Document Type

Research Report

Publication Date



Women-owned businesses have an economic impact of nearly $3 trillion in the U.S. Despite the tremendous opportunity for economic growth they present, women entrepreneurs lag behind their male counterparts in terms of number of start-ups and scaling of businesses. To understand how and why this may be taking shape, we focus on the role of entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) or those organizations that act as intermediaries between the resources of a local ecosystem and entrepreneurs. All organizations that have as their proverbial mission to serve, support or partner with entrepreneurs can be categorized as ESOs. Given their role as decision makers, gatekeepers and resource providers, such organizations have the power and capacity to determine who is granted the opportunity to access and benefit from the very networks, mentors, programs and funding that increase entrepreneurs’ odds for success.

Through extensive interviews and observations over the course of 2013 to 2016, we compare and contrast the entrepreneurship ecosystems in St. Louis, MO and Boston, MA to understand differences in gender inclusion efforts at ESOs. We focus specifically on cultural cognitive frames, social normative ‘rules’, and regulatory forces as exerting institutional pressures on ESOs in the specific communities in which they are embedded. Our qualitative approach yields in-depth insights as to the mechanisms and dynamics of inclusion and exclusion in the St. Louis and Boston ecosystems by way of ESOs and their practices. Findings indicate that ESOs in the emerging St. Louis ecosystem engage in inclusion efforts through institutional pressures exerted at the grassroots level by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. These efforts seem to have yielded positive results in that women’s business ownership has increased by 16% in a span of five years between 2007 and 2012, going from 28% to 44%. In comparison, women’s business ownership has stayed around 30%, in Boston between 2007 and 2012, which is a much more established ecosystem. Our findings indicate that inclusion efforts driven mainly by top-down regulatory forces may not be as effective in changing the gender gap in entrepreneurship ecosystems. We expand on these differences and outline steps for ESOs and policy makers to build inclusive ecosystems in their cities.


This report was prepared by the recipients of a Kauffman Foundation grant focusing on women entrepreneurs in St. Louis and Boston.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.