Kef Kasdin, general partner at Battelle Ventures and CEO of Proterro, a start-up that develops non-plant-based sugars for biofuels and chemicals (both based at 103 Carnegie Center), has been a successful entrepreneur from the start.
Since graduating from Princeton University in 1985 with a bachelor’s in what is now called operations research and financial engineering, Kasdin has worked in male-dominated fields, and her experiences as a woman in these settings largely has been positive.
Kasdin will moderate a panel on “Women in Entrepreneurship” on Wednesday, December 7, at 5 p.m. at the Bowen Hall auditorium at Princeton University. There is no cost to attend. Contact Stephanie Landers at email@example.com or 609-258-3979.
Additional panelists include Princeton University senior Alexandra Landon, co-president of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club; Joy Marcus, partner at DFJ Gotham Ventures; Kathleen DeRose, an angel investor through Goldenseeds and managing director of the global investment process at Credit Suisse Asset Management; and Mei Shibata, chief strategy officer at ThinkEco.
Kasdin and the panel organizer, Cornelia Huellstrunk, the associate director for external affairs at the Keller Center in Princeton University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, muse about the challenges and opportunities that entrepreneurial women may be facing:
#b#Women entrepreneurs appear to be less interested in high-tech than other fields#/b#. Kasdin’s experience at the intersection of technology and finance, where she has always been part of only a small coterie of female colleagues, offers some confirmation that women are not drawn to operational roles in high-tech. Kasdin jokes: “At 3Com there were about 60 people on the operating committee; and of those, the women could all fit in the ladies room at the same time very comfortably.” Similarly, she does not see many women involved in venture capital. She cites a recent article suggesting that only 11 percent of people in venture capital are women.
Kasdin wonders whether women who come up through the technical ranks may choose not to work in an entrepreneurial company because of a perception that it would be too demanding to their personal lives. For Kasdin, this has not been a problem. “I am extremely fortunate in having a husband who is an equal partner in every respect,” she says.
Although she has always worked full time, except for a few months after her twin daughters were born in 1992, the result has been positive for her family. “My daughters see me as a role model, and I have been an active part of their lives,” she says.
As an administrator at the Keller Center, which is increasingly acting as hub for entrepreneurship on the Princeton campus, Huellstrunk interacts regularly with young student entrepreneurs. What she has seen, anecdotally, is that women seem to be particularly interested in social entrepreneurship — ventures that not only make money but also create social good.
#b#More active networking by men may mean greater access to resources#/b#. Men often go after people in their networks more aggressively than women, suggests Huellstrunk. This can put women at a disadvantage in obtaining resources. “One key thing about being an entrepreneur,” she says, “is leveraging every single contact and effectively using every resource at your disposal.”
Generational differences may be emerging in female entrepreneurship. This year, for the first time in the 10-year existence of the university’s Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, the president (Alexandra Landon) is a woman, which Huellstrunk calls “very telling.”
#b#More subtle differences in expectations for and views of women may exist. #/b# Kasdin emphasizes that she has felt only respect from her male colleagues, except for one early career moment when her boss left to take another role in the company. “They searched for seven months for someone to replace him,” she says. “I was doing the job at the time, but it took them a long time to recognize that I was doing it.”
She suggests that women should be aware of subtle things that may be going on. She cites an experiment she learned about at a conference at Stanford. Students had been critical of a woman manager, calling her “aggressive,” “strident,” and “emotional.” In an experiment, the university changed the manager to a male. When they presented the case study after this change, the students saw the same manager, a man with the identical characteristics of the disparaged female manager, as a great achiever.
Kasdin was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her parents when she was five. Until recently her father ran telecommunications and information technology for SUNY-Stony Brook.
Interested in breaking into high-tech in Silicon Valley, she moved to the Bay area and secured a position with Booz Allen Hamilton in San Francisco. This allowed her to use her analytical skills consulting on manufacturing and cost accounting projects — but the company had no Silicon Valley clients.
After graduating from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1989 she returned to Booz Allen for a year and then moved to 3Com, where she rose progressively up the ranks between 1990 and 1999, when her husband, Jeremy, was offered a position to teach in the company’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department.
In some sense, she says, her work as a product manager at 3Com was her first entrepreneurial position. “In a way it’s like running your own little business, but you’re not directly responsible for anything and are ultimately accountable for all of it: engineering and design work; manufacturing the product; and sales and distribution,” she says.
The product she managed was network-interface cards, the boards that used to be inserted into desktop computers to provide network connectivity. Her last position before moving east was a staff role; she reported directly to the chief executive officer and chief operating officer, helping to address key strategy and operational issues and helping to facilitate key transitions for the company.
When she got to Princeton, she started as an independent consultant, working with local companies and leveraging her communications background and contacts, but her ultimate goal was to figure out how to get involved in venture capital. She started at Early Stage Enterprises, which in 2003 formed Battelle Ventures, of which she is a founding partner.
Huellstrunk received a bachelor of arts in economics from Columbia University and a master of business energy from the Universitaet des Saarlandes in Saarbruecken, Germany. She joined Princeton University’s Keller Center in 2009 as associate director for external affairs. Before that, she worked for 12 years in Texas Instruments’ semiconductor business, where she eventually headed the marketing team for the MSP430 microcontroller business in Dallas and developed the small fledgling business to a multi-million dollar business within the company. She also worked in other company locations in London, Nice, and Munich and spent six months as a market researcher in India with MAA Communications.
Both Kasdin and Huellstrunk are looking forward to hearing from the panelists in the upcoming Women in Entrepreneurship event about what is really happening to women out in the field. Says Huellstrunk: “We are seeing it as an open discussion. We don’t have answers, and the panelists will be sharing their perceptions. That this event is drawing so much interest shows me that women in entrepreneurship is an issue that still needs to be discussed.”