Mio discusses how we can enable more women to become tech entrepreneurs. She also offers her advice to other women in the industry who are looking to start their own business, and highlights the biggest challenge ahead for the next generation of female tech founders.
W.I.T. Republic (WR): Could you tell us a bit about your journey in tech and what inspired you to start your own company?
Mio Akasako (MA): I took a very non-linear path into tech. I try not to explicitly classify myself as someone in tech, but rather a multidisciplinarian who uses the tech field to drive innovation for the greater good.
I began my career in the neuroscience field, doing research at academic institutions. Although I was enamored with neuroscience — it was thrilling to do cutting-edge work — I also had an interest in design and technology, so I started looking for ways to incorporate design into the science I was doing.
I worked at a computational neuroscience lab headed by Sebastian Seung at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute after graduating from Brown University. There, I was able to glimpse the intersection of neuroscience, tech, and design. I was then recruited to a biotech startup, Kallyope, where I researched how we could modulate the gut-brain axis to affect various behavioral functions. After several years at a fast-growing biotech company, I decided it was time to apply for my PhD in neuroscience.
Cue a quarter life crisis. I knew that if I went down the path of a PhD, I would be doing exclusively research for another 4-6 years. On a whim, I instead applied to grad school programs in design.
For the next two years, I studied Data Visualization at Parsons School of Design, while keeping my biotech job. Every day I would go into work to do my experiments, stuff my mouth with granola bars, and run to class — a 20 minute subway ride away. I wouldn’t get home until 11pm. I did schoolwork through the night, only to get up early to go to work the next day. It was some of the more intense years of my life, but without them, I wouldn’t have found the role I am in today.
Parsons had a joint program with Cornell Tech, a grad school institution that largely attracts folks who are interested in the tech field. In this program, we were encouraged to pursue our own startup ideas and build on it. I knew I wanted to explore a way to make access to sexual health and wellness education more convenient for people through new tools. I met my co-founders, David Stein, Kyle Waters, and Nick Sempere, who had the same idea, and that’s how Ash Wellness came to be. Since then, it’s been a strong upward trajectory of growth, enthusiasm, and hope for our mission of making healthcare inclusive and accessible for all.
WR: What advice would you give other women in the industry who are looking to start their own business?
MA: You may experience imposter syndrome and question if you’re doing things the right way, or if you’re fit for a leadership role. This isn’t unexpected — you will be wearing many hats, even those you never expected to wear. You might have to grapple with a lot of uncertainty, especially in the early stages of building your company, but trust in your abilities to see things through. Finding like-minded co-founders and teammates who you can trust is key!
WR: In your experience, have you had to face any additional challenges as a female founder in comparison to your male counterparts?
MA: I’m not sure if this is my personality or the nature of being a female founder (probably a bit of both), but I have always found it difficult to find space to speak in external settings. I am naturally happy to take a supporting role when it comes to “selling the dream”, so I have had to consciously make an effort to push myself to make my opinions and visions heard.
WR: How can more women become tech entrepreneurs? How are you seeing the representation change?
MA: I’m lucky enough to have been part of companies led by women, and inspired by women who have forged their own paths in leadership roles. However, I don’t think this is a common experience to have, especially in the hard sciences or in very technical fields.
I see many folks in my age range starting their own companies, but it is still less common to see women doing so. I think there is still a subconscious block in women, and also folks who aren’t your typical cis het white man. It doesn’t even cross our minds to bring our ideas to fruition because the barriers seem too high. The first step is to plant the seed— if you want to create your own venture, you can do it.
WR: Is there anything you think businesses and the industry could be doing to encourage women in the industry to start their own businesses?
MA: Increased visibility of women leading companies and women founders is a start. Oftentimes, it is difficult to know where to begin in the journey, and just having folks to look up to is helpful. I would love for there to be a way to match women who are starting out with mentors in the industry on a systemic scale. Right now it usually requires you to have connections to people, or be a part of an accelerator program in order to get access to those mentors.
WR: In your opinion, what do you think will be the biggest challenge ahead for the next generation of female tech founders?
MA: Continuing to break societally ingrained stereotypes and establishing themselves as expert voices, especially in very technical fields.
WR: Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received throughout your career?
MA: Surround yourself with people who inspire you, people who are talented, empathetic, and challenge you. Find people with good energy who can uplift and support each other.
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