Indian American helps develop Scratchpad Fellowship, to increase female entrepreneurship

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Avni Patel Thompson (Courtesy: LinkedIn)

NEW YORK – Four94, a student-led initiative at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) recently launched the Scratchpad Fellowship, a four-week fellowship developed and written by Avni Patel Thompson, an Indian American Harvard Business School graduate.

The fellowship program offers mentorship, business resources, tutorials and a community for prospective entrepreneurs, to help young women develop more entrepreneurial confidence, according to a Harvard press release.

According to a recent report from CrunchBase, women start twice as many businesses as men but nearly 90 percent are sole proprietorships, rather than high-risk startup ventures and only 17 percent of startups have a female founder.

According to the co-founder of Four94 Janet Chen, the fellowship is about Patel Thompson who recently launched her second company, Poppy, after she endured the failure of her first venture.

Chen and co-founder Risham Dhillon, a computer science concentrator, and also an Indian American, met Patel Thompson while interning in Seattle.

“After her first startup failed, she had only about $200 left to devote to her ventures. Anvi said ‘Okay, I’m going to give myself four weeks to see if this idea is viable. If it fails, I’ll go back to my normal job and move on. Given that time and limited resources, she become more scrappy, finding creative solutions that ended up proving her idea’s viability faster and with fewer resources than she thought possible. We thought, how great would it be to bring this test-drive experience to college students?” Chen told Harvard.

The students at Harvard added mentorship and community to create the fellowship where each of the five selected fellowship teams was paired with a mentor with relevant experience, for example if a team needed help with design, then they were matched with a mentor from the design firm IDEO.

The program also involved weekly calls, video chats, and a Facebook group where fellows shared ideas, questions, and encouragement with one another.

“For women, saying what our goals are, just putting it out there, can be very intimidating. We’re not always encouraged to be risk takers or pioneers. It was powerful to be in a community of women who shared their goals honestly. I had to face my fears and insecurities about all the things that could go wrong and focus on what I really want to do,” Tariana Little, a DrPH candidate at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health who entered the fellowship seeking a push to launch her second startup, FooFii, an app that provides resources for food insecure families, told Harvard.

Alisha Ukani, also a computer science concentrator, told Harvard that the fellowship helped her focus on the concept for her startup, which seeks to help people threatened with eviction and used the time to learn as much as she could, visiting homeless shelters, speaking with lawyers, and sitting in on an eviction mediation process.

During weekly group chats, Ukani and Little discussed challenges of user research groups and shared scripts. Bouncing ideas off other women entrepreneurs helped her build confidence, Ukani told Harvard.

According to Harvard, the fellowship also served as a four-week test for Four94, which the students launched in September with a conference for aspiring women entrepreneurs.

Four94 takes its name from the 4.94 percent of venture capital deals in 2016 that included a woman serving in a startup leadership role.

Inspired by the success of this year’s program, the co-founders have already begun tweaking elements of the fellowship for next year.

“The goal is not to grow a big startup. The goal is not even to show that your idea is a good idea. Rather, the goal is to learn. We want these fellows to believe that they can pursue an idea and that launching a startup is all very possible,” Chen said.