring our delicious plant-based tea lattes to as many people as possible, to increase sales and brand awareness, and to generate additional profit to help us flourish as a social enterprise. I aim to develop our range of healthy, innovative products with people and planet in mind.”
BE GRATEFUL AND BE BRAVE
While Chen was drawn to London for her studies, Shan Xu was drawn to Frankfurt for her education. After a five months exchange semester in Germany, she felt like she could really learn a lot in the German education system and also wanted to study in a metropolis at a university with a good networking platform. Xu eventually gained a Master of Finance (Bank Management) at Frankfurt School of Finance and Management.
“Frankfurt School provided me a great view to see the demands of a high-end circle. They have never forgotten me as an international alumnus, and have organized selective lectures, events, and networking opportunities.”
She went on to found the āmasian brand, which includes two business units: āmasian Wedding Studio GmbH which focuses on destination wedding and theme event planning in Europe, and āmasian Event & Business UG which focuses on high end offline matchmaking. When it comes to advice for others that wish to found their own company, Xu suggests, “Be grateful, be well prepared and be brave. Action is important.”
Many of the aforementioned female entrepreneurs founded their companies as sole founders but some, like Gheorghiu, involve a partner to co-found a business with them. This is the story of French clothing and accessories brand RUE DU COLIBRI and its co-founders, Angeline Ribadeau Dumas and Lucie Gueyffier.
Both Executive MBA graduates from emlyon business school in France, Dumas’ inspiration for RUE DU COLIBRI came to her after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2018. Dumas explains, “I went through cancer treatments for 15 months. After the first chemotherapy session, I wrote down what I was missing and began to imagine a range of products that could help people maintain their intimacy, bring them comfort in their daily life, and reinforce their strength during treatment. I then sent the project to Lucie.”
From there, RUE DU COLIBRI was born, providing a range of accessories and clothing products aimed to make those undergoing cancer treatment feel more comfortable. For example, some maintain privacy by concealing certain medical devices, makes accessing certain body parts easier for treatment, and using ultra-soft materials for sensitive skin.
In a world where women can often be underestimated or underrepresented in many different sectors, what Altyn Bolat mentioned rings true; society needs women to lead and demonstrate that women are perfectly capable of building a business. And that is exactly what these women have done.
From nutritional supplements for horses to clothing for cancer patients, non-profit schools to boutique accommodation, all these female B-school graduates conceived a business idea which they then brought to life.
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