Handbags vs. Hard Drives: Women in Entrepreneurship
It looked like a regular tweet, but it was actually a tiny cyber-tantrum.
It all started when a friend sent me a link to the trailer for Bloomberg TV’s new series TechStars. Based on the tech startup incubator of the same name, the reality show follows 10 teams of entrepreneurs as they draft business plans, receive coaching from top tech executives, and eventually pitch their ideas to a room full of investors.
But of the scores of advisors and investors shown in the trailer, not a single one is female. The entrepreneur teams also seem woefully low on X-chromosomes. Finally, near the end of the trailer, one of the few women entrepreneurs is shown on stage pitching her company.
It’s a handbag company.
Really, America? We scour the country for our nation’s top tech entrepreneurs, and purses is the best we can do?
In a fit of near rage, I posted the following on Twitter: I'd love to see more women entrepreneurs...whose businesses don't have to do with accessories, beauty products, or dating advice.
From the responses I received, lots of people agree. But after I’d calmed down from my outburst, I got to thinking: Why, exactly, was I so riled up?
At first, I thought I was frustrated that more women aren’t taking risks to start businesses in “substantive” industries. The TechStars trailer depicts a trend I see every day here in Silicon Valley and beyond: There just aren’t that many female entrepreneurs in tech, and the few women who do start businesses tend to pick “soft” industries like beauty and fashion.
The paucity of women in tech is clearly a problem. Not only do women bring unique ideas and perspective to the table, but new research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that the collective intelligence of a group increases with the inclusion of a woman. We need women in tech, so where the heck are they?
There are, of course, reasons for the dearth of female founders of tech companies, an obvious one being that women are less likely to have a technical background. According to Forbes, technical majors like engineering and computer science don’t even crack the top 10 list of popular undergrad majors for women (they are #3 and #4, respectively for men).
Furthermore, although capital and publicity are certainly available to a woman with a good tech idea, it’s still a tough industry for women. Mentors and leaders continue to be overwhelmingly male, and sexism still rears its ugly head in the form of biased expectations. I spoke with one female tech entrepreneur who told me, “I feel a lot of pressure in this industry—like I can’t screw up or I’ll fail all of womankind.” It’s no wonder women shy away from the burden.
And finally, some of the best advice for entrepreneurs is to start with what you know: Build businesses that solve problems you’ve identified and use the knowledge base you already have. Women are, arguably, better acquainted with industries like fashion and beauty, so why shouldn’t they capitalize on that advantage?
The more I think about why women are underrepresented in tech startups, the more I’ve realized: maybe I was frustrated for the wrong reasons. Although I started my rant irritated at female entrepreneurs for the types of companies they weren’t starting, perhaps my frustration really should be directed toward a society that doesn’t always respect “feminine” businesses.
After all, there’s a budding crew of female entrepreneurs who deserve major respect for starting businesses in “soft” industries like apparel and cosmetics: Alexandra Wilkis Wilson and Alexis Maybank of designer discount empire Gilt; Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss of e-commerce platform Rent the Runway; Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp of high-end beauty merchant Birchbox; Mauria Finley and Claire Hough of subscription e-commerce company Citrus Lane; and Jessica Herrin of in-home trunk show jeweler Stella and Dot and WeddingChannel.com. These entrepreneurial powerhouses are increasingly joined by men—like Bonobos co-founders Andy Dunn and Brian Spaly and Jewelmint creators Diego Berdakin and Josh Berman—who don’t need cootie shots to pursue a great business opportunity.
Do we need more women founders in tech? Absolutely, and I’ll continue to watch the industry with a critical eye. But there’s more to startups than tech, and there’s a growing group of hard core women kicking butt and taking names, one “soft” company at a time. For those of us who advocate for women to bring their unique feminine skills to the entrepreneurship table, let’s think twice before dismissing them when they do.