Women, women, where are ya’ll?

by Maya on February 11, 2010


@alliworthington @thestilettomom @alizasherman @lizstrauss at Blissdom

Yes, where are the women? WHERE are they?

Well, this past week, at least 500 women were at the Opryland hotel in Nashville, for the Blissdom conference. And yes, I was there as well – co-leading a workshop with THE Aliza Sherman :)

While I was there, I missed a bunch of blog posts exploring why there were not enough of women leaders and entrepreneurs in IT space.And out at Blissdom, I met a bunch of women entrepreneurs who knew more about the space of online business and advertising than most men I know.  And then, I also heard that women today are starting businesses at twice the rate of men.

Having heard all of that and having a startup myself, how can I NOT jump in here, right?

In his first article in BW, Vivek Wadhwa talks about the similarities between men and women and wonders if societal failure contributes to the lack of women …

Men and women also had similar motivations to launch a business. They shared the desire to build wealth and capitalize on business ideas. Both were drawn by the appeal of the startup culture and always wanted their own company. Neither wanted to work for someone else.

Given all the similarities in background and motivation for men and women entrepreneurs—and the fact that women now outnumber men in universities—we remain perplexed by the dearth of female startup executives.

Evidence suggests that this does not reflect a failure on the part of women but rather a societal failure. Consider the contrast with India, a country that is in many respects more conservative than the U.S. It might therefore be expected to be even less amenable to women in leadership. Yet there, women are rapidly rising through the top ranks of the business community.

( In a later article in techcrunch, he goes into a little more detail into why we are missing women entrepreneurs )

So here are my thoughts and experience regarding this topic  specifically …

When I came to the United States in 1999 and joined Ohio State as a Master’s student in Electrical Engineering, I was exposed to the “Women in Engineering” concept. Honestly, it kind of surprised me – nobody had really ever celebrated the fact that I was a girl and had finished my Engineering Bachelors in India. Yet, in the United States, they celebrated women and their accomplishments ….

As an entrepreneur with a startup looking for funding, I think a few things have been really key in my life to helping me get this far (no, I am not funded yet, so, do fund my startup :)) and I cannot see how I would be where I am without each one of these factors. In some sense, I imagine all of these are essential to any woman (with kids especially) if she has to do this whole startup business … (Do note however, that there are PLENTY of women entrepreneurs in the non-tech but online spaces today…..)

As someone in the thick of this, I like to focus on what we can do to be successful ourselves while helping other women (and men ) achieve their own startup/life goals ….I am not looking to change the system -I will try to do that when I become a  VC myself 😉 …

So here is what contributed to me and where I am today (startup and all )-

1. my environment growing up – the good part

my dad is an entrepreneur. He failed before he succeeded and did very well.

2. my environment growing up – the bad part

Growing up in India, we could NOT walk down the road at 10 years old without the teasing, cat calling by the boys on the street. I learned early on not to worry about the things on the periphery that do not matter. It made me angry but I did not give a sh*t. SO unless something is really in my way, I do not waste my energy fighting it.

3. Engineering school was infested with women.So really, there was no struggle

I will tell ya, I felt no lesser than the boys here. I was in ECE with super smart women. The Computer Engineering Dept had almost 50% women. We rocked the campus in every way.This was when gender became a non-issue in my life. To fight the real fight, you have to put the gender thing aside. Preconceived notions only deter us from the real goals. With both my Masters in EE and Business, I rarely felt gender was an issue.

4. Learning to earn that respect

Working with software and coding was different. I learned that women had to earn respect while men got it by default. And frankly I was okay with it – I hated the disrespect but when I did get the respect it was pretty solid. I will never make sweeping generalizations, but most of the disrespect and/or challenge for my technical skills came from American men while from the Asian men, I mostly I experienced just a wider sense of dismissal (haha right ?) – like I just did not exist. But once I earned the respect, it was all great. And people (women too) who still liked to be jerks, I followed my rule 2

5. My mentors, cheerleaders and supporters are all mostly men and some very very very strong women

The men that challenged me became my mentors and supporters a lot of times. I choose the people that inspire me as my mentors – be it men or women. The women help in the sense that you can relate to a lot. When women help, they do go out of their way to help. And the strong and smart women are smart as hell. But then, I go with the people that inspire – I need both the men and women. I might be discriminated on, but I will NEVER discriminate when I choose my mentors. I need them all 😉

6. And then, my secret society

I read what people say and write – because I relate. These people secretly inspire and keep me going – and they do not need to say or do much in order to do that ….. Aliza Sherman, Mona, Betsy Aoki, Shauna Causey, Tara Hunt, Cathy Brooks, Laura Fitton – all women I relate to in different ways and admire for their strength and passion.

7. The husband

My husband is an essential part of all this.Supporting the family, keeping the kids, working tirelessly to be mommy while I network with the men (really, ask my founderinstitute peers!). Nope, my parents are too old to support me and I cannot imagine anyone else doing this. My husband is my co-founder who works his backside off in the background – yeah, I need this man.

8. That sheer grit.Yeah, I am stubborn like that.

So, what can we do?

So, what is the solution to this “not enough women in tech startups” problem? I think not much – as women we should keep doing what we are doing – pushing the boundaries. This is like yet another perfect problem in a big corporation – one that needs to be hit up both top down and bottom up. And I am certainly in the bottom, so I can and continue to do one of the 3 things below to help (anyone, not just women) while I fight my own battles ….

1. Provide future entrepreneurs a past that inspires and teaches

The girls today need to hear the right stories, get the right inspiration.To really ACT on something like a startup as adults, we need to hear the right stories when we are little girls – not when we are 25. I believe that the seeds to do things like this are sown early on …..

2. A present that supports

Whether we have kids or not, we need men(or someone) that supports us. This is key if we have kids. But if we do not , we still need the men and women to support us for the sake of a strong base. Heck, is an essential ingredient for self esteem. So ask for that support from people willing to give it and do NOT let people take advantage of you. Everyone that I have reached out to and asked for help when I have really needed it have ACTUALLY helped me.

3. A fire deep inside us. We just need it.

If someone has it, I will help them find it. But finally, it has to come from somewhere deep inside THEM.

The articles that sparked my writeup –

Addressing the Derth of Female Entreprenuers by Vivek Wadhwa

A response to Vivek’s article by @Bfeld

You and your VCs have a gender problem by @Vivek Wadhwa (on @techcrunch)

Women Leaders in IT by Healy Jones

I kind of feel boring because I have nothing controversial to say. Perhaps I will come back and edit my post after I have tried to raise $ (but I will succeed, so maybe not ;)) …. But I do think it is important to BE the change we want to see – and if I kept complaining about the discrimination, I would never get anywhere myself …nor would I get people to change … I do think far more VCs might start funding women if they saw more no nonsense women pitching rather than complaining.There is a LOT of women doing it already ..so watch out now!

What has YOUR experience been? What advice do you have for me?

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