How MIT D-Lab Solves Gender Financing Challenges with Scale Up! X

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The Organization

MIT D-Lab works with people around the world to develop and advance collaborative approaches and practical solutions to
global poverty challenges.

MIT D-Lab is re-thinking the role of technology and design in development, has empowered thousands to address the daily challenges of poverty through design, prototyping, production, and social entrepreneurship, and is reshaping the way that development is practiced.



The Challenge

Jona Repishti is the lead for a small accelerator at MIT D-Lab called the Scale-Ups Fellowship, which supports local entrepreneurs bringing poverty-alleviating products and services to emerging markets at scale.

Each year, the Scale-Ups Fellowship works alongside 6-9 entrepreneurs to tackle a shared challenge.

“This year we are doing a deep dive around the issue of gender disparity in startup funding. Because we are at MIT, besides supporting entrepreneurs through our accelerator program, we also always work on developing a knowledge product to capture our learning,” revealed Repishti.

“It’s difficult for entrepreneurs in general in emerging markets to access critical growth capital, but it is even more so for female-led ventures. One of the things that is increasingly being talked about is this stark inequality in how investment of capital is being allocated to founders. Even if female-led enterprises are performing just as well as their male-led counterparts, the access to capital is far from equal,” said Repishti.

This led her to an interesting study developed by the World Bank and IFC in 2019, which found accelerators are making the funding gap worse for female founders. It showed that after accelerator programs equip female entrepreneurs with the hard skills around investment readiness, the women fall even farther behind their male peers in raising VC funding.

“It really goes to show that business-as-usual types of training are not enough. You have to think of creative ways to embed the particular experiences that female entrepreneurs are facing: the barriers, the biases, the cultural norms, the opportunity gaps, as well as the mindsets and motivations that female founders bring with them when they seek funding to grow their business. By failing to include the women’s perspective — which comes to pass itself as gender-neutral design — you risk teaching investment readiness in a way that is biased towards men’s experience and that fails to meet the actual needs of women founders. Thus I came to this project with the goal to capture as much as possible about the woman’s unique fundraising journey and to use real life scenarios as the foundation of the kind of support you provide them,” explained Repishti.




The Solution

Together with the Strategy Tools team, Repishti is adapting the Scale Up! Simulation to develop the missing link in today’s investment readiness training for female entrepreneurs.

“It’s a three-part project. In the first part, we’ll be working with Upaya Social Ventures in India to run a pilot accelerator just for female entrepreneurs. Over the course of six months we’ll run a Learning Lab where we work with the cohort in real time to unpack some of the challenges, risks, and opportunities they face in their fundraising journey,” Repishti said.

Together with Christian Rangen from Strategy Tools, Repishti is hoping to distill these insights, and transfer them into Scale Up! X, a spin-off of Scale Up! which will be specially designed for female entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

“The simulation will draw on some of the learnings of the actual accelerator, but we are also going to interview over 50 investors and entrepreneurs to make the simulation applicable for females working in across different kinds of emerging markets,” she explained.

How do you navigate and juggle competing priorities? How do you build resilience in the face of bias? How do you unpack complex decisions under time pressure? Repishti’s goal for the simulation is to help female entrepreneurs grapple with the internal and external barriers they face in their fundraising journey. The tool will open up the space for meaningful conversations by navigating real-life scenarios and build their capabilities around finding values-aligned investors.

“Another benefit I anticipate is the effect that Scale Up! X can potentially have on the investors and accelerators that will be invited to use it. It will be an opportunity for these actors to experience the fundraising journey through the eyes of a woman founder. We hope that it will offer a window through which they can assess unconscious bias, risk perceptions, and how the structures that they use may or may not effectively support female entrepreneurs. There is an empathy gap and we hope that Scale Up! X will deliver an experience for everyone engaged to more deeply understand the challenges. By putting themselves in the shoes of what female entrepreneurs might be going through, they may emerge with new understanding of their role in the ecosystem,” she added.

Furthermore, Scale Up X! is designed around an incredibly powerful pedagogical methodology – it marries engaging elements found in games, interactive instruction and real-world scenarios.

“Until people try it, they do not really understand why it is so powerful. Once they try it, they’re transformed,” said Repishti. 

If you are interested in learning more, e-mail Jona Repishti at [email protected] or contact Strategy Tools.



Deep insights into the challenges of female-led entrepreneurship

Knowledge structured into a high-impact simulation and training program

Simulation and training program rolled out to incubators, accelerators, business schools and key ecosystem builders in India, and eventually other markets outside of India.

“It’s so exciting to be working on this project with Chris and Strategy Tools.”

Jona Repishti
Social Entrepreneurship Manager at MIT D-Lab
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Jona Repishti, Social Entrepreneurship Manager at MIT D-Lab

Jona Repishti manages the D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship Program and other social entrepreneurship initiatives at D-Lab.

Prior to this role, she served as Global Network Manager for the USAID-funded International Development Innovation Network. Before joining D-Lab, Jona worked for the United Nations and other agencies, taking part in short projects in Haiti, Kenya, Kosovo, and China.

One of her proudest achievements is founding the Mjaft! (Enough!) Foundation promoting youth civic engagement in her home country, Albania. In the fall of 2016, Jona also took over management of the D-Lab Scale-Ups Fellowship Program.

Jona holds a BA in International Relations from Middlebury College and an MPA in Development Studies from Princeton University. In her free time she stays active in the Albanian diaspora, reads the New Yorker, and tinkers with vegan recipes.

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