by Charlotte Oxnam, McCormick ’23
When The Garage opened its doors to students in the fall of 2015, there was only one offering, The Garage Residency, our incubation program. The first Residency cohort was made up of the most entrepreneurial students on campus that we could find. The cohort included, now alums, Zach Scott, Marc Gyongyosi, and Blair Pircon. While we were excited to welcome our first cohort of student founders, the overwhelming majority of students that joined Residency were men.
40% of US businesses are owned by women. However, less than 10% of venture-backed companies have a woman founder and only 2.8% of venture capital went to all-woman founding teams. The Garage’s first Residency was made up of only 28% women with just four women-led teams. As The Garage grew in popularity, we worked hard to attract a variety of startup ideas and a diverse group of students with an aim to be representative of Northwestern’s community. We adapted our language, space, and programs to be more inclusive. Our tremendous and extremely purposeful growth has led us to new demographics we are proud to share: in the spring 2021 quarter, The Garage’s Residency program is incubating 17 women-led startups and welcomed 48 women team members - just slightly more than 50%!
This has not happened by chance - we’ve worked closely with students and generous donors to develop new programs built to remove barriers to exploring entrepreneurship - regardless of background, gender, and ethnicity. In 2018, we launched the Propel program. Propel offers women students opportunities to network with an all-women cohort of peers working on entrepreneurial projects, a financial award to allocate towards pushing an innovative project forward, and features all women mentors and speakers. Most importantly, the Propel program introduces women students at Northwestern to The Garage and its resources. “Propellers” are accepted quarterly, and many go on to join the Residency program to continue to develop their ventures. In the words of Lila Wells, Weinberg ’23, “Propel was an incredible opportunity - not only to focus on my project and entrepreneurial growth - but also to connect and build relationships with powerful women who are interested, interesting, and motivated to change the world.”
Since launching the program in 2018, Propel has supported 68 women students and their projects. While historically, the Residency has been roughly ⅓ women, we strongly believe the Propel program created a direct pipeline to our core community of Residents - in fact, 26% of our incubating startups are led by former Propellers! Shanna Traphoner-Liu, Kellogg ’22 and a current Resident reflected on her experience in Propel. “What I found most valuable about Propel was the community, empowerment, accountability, and the ability to learn from the experiences of all of the women and their startups. Even though most of us were working on vastly different ventures, we were able to report on our successes and mistakes and share resources with one another.”
All of The Garage’s programs, and specifically the Propel program, are developed to give everyone at Northwestern, including women founders, a network of valuable resources and a support system. Entrepreneurship is a difficult and often lonely journey - having a group of other women founders provides support for the low times and a community to celebrate success.
Propel has brought in many amazing and inspiring speakers for its cohorts to learn from. One of the recent insights imparted to the current Spring 2021 cohort was this: “If you don’t see anyone in a role that looks like you, you’re going to be afraid to try the role.” Propel exposes students to women founders and shows them that they too can try any role they want. Propel continues to show us the incredible innovation and entrepreneurial success women students at Northwestern are capable of. Thanks to Propel and our amazing women student founders, The Garage is now a more welcoming, inclusive, and diverse place.
This article was written by Charlotte Oxnam. Charlotte is an industrial engineering student at Northwestern and the founder of CuetheCurves.com, as well as a student aide at The Garage.