Sareena Karim

Sareena Karim' 22, the creator of Foli-Q custom haircare utilized Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation to help her get her company off the ground.

New Baker Institute Program Promotes Diversity In Entrepreneurship

R.I.S.E. addresses the challenges of being a woman entrepreneur while also boosting entrepreneurship programs for underrepresented college students.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Sareena Karim ’22 remembers the first time she pitched the idea for her custom hair care company, Foli-Q, at the EUREKA! Venture Program Pitch Night powered by Lehigh’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation.

Karim is the daughter of an African American mother and Bangladeshi father, and she has struggled since she was a young girl to find a hair care routine that enhanced her long curls without weighing them down or creating frizz.

A bioengineering major with a minor in entrepreneurship, Karim designed her product from personal experience. She had the educational background and drive to get her company started, but Karim admits it was intimidating as a minority woman.

“A lot of times when you think of a business owner, you think of a white man. You don’t often see women in that role,” Karim said. “People tend to gravitate toward groups of people who look like them, so if minority groups aren’t represented, there will be less minority groups in that field and less attracted to it.”

It’s an issue that Lehigh’s Baker Institute is tackling with the launch of Rightful Inclusive Student Entrepreneurship, or R.I.S.E. What is now a research-backed initiative with goals to improve diversity, inclusion and equity in Baker Institute programs, R.I.S.E. began as a grassroots effort to explore a long-time gender imbalance in student entrepreneurship on campus.

The effort found momentum when Baker Institute Executive Director Lisa Getzler recognized that far fewer women than men were proposing student venture projects during the institute’s EUREKA! Venture Program Pitch Nights, a monthly initiative that allows students to pitch business ideas to a panel of reviewers, with an opportunity to win funding, mentoring and other resources to help get their ideas off the ground.

A lot of times when you think of a business owner, you think of a white man. You don't often see women in that role.

Sareena Karim '22

While the numbers of men and women in Lehigh’s introductory Entrepreneurship 101 course have consistently shown an even balance, a disparity grows sharply at the more advanced level. The percentage of women putting forward ideas during pitch nights has remained in the range of 10% to 15%.

Getzler noted that while fewer women pitched student venture projects, the ones who did pitch excelled—50% of the Baker Institute’s EUREKA! Joan F. and John M.Thalheimer ’55 Grand Prize winners in the last 10 years have been women. The grand prize competition is a culminating event that recognizes the three top performing student ventures, awarding $5,000 to the winner. These numbers mean that while only 1.5 in 10 pitches are given by women, 50% of those who make the most progress are women.

As is the case in many business settings, Getzler also finds that Lehigh women entrepreneurs often hesitate to put themselves forward until they feel they have all the assets and knowledge they need to succeed. “That could be partly because of role modeling, not seeing themselves in a world of entrepreneurial founders at as great a rate as those who identify as male,” Getzler said. “We recognize that in the U.S. and around the globe, women participate in entrepreneurial endeavors at a lower rate than men.”

Eureka Pitch Night

Lisa Getzler, right, listens to a student presentation during a recent EUREKA! Venture Program Pitch Night.

"A report on gender stereotypes in entrepreneurship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation notes that women experience a unique set of barriers to entrepreneurship. Not only are they often hindered when they seek financial and social support for their entrepreneurial ventures, but they also may be discouraged from seeking out entrepreneurship as a viable career path. These findings align with and support patterns in gender imbalance that the Institute sees across campus as well.

“How do we try to level the playing field for Lehigh women?” Getzler asked.

Not Just a Gender Disparity

Getzler is a member of the Diana International Research Institute, which is part of Babson College’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership in Wellesley, Massachusetts, an organization that focuses on closing the gender gap in entrepreneurial business development.

Lisa Getzler

Lisa Getzler, executive director of the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation.

“I have always been aware of gender disparity around entrepreneurial activities at Lehigh,” Getzler said. “About four years ago we began to dive into the numbers.”

These efforts began with an emphasis on deepening the participation of students who identify as female. The Institute’s application-based programs, such as its flagship LehighSiliconValley program, which immerses students in Bay Area startups, often include 45% to 50% women because program leaders can design the cohorts with diversity in mind. Still, differences in participation exist in ways beyond what the numbers may suggest.

Even in these programs with an intentional gender balance, Getzler noted that women more often hesitated to position themselves in leadership roles compared to their male counterparts, despite being equally or more qualified.

“At Lehigh we are empowering students to be entrepreneurial thinkers and doers, and that means that sometimes they start a company, sometimes they join a startup that’s already been launched, or sometimes they step up as an entrepreneurial leader at a large company or organization,” Getzler said.

As part of the process to improve women’s participation in those efforts, the institute convened a group of women alumni and students to discuss launching a set of programs to address issues they identified, but the pandemic in March 2020 put a halt to their progress.

I have always been aware of gender disparity around entrepreneurial activities at Lehigh. About four years ago we began to dive into the numbers.

Lisa Getzler, executive director of the Baker Institute

This pause offered Getzler an opportunity to take a step back and further explore the identities of those students participating in Baker’s programs. It became clear that disparities in participation rates existed across additional underrepresented groups on campus beyond the gender gap, she said.

“Gender is still the largest gap in parity in entrepreneurial opportunities at Lehigh, but not to be ignored are the other areas where our diverse population is not mirrored in the diversity that makes up our entrepreneurship students,” Getzler said.

Lifting Up New Voices

After expanding its efforts in diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging to all underrepresented groups on campus, the Baker Institute formally announced the creation of R.I.S.E. It hired graduate student

Princess Scott

Princess Scott '21 '22G

Princess Scott ’21 ’22G to lead primary research and conduct stakeholder interviews with students from underrepresented groups with the objective of learning more about their perception of entrepreneurial opportunities on campus and their barriers to participation. Scott is earning her master’s degree in technical entrepreneurship after her participation in LehighSiliconValley during her senior year.

This research will shape the way the institute designs opportunities moving forward as it makes fundamental changes related to access, equity and inclusivity.

“R.I.S.E. is something that will foundationally change how we do what we are doing,” Getzler said. “We think this work will be useful across many areas of student involvement. As we speak with more students from underrepresented groups and learn about the reasons for their lack of participation, we can design for that.”

Some of those reasons speak to the challenges that go along with being a first-generation college student, balancing a full-time job to pay for tuition, or seeing a lack of role models in programs. One of the most compelling barriers Scott discovered in her research is that for some students from underrepresented groups, such as those who are low-income or first-generation, participating in Baker Institute programs feels like a step outside of their core goals: good grades, a degree and a steady job after graduation.

Foli-Q a Dream Come True

Karim came up with the idea for Foli-Q her sophomore year at Lehigh when students in her entrepreneurship class were tasked with developing a venture project. She first pitched her idea at EUREKA! in February 2020 and officially launched her business that April.

Sareena Karim

Sareena Karim '22

Karim didn’t have the confidence to pitch her idea until taking entrepreneurship classes at Lehigh. It was through those classes that she also learned about the Baker Institute and its EUREKA! Venture Program and pitch nights.

Before taking the classes, Karim said, she dealt with “imposter syndrome,” or feelings of self-doubt despite her level of education and experience.

“The funding from EUREKA! pitch competitions has helped a lot, but so has the guidance,” she said. After every monthly pitch night, each presenter has an opportunity to become connected with a mentor for guidance on their proposed ideas.

The funding from EUREKA! pitch competitions has helped a lot, but so has the guidance.

Sareena Karim '22

Karim went on to win the EUREKA! program’s Michael W. Levin ’87 Advanced Technology Award, given to an engineering student for developing new technologies, and the R.K. Laros Foundation Endowed Prize for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation, to recognize students who have participated in Baker Institute programs and demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit. Karim was also a finalist for the Joan F. and John M. Thalheimer ’55 Grand Prize.

Since Karim’s business launched in April 2020, she has sold more than 1,400 orders of Foli-Q.

Reflections on Confidence, Skills and a Powerful Network

It was ultimately a boost in confidence that helped many Baker participants get their ideas off the ground, including Eve Freed ’21, an IDEAS major who said participating in Baker was transformational for her.

Eve Freed

Eve Freed '21

“It instilled a lot of confidence in me that I haven’t had before,” Freed said. “When we talk about the difference between men and women being involved, I think the big push that’s needed is confidence, and that’s what Baker gave me.”

During her sophomore and junior years, Freed participated in “The Hatchery,” an immersive summer learning experience where participants apply design-thinking and learn startup methods to develop solutions and test potential business ideas. In her junior year she also participated in LehighSiliconValley.

Through her experiences, Freed realized she wanted a job on the West Coast, and with the connections she made through LehighSiliconValley, she was able to land a position as marketing program manager at VMware, a cloud computing and virtualization technology company in Palo Alto.

“A lot of my time at Baker was about exposure to great minds and exposure to a lot of different successful people, both men and women, but also a lot of it was about building confidence,” Freed said.

In the future, Freed would like to see more LGBTQ business owners featured. She also likes the idea of including entrepreneurs whose ideas focus on social justice issues and climate change.

Briana Gardell ’14 ’15G, the creator of Goblies throwable paintballs, was the 2015 winner of the Thalheimer Grand Prize. The EUREKA! competition not only helped with funding, but also connected Gardell with her former mentor, Lehigh alumna Alita Friedman ’87.

Briana Gardell

Briana Gardell ’14 ’15G

Gardell, who majored in business information systems with a minor in entrepreneurship, went on to earn a technical entrepreneurship master’s. She always wanted to start a business and developed the idea for Goblies while attempting to make an egg out of soap during a graduate school homework assignment exploring manufacturing techniques. Gardell met a lot of women leaders and entrepreneurs through Baker’s offerings and was grateful for the experience.

“A lot of the time, when really big things happened with the business, there were other women in the room—sometimes it was all women in the room,” Gardell said. “I think, ultimately, having women successful in all levels of business and decision-making definitely benefited me from the bottom up.”

Baker offers programs with no barriers to entry. If there are any perceived barriers, we have to make sure we are knocking them down.

Alita Friedman '87

Friedman helped Gardell attend the 2016 International Toy Fair in New York, where retailers make decisions about whether they want to buy a product. Gardell and her toy company, Mezzimatic LLC, received a lot of attention at the show. CNBC named Goblies one of the hottest toys at the fair.

Friedman, who graduated with a degree in business and economics (accounting), has been working with the Baker Institute for about a decade as an advisor and ultimately serving as chair of the Baker Institute
Advisory Council.

Alita Friedman

Alita Friedman '87

“Baker offers programs with no barriers to entry. If there are any perceived barriers, we have to make sure we are knocking them down,” said Friedman, the owner and founder of Alita’s Brand Bar, which provides creative strategies for brand building, licensing and promotional services for businesses.

Prior to starting her own business, Friedman was chief brand officer for the popular toymaker Uglydoll. She is also an executive member of Women in Toys, Licensing & Entertainment.

“Obviously there’s still work to be done, because you have all kinds of industry groups and initiatives being formed every day around diversity and inclusion,” Friedman said. “We have to make sure women and minorities are getting the resources they need to be able to achieve their goals.”

The Baker Institute must prioritize reaching women at the same rate that they are reaching men, Friedman said. She suggests advertising with sororities and highlighting successful women entrepreneurs. Most of all, Friedman said she would like to see every student, no matter their major, participate in at least one program through the Baker Institute. She recalled the vision of the institute’s namesake, Dexter Baker.

“Dexter Baker’s ideal was that entrepreneurship exists in everyone, so how can we make sure every student who enters the doors at Lehigh can get a taste of entrepreneurship and build on those skills?” Friedman asked.

Dexter Baker

Dexter Baker, a graduate of the Class of 1950, and a former executive at Air Products, talks to people in a lab. Photo by Theo Anderson.

A Legacy of Entrepreneurship

The late Dexter Baker was a part-time student in 1957 in Lehigh’s MBA program when he was challenged by one of his professors to think outside the box when crafting his thesis. Baker used the opportunity to create a plan for his employer, the gas and chemical supplier Air Products, to enter the overseas market. Baker joined Air Products in 1952 and went on to establish the company’s first international division. He was chairman of the board and CEO of the Allentown-based company when he retired in 1992.

In 2010, his vision was realized as the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation.


Encouraging Women Entrepreneurs at Lehigh

For the sixth year, Lehigh @NasdaqCenter, in partnership with P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, is offering “Women in Technology & Innovation.” This course introduces students to women leaders in Silicon Valley.

Lehigh @NasdaqCenter

Taught by Samantha Walravens, an award-winning journalist and co-author of “Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech,” it explores the transformative role women play in promoting prosperity and human progress through technology and innovation.

The course often serves as an entry point for students to engage in additional entrepreneurship programs and experiences. For more information, visit the Lehigh @NasdaqCenter course website.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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