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Lesa Mitchell

Vice President

Kansas City, MO

We can't change history – we can only influence the future.

My role at the Kauffman Foundation puts me in contact with entrepreneurs across the globe. I would like to tell the story of why we decided to support initiatives that will lead to more successful women entrepreneurs and why we believe the Lean In opportunity is important.

In 2004 we funded research to help us understand why more women were not starting companies or joining founding teams. While the research was being conducted, I began attending meetings on this topic and was often asked to speak to the opportunity and the perceived problem. On a number of occasions (especially in San Francisco and the Valley) I was challenged by people questioning the notion that women were not getting the support they needed to start high-growth companies. One challenger was even a woman serving on a panel. Even though I had data that showed how and why women lagged behind men in the entrepreneurial world, no one really cared. They were more interested in talking about women as whiners (a word used mostly by other women) or the fact that women want to have children, and timing could conflict with starting a company in their late 20s. Everyone seemed to ignore the fact that the average age of a founding team was – at the time – 39 years old. I have been through sexual harassment situations personally and with friends, but I have risen to executive levels in a global company and I ran my own global business, so I fall into the “I have been through the worst and now I am fearless category.” So the name callers and naysayers didn't intimidate me.

The day of real commitment from me personally came the day I pre-screened a documentary funded by a number of venture capitalists that highlighted the role of venture in the creation of new companies. It is an amazing and wonderful film. It was like watching an episode of Mad Men – you only saw one woman in the entire film, and the depiction of her was not favorable. My colleagues (predominantly men at the time) were as outraged as I was.

But we can't change history – we can only influence the future. Since that time I have worked with Ernst & Young Winning Women, Astia, Women2.0 and every other organization that is doing something – anything – to support women entrepreneurs. I am proud of our grantees, like Startup America Partnership, that work hard to find women to highlight and put on panels at conferences. We have the same conversations with news outlets such as Fast Company, Inc, Wired and anyone who walks through the door of the Kauffman Foundation.

I have heard academic researcher and columnist Vivek Wadhwa say that the only thing less popular than immigration reform is talking about the lack of venture-backed women founding teams (among others). I think he is right, but unlike immigration, women do not have legal barriers – each one of us can choose to lean in.