Ethne Swartz is a Professor in Marketing and Entrepreneurship. A conversation about teaching, female founders and Venture Capital.
Ethne, you are Professor in the Marketing and Entrepreneurship Department at the Silberman College of Business in New Jersey. What does a usual working day look like?
“A typical day? Hmmm – I think increasingly there is no such thing in academic life, except for administrators. For professors a day can take many paths. A typical day for a professor at my institution consists of arriving for work by 9 am and checking messages and mail, speaking with any student who might be around at that time in the morning. If I have a morning class, I would also make sure I have all materials and digital equipment that would be needed to teach in the location in which the class takes place. These days I use my iPad to connect to the online Learning Management System (LMS) that stores all my notes, presentations and other digital content for my class, so I simply log into the system to teach. If I have a class later in the day, I would also prepare for class or grade papers and provide feedback to students so they can improve their learning. Usually I work through lunch at my desk and students know they can come to speak with me in my office as I practice an open door policy.”
How do you teach your students?
“In the U.S. we are also increasingly teaching our classes in a blended manner. This means that I create content that I post to the LMS and instruct students to download materials, study and do assignments that I grade. All this work can be done online either synchronously – we are all online at the same time – or asynchronously – we all do the work at a time convenient to our individual schedules. So, if one is teaching a blended class, a day might consist of facilitating teaching and learning including content creation, content aggregation, or interacting with students, either from the office on campus, or from a home office. Internet and LMS platforms have enabled professors to make learning interesting and fun again through being a creator and curator of content. In the afternoon I will meet with students who are seeking help or career guidance. At my institution we also encourage students to belong to clubs and so I like to attend these meetings and support their activities. We have an active entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Jersey and I enjoy attending the monthly meetings that are held on campus through MEETUP.com. This provides me with an opportunity to remain close to individuals in the practitioner world who can come into my classes and present on their companies.”
Why did you decide to choose this career path?
“This is a good question – when I first graduated college I did not think about becoming a professor and it was a happy accident that led me to it. Many of my siblings were teaching English and Mathematics and I wanted to be different! So, I chose to work in industry for General Motors and then Kodak. I then moved to the UK and worked in a small company in Cheshire, UK, where I first noticed how this very small organization created lots of value for customers by using computers. That really inspired me to study strategy and entrepreneurship and I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Manchester. I continued my focus on strategy and the use of technology for innovation. I am convinced that we can improve economies and lives if we focus on innovation and all sizes of companies can participate in this.”
What is your most common recommendation for your students who want to become founders?
“This will seem counter-intuitive but in the U.S. I tell my students to go into a very large, excellent company and to gain experience and build a strong network. Living in New Jersey I see the power of very good and diverse networks in enabling entrepreneurs to grow companies. It is very simple in the U.S. to start a company but beyond the startup phase, founders must focus on how to sustain a company, implement well and grow. They can’t do that alone.”
Although gender-related differences in negotiation styles are well documented in other fields, they have not been examined in entrepreneurship. You are doing research in this specific field. What was your thesis?
“You are correct. A great deal of research exists in other fields such as sociology, psychology, anthropology and even more generally in the management field. Compared to these areas, entrepreneurship is a youthful discipline and we are only just starting to make headway in this area but a lot of great research is now emerging. We were interested specifically in finding out whether the findings of researchers in other fields, negotiation in the field of human resources or in the personal lives of women, also appear to hold true for very specific types of negotiation in business. For us, that type of negotiation takes place where women negotiate access to capital from investors rather than banks for loans. There are few women who participate in this type of negotiation and even fewer who are investors such as venture capitalists or angel investors. Our thesis was that women experience discrimination when negotiating such capital.”
And? Did you find an impact of gender on financing women-owned ventures?
“We are still collecting data and we hope to have some quantitative results later this summer. One of the problems is that it is difficult to find women who have negotiated capital investments from external sources such as venture capital companies and angel investors. There are few such individuals and it takes a long time to build a sample that would enable us to generate meaningful data.”
Are women as risk-averse as usually discussed?
“We will be able to tell you more when we have analyzed our data. The literature does suggest that women tend to approach risk in a more nuanced way than male counterparts. However, I believe that we are starting to move beyond male and female categorizations and seeing risk profiles as styles that individuals adopt.”
During your studies what was your most interesting result?
“From our initial qualitative research, the most interesting result was that women reported such a diverse set of experiences and there were many perspectives on whether gender hurt or benefited the entrepreneurs as they negotiated. In addition, one unexpected finding was that many of the entrepreneurs reported that one of the most useful things they had done was to speak to other entrepreneurs who had previously negotiated external funding.”
Can you remember any impressing or depressing story from a woman in entrepreneurship during your research?
“There are several interesting stories – the one that is most impressive is the woman entrepreneur who is based in a very rural part of the USA and raised over $10m to invest in a plant that makes dried whey protein for the health and fitness consumer. That company was started by somebody who studied French and then worked in the dairy industry, sourced initial investment from wealthy individuals who had known her all her life and the money was invested in an extremely sophisticated manufacturing plant. I also like the sustainability aspect to the business as prior to her company, all the local farms and dairies were taking the whey (from making cheese) and feeding it to animals or discarding it. Today that company is thriving and they have extended their product lines, focused on organic and wellness products beyond dairy products. No one depressing story stands out for me. What is depressing is when I see that entrepreneurs are successful in sourcing investment and that they sometimes have to step down from a leadership role because they are not the most suitable to lead the next phase of development. Raising equity investment is very tough and you have to know when you have to do what is right for the business you have created even if it feels unfair. In my research I have watched this happen a few times. However, most entrepreneurs are opportunity focused and will typically find the next business to found. One has to admire that and also understand that founding a company requires great resilience. Beyond this specific project, I also work with young male and female entrepreneurs and I teach innovation management. Young people who are digital natives will also be an important group to develop new services and tools for society. I look forward to watching how they take existing problems and, through the use of technology, will help produce solutions in healthcare, education and to enrich lives.”