If you go to any startup event today in the Silicon Valley, one positive trend that’s very noticeable is the increasing number of women entrepreneurs. This is a great considering how male dominated the technology scene has traditionally been. While this doesn’t mean the glass ceiling has been shattered or that the playing field has been leveled in Silicon Valley, it gives us hope that the valley is opening up and is a better place for women to operate today than it was 15 years back. After exploring various aspects of the current startup scene including the tech landscape in India, I decided to explore the experiences of women right here in Silicon Valley. It’s an interesting topic because I am sure we all know enough women in tech in our circles who have entrepreneurial dreams and it’s important that they have the right opportunities to try and realize those. I spoke to couple of entrepreneurs who can help us all understand this topic better.
Meet Amy Min, the co-founder and CEO of MerryMarry, a startup focussed on wedding planning and other wedding related services. She is originally from South Korea, but her team has moved to the Silicon Valley to build the startup. She is currently very active in the startup scene trying to meet and connect with investors, mentors, and partners. “I don’t particularly feel disadvantaged being a woman in Silicon Valley,” says Amy. “There are challenges in this business when it comes to networking and fundraising, but I always felt it had more to do with basic human nature. People are in general comfortable with other people they know and relate to and my challenges may have more to do with that and not necessarily with the fact that I am a woman.”
Amy clearly has a very positive attitude towards this issue, but there is no escaping the fact that the eco-system just does not have enough women entrepreneurs, investors, and engineers - at least not yet, and this definitely affects the experiences of women entrepreneurs.
“Women entrepreneurship is growing at a rapid rate, but the absolute numbers are still pretty low,” says Chandini Ammineni, the Indian born co-founder of “ActivityHero”, a startup she co-founded with Shilpa Dalmia. ActivityHero is like OpenTable for kids activities, helping busy parents find, plan, and book kids summer camps and after-school activities. “There needs to be a significant improvement at the grassroots level with the involvement of girls in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) and this will lead to a better future for women in tech.”
Gender stereotypes are perpetuated from a very early age as studies show elementary school teachers, even in this day and age, spend more time on boys when it comes to math and science and more time on girls when it comes to language and arts. That needs to change at a systemic level. “We need a female Mark Zuckerberg,” says Chandini. “Nothing works like having great role models.”
Women are doing great as small business owners across America and there is no reason for them not to be equally successful in the corporate technology space if given the right opportunities. Women have a huge presence as consumers in the modern-day technology drivers like social networking. Studies show women dominate online consumer internet and e-commerce. Female purchasing power is mostly behind sites like Zappos, Gilt Groupe, Etsy and even Groupon. They clearly have a lot to offer and, in a traditionally male dominated tech startup space, a women entrepreneur can have significant advantages.
“Research shows that having a woman in the board usually increases efficiency,” says Amy. “Even in my startup where my co-founders are all male, I am able to bring a different perspective to my team. I can see how a woman’s perspective is unique and valuable in this environment, especially since our startup is focussed on the wedding space.”
Both Amy and Chandini are part of startups whose primary customers are women. While limiting women entrepreneurs to only such businesses is a mistake and a slippery slope, it’s a great starting point if you are a young woman trying to break through. Entrepreneurship is all about finding problem areas and filling the gaps in those areas that needs attention. It’s an opportunity for women in tech to exploit the inherent inefficiencies in the system because of it being so male dominated and solve those business problems that are not easy or intuitive for men to go after.
There is a growing awareness of these opportunities and issues in the valley and that’s reflected in the increasing number of women entrepreneurs running startups and becoming partners at VC firms. A whole range of organizations like “women in tech” have sprung up with a focus on enabling networking, mentorship, and other strategic services in this space.
“Organizations like women 2.0 are doing a great job. And there is room for many, many more,” says Chandini who will be pitching her startup at one of women 2.0’s upcoming pitch events. Amy is also a big fan of these events. “I personally like the Bay Area Girl Geek dinner. It was amazing to meet and network with other women techies and I enjoyed meeting a lot of great mentors there,” saya Amy. “It’s always great to talk to other women who have been through what I am trying to accomplish.”
Conventional wisdom says money is God and Silicon Valley will fund any idea with revenue potential from anybody. If money is God, the person who signs the check at the VC firm is the messiah. Good ideas from women should get the same attention and support as good ideas from men, but the reality isn’t that simple sometimes. Investors are humans too and they are not immune from biases, prejudices, stereotypes, and other misconceptions. One of the easiest way to push the agenda of women in tech entrepreneurship would be to have more women in equity signing those checks. Of course, that’s easier said than done because, in the equity business, it helps if you have a couple of hundred million dollars of your own that you can invest and those people don’t grow on trees. So women are still fighting their way through Silicon Valley at several levels, but things are getting better across the ecosystem. Both Amy and Chandini agree.
Amy and Chandini are similar in a lot of ways. They are both immigrant women from Asia who are working hard to establish their startups here in Silicon Valley. They share a positive, never-say-die attitude that embodies most successful entrepreneurs and “impossible” doesn’t seem to be a popular word in their vocabulary. While they are smart enough to understand the realities and challenges in the world around them, they are least concerned about being a proverbial woman in a man’s world, that too a minority woman. They have enough trust and confidence in their ideas, talent, business plan, team, and most of all the system. You will never hear them complain about the system and their advice to other women is the same - don’t let the gender disparity in the technology startup space and the challenges that come with it discourage you from anything.
Chandini sums it up perfectly. “Race car drivers are supposed to focus on the road, not the barriers. It’s the same with entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs may have more barriers, but that only means we have to focus on the road ahead that much more.”