By Katarina Poljakova
Sultan Ventures associate Kate Poljakova represented SV on the innovation panel at the #sheinnnovates Honolulu event held at Hawaii Pacific University on September 17. #sheinnovates is an initiative under the UN Women’s Global Innovation Coalition for Change (GICC), focused on developing the innovation market to work better for women and to accelerate the achievement of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Here, Kate shares her thoughts on making innovation work for women and girls:
What do you do, and what’s your background?
In my role at Sultan Ventures, I oversee internal operations and focus on driving innovation forward via our entrepreneurship programs. I’m also responsible for managing one of the top 30 accelerator programs in the nation, XLR8UH, as well as XLR8HI, our series of entrepreneurial workshops for the broader Hawaii community. I’m originally from Slovakia and moved to Hawaii after I got recruited to play tennis for UH, where I graduated from the Shidler College of Business with a degree in Finance and International Business.
Why is gender equality important to you?
I believe that favoring and giving opportunities to only half of the population, not only hurts the underrepresented group, but our industry as a whole. Untapped potential is a huge waste, and if we as a society do not work to empower women and maximize their potential, we cripple innovation and societal progress.
At Sultan Ventures, inclusivity is one of our core values. We believe that promoting a more diverse mix of people in our industry strengthens the world’s innovation potential. Women and ethnic minorities make up a significant percentage of our population. From a business standpoint, the more our industry can identify with and reflect the diversity of our end-users and customers to meet their needs, the better our products and solutions will be, and the more meaningful our impact on society will be.
What are you doing to promote opportunities for women in the innovation market?
We at Sultan Ventures strive to empower and elevate women in the innovation space through various initiatives. To highlight a few:
Our XLR8HI program offers scholarships for women and minorities to attend entrepreneurship workshops, helping them acquire and hone the creative and critical thinking skills necessary to gain a competitive edge in the workplace. So far 80% of participants are either female or ethnic minorities.
In an effort to highlight motivational female role models in the space, we just released the second season of our Startup Catalyst Podcast, which spotlights inspiring stories of successful women and minority founders within the innovation sector who are making a difference in our communities.
Sultan Ventures also hosts Hawaii’s annual InnovateHER Challenge, a Small Business Administration pitch competition that champions products and services with a measurable impact on the lives of women and families.
What’s an example of a time you experienced a greater outcome of a situation because gender equality was considered?
With our XLR8HI program, we work very intentionally to create entrepreneurship workshops with an inclusive environment for women (and we focus on equity for everyone). I truly believe this strengthens the quality of the program for our participants, because the more welcoming the environment, the more productivity it fosters.
Here’s a great story about the value of having an inclusive business environment that considers the female perspective: one of our female XLR8HI workshop participants pitched an idea for a beauty product. The men who heard her pitch didn’t get the appeal at all and had mostly blank expressions on their faces, but the women in the room had a reaction of, “OMG, that’s a great idea!”,because they really identified with the need for the product. So, that female founder got the outcome of knowing that there was a viable consumer market for her product. Had we not had an inclusive audience at XLR8HI for her to pitch her idea to, she may have become discouraged and nixed her idea completely.
In the startup world, there’s a pretty famous example of an entrepreneur overcoming the barrier of a narrow male perspective on her way to success, and that’s Sarah Blakely of Spanx. When she tried to get her first Spanx prototype manufactured, all of the owners of the hosiery mills she pitched were men, and they all said no, because they weren’t the end users and didn’t see the value of her innovative idea. Finally, one of the male mill owners asked his daughters for their opinion, and they thought it was a great idea, so they encouraged him to make the Spanx prototype. The result? Sarah Blakely invented a product category of modern shapewear and built a $1B business. Just think how the manufacturers who rejected her idea must feel knowing they missed out on this opportunity, all because they didn’t have a more inclusive perspective when evaluating the pitch! And what would have happened if that one manufacturer hadn’t asked his daughters what they thought?
At XLR8HI, we aim to break down the barriers of gender inequality in entrepreneurship that can discourage women from pursuing their innovation ideas. To encourage more women to sign up for XLR8HI, we offer scholarships for women and other underrepresented groups, so spread the word to anyone you know who wants to learn about entrepreneurship.