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| 3 minutes read

Women Hold Up Half the Sky

I recently had the privilege of delivering opening remarks to Project 2.8 at Columbia University, my alma mater. Project 2.8 is a startup accelerator serving early-stage, pre-seed startups led by female founders who are current students or alumnae of the University. 

The name, Project 2.8, was chosen in 2020 as it represents the percentage of female-founded companies funded by VCs. The percentage is shockingly low, and what's worse is that the number has since decreased to 1.9% in 2022 according to data collected by PitchBook. In October, I presented on legal considerations for startups to the current Project 2.8 cohort.

My own relationship with women has been indelibly shaped by my grandmother, He Zhe-Shu (何泽淑), who, together with my mother, raised me from birth to two years old in Anhui, China. My father had left China for the U.S. to pursue his doctorate in physics at SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island – where we rejoined him in 1985.

Grandma was the matriarch of our family, and she was the one who established our core values. One significant value she insisted on is the importance of a good education. Like many Chinese folks, our family was very poor in the 1940s-50s living in the countryside. My grandmother took care of a family of three boys and a girl while my grandfather served in the army in the Korean War.

There’s an old Chinese saying that “Women hold up half the sky.” Through my grandmother’s example and my own experience now as a father, I know that it is actually much more than half.

Due to my family’s economic situation back then, Grandma’s parents and neighbors suggested that her older sons (my uncles) abandon school to help with farm work. She, however, insisted that all children remain in school. Thanks to her, all of her children received a college education. This was exceedingly difficult on Grandpa’s meager income of 50 Chinese yuan per month (equivalent to about $7 today).

Grandma always struggled to make ends meet, and my father recalls her having to borrow money from neighbors at the end of each month to put food on the table. In her own way, she mastered micro-financing and being an entrepreneur for her family. 

It was her insistence on education that got my family to where we are today. For me to be able to attend Stuyvesant, Columbia, and Boston University, and practice law today is a direct result of her sacrifices.

In 1988, my Grandma spent a year in New York when she came to stay with us. She liked her time in America as well as the Americans she met here, but ultimately, she had to get back to Grandpa and the rest of her family in China, so she left a year later. In the interim, she had a taste of the melting pot/salad bowl that is the City and she declared it would be just fine if her grandson married someone who was not Chinese. That may seem commonplace today, but for her time it was quite innovative. And it cleared the path for me to marry my wife who is of Puerto Rican descent. 

Knowledge. Diversity. Innovation. Passion. Perseverance. These are some of the hallmarks of a great business. As a lawyer, I am fortunate that the women-led startups that I have represented all demonstrate these key attributes. Additionally, many are mission-driven and committed to creating positive change – they seek to improve the world. Tikkun olam.

For example, one firm client, Lyfebulb, led by Dr. Karin Hehenberger and Leslie Brille, has the mission to reduce the burden of living with chronic disease through empowering and connecting patients. It has made a difference in so many patients' lives – those managing organ transplants, kidney disease, diabetes, cancer, and many other chronic illnesses – by connecting them to each other for mutual support.

Project 2.8 is also mission-driven: ensuring female founders have equal access to capital and the same opportunities as their male counterparts. This is vital, especially as overall VC funding pulls back in the face of higher interest rates and other macroeconomic headwinds. 

Launching a startup can be a long, winding, multiyear, and difficult road. Many founders, even after they have achieved success, say that if they knew what they know now, they would have never formed a startup in the first place. As a founder, having a mission you truly believe in can make this journey more bearable and rewarding as you see the fruits of your labor unfold. 

Our world needs mission-driven startups now more than ever.

There are no real overnight successes – we all know this. Overnight success is the result of days, nights, months, and years of knowledge, diversity, innovation, passion, and perseverance. It’s the same secret sauce that my grandmother instilled into each of her children and grandchildren, imbuing our family with our core values.

So, a huge thank you to Project 2.8 and to all of the women who are holding up (way more than) half of the sky, including my Grandma.


corporate, technology, venture capital & emerging companies, perspective, reflections