Many people associate March 17 with good luck. We think of St. Patrick and his four-leaf clover, but the original Irish legend dates back to the fifth century and it attached good fortune to the common three-leaf clover. In other words, good luck is more common than you may have been told. Most entrepreneurs I know believe we make our own luck.

Today, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will mark Women’s History Month by judging the innovative ideas and business acumen of 10 extraordinary disruptors making their own luck in SBA's second-annual InnovateHER Challenge.

ADVERTISEMENT
The goal of this competition is to provide opportunities for undiscovered innovators to develop products and services that will improve the lives of women and families. Last year’s winner designed a pregnancy test that is completely private, because it’s eco-friendly and flushable. Among this year’s finalists is a diagnostic kit that can detect early stage breast cancer in tears; a tool to help accurately dose and deliver medicine to babies, undergarments that accommodate persons who have difficulty dressing, and a 3D product configurator for the wheelchair marketplace.

If we waited for men to conceive of products like these, how long might it have taken?

SBA created this challenge to empower women to make their own luck in the face of ongoing gender inequities in our technology and investment sectors. The number of women who are venture capital partners hovers below 10 percent. The amount of venture capital funding that goes to women entrepreneurs is even lower — only about 4 percent.

Although careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) earn 33 percent more than other careers on average, women find themselves outnumbered in each of those professional fields. For every eight civil engineers practicing today, only one is likely to be a woman. Women are woefully underrepresented in this nation’s board rooms and executive suites. Fewer S&P 1500 companies are currently run by women than by men … named John! That’s the pattern we’re hoping to disrupt. 

Looking at graduation rates at colleges and universities and degrees earned, we know those numbers will increase in the years ahead. But it’s not enough to watch and wait. We want to make it easier for the women striving today to succeed, to realize their dreams, and close those gender gaps.

President Obama understands that empowering women disruptors is an economic imperative. He said, “One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields.”

Women play a critical role in our nation’s prosperity. They represent nearly half of this nation’s workforce. They make approximately 80 percent of consumer decisions and control $5 trillion of annual household spending. As such, women entrepreneurs have an especially valuable perspective on what women want to buy.

Most American children live in households with only working parents. Families are increasingly caring for aging parents and growing children at the same time. As the demands on women and families grow, the need for products, services, and technologies that address these challenges increases. 

Hundreds of contenders from across the country competed in regional competitions to qualify for today’s InnovateHER national finals. Our 10 competitors will each be given two minutes to pitch the judges. Each will be evaluated on three criteria: Does their invention fill a need in the marketplace? Does it show potential for commercialization? Will it have a measurable impact? And will it make our lives safer, healthier or easier?

Three winners will divide this year’s prize money of $70,000 donated by Microsoft. The SBA will provide all 10 finalists with our full suite of SBA services to help them reach their goals. If just a couple of them go on to grow their businesses into S&P 1500 companies, we might someday soon see women outnumber CEOs named John.

Women’s History Month is the perfect time for the InnovateHER Challenge. We hope our finalists will do more than celebrate women’s history; we want them to make women’s history.

I’m looking forward to sharing the stage this afternoon with the three winners chosen by our judges to divide the prize money. Truly, they will have made their own luck. I’m just glad SBA could provide them with this opportunity to be discovered – and serve as that fourth leaf on their lucky clover.

Contreras-Sweet is the leader of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a member of president Obama's Cabinet.