Klinsky: Hearing the Silence

Dartmouth student businesses lack female representation.

by Kiera Klinsky | 5/21/20 2:00am

From the bed they sleep on to the apparel they wear, the lives of many Dartmouth students are influenced by a few dozen of their peers: Dartmouth’s student-business owners. But for years, Dartmouth women have been boxed out of student-business ownership. It’s not an act of intentional exclusion. Women have merely been forgotten as the traditional student-business structure has evolved without them. Currently, only six women have been able to establish themselves as student-business owners, out of a total of around 60 student-business owners at Dartmouth.

The explanation for this is simple. First, Dartmouth women are infrequently told about business opportunities as they become available. As a senior rushes to sell his company shares before graduation, he turns to networks with the underclassmen he knows best. These networks tend to be gendered ones. Messages advertising shareholding opportunities pop up in fraternity GroupMes or are announced to all-male sports teams. Meanwhile, most women can spend their entire Dartmouth careers without hearing about a single opportunity for business ownership.

But even when women do hear about these opportunities, they are more likely to ignore them. I’ve spent the past few months talking to women across campus about their ownership concerns. Each time, the conversation boils down to the same point: Owning a student business requires a financial risk and an investment in yourself as a business manager and owner. While hardly any Dartmouth students entering ownership have had previous experience in business management, the recognition of this unpreparedness disproportionately drives women away. The women I’ve talked to prove that, in the Dartmouth economy, the infamous Hewlett Packard report still rings true: While men with 60 percent of the qualifications jump at opportunities, women don’t apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent ready. And in the end, no college sophomore feels completely ready to become a CEO. So the seller is ultimately left with two options: to sell to a Dartmouth man or to another Dartmouth man. 

In no way am I trying to paint Dartmouth’s student-business owners — I was one until recently — to be from the “Mad Men” era. The business owners I’ve encountered have been as open-minded and progressive as one would expect for a liberal college campus in the 21st century. Many have even started specifically seeking out female buyers. Vox Sportswear, which sold all 11 of its shares this year, had “prioritizing women” as a key objective in its plan for sale. When I joined Evolving Vox LLC as the first woman in the student business, someone from a competing bed company texted his co-owner excitedly: “They’ve got a girl!” He had searched for a female co-owner the year before and came up empty-handed. The lack of women in Dartmouth’s student businesses has not been the intention of an outdated, poorly-designed system — but it has been an inescapable consequence. And as with all systemic concerns, its solution rests in altering how the structure functions. 

In order to make student businesses more accessible, structural barriers must be identified and addressed. To solve the lack of exposure to ownership opportunities, the marketplace of sale should be formalized and made public. In this way, buyers and sellers can connect based on their shared interest in business management, not because they happened to have rushed the same Greek house. Moreover, a strong education system will solve the second barrier of feeling unprepared. A mentorship program for women can supplement the regular student-business ownership process. If women considering company ownership know that they have a supportive community from which to learn and ask questions, it will make the process of business management seem less like a plunge into the deep end and more like a slow, planned-out wade.

This solution is not only simple, but its results will also be quick. Given the transient nature of student-business ownership, most companies’ shares are sold every two years. Hopefully, just two years from now, the gender demographics of Dartmouth’s student businesses will reflect the larger student body. Then, efforts can shift to address the other demographics unintentionally or financially excluded from the student-business sphere. 

Ultimately, learning about this issue has made me wonder: In an era of unparalleled acceptance, who else is being unconsciously boxed out? There’s a trend to be witnessed here. Those on the “inside” of this circle, the gatekeepers of certain communities, are as open-minded and eager as could be to share their experiences. Better yet, on the outside, eager students looking for these experiences stand ready to enter in. By applying the lessons learned from the student-business sphere, we can start identifying other silent barriers within the Dartmouth community. We can start to fully open the gates. 

Klinsky is a former co-owner of Evolving Vox LLC and is the founder and president of the Women in Student Businesses initiative. 

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