Winding up my SXSW coverage was a panel close to my heart – Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Backwards in Heels.
Moderated by Kara Swisher, Co-Exec Editor of All Things Digital, it featured several young female tech entrepreneurs talking about their companies, their life experiences, and the reality of being female in a heavily male-dominated industry. (Less than 10% of VC funding goes to female founders.)
“A lot of agonizing and not a lot of action”
Swisher opened by recounting a conversation she’d had recently with the male founder of a well-known, highly successful Internet startup (sorry, you had to be there for the name).
“I feel bad about how few women are in tech,” he said, “I just don’t know what to do about it!”
“Pretty simple,” she answered. “Put a woman on your board.”
As Swisher described it, many younger “sensitive new age men” understand the problem, but still aren’t taking steps to address it. As she put it, there’s a lot of agonizing and not a lot of action.
These female founders aren’t agonizing
Interestingly enough, none of the panel members: Michelle Zatlyn (Co-Founder & Head of User Experience at CloudFlare), Piya Sorcar (Founder & CEO of TeachAIDS), Pooja Sankar (Founder & CEO of Piazza), and Victoria Ransom (Founder & CEO of Wildfire Interactive Inc.), were spending much time agonizing about their status as women in a largely male industry. Although Swisher disagreed, no one on the panel reported feeling like her experience was different because of her gender. Founding a startup, they noted, is hard for anyone!
Advice for burgeoning female entrepreneurs (and their parents)
When asked how they got into tech, everyone agreed that parental support was key. Sankar described how her father and brothers tutored her for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exam (one of the most competitive such exams in the world), convincing her she was capable of success before she had the self-confidence to believe she’d get in. (Not shocking, given that she was the first girl ever from her town to win admission.)
The second common thread was a passion for making things better, and a tendency to view tech as simply a means to that end. Sorcar, founder of TeachAIDS, got into the tech field because she needed the tools for what she wanted to do — worldwide AIDS education. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject matter, she needed online tools, which could be customized with different avatars and messages for different users and different cultural contexts.
Zatlyn encouraged female entrepreneurs to Think Bigger. CloudFlare, she explained, isn’t just speeding up websites — it’s rebuilding the internet. Having a broader, more ambitious mission makes it easier to recruit top talent and easier to get funding. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in making the internet better for billions of people! If you’ve got a choice between thinking small and thinking big, choose the latter. It’ll make things easier, ironically.
Finally, all the panelists emphasized the importance of confidence (and here Swisher agreed). The male entrepreneurial mindset is “frequently wrong, but never in doubt.” Women tend to be more measured in their opinions of themselves, which leads to problems when they start companies. As Swisher put it, “entrepreneurship is about suspending disbelief,” and it’s difficult to envision and create something that’s never existed before. Ransom had a great piece of advice along these lines: “Don’t overthink it. What’s the worst that can happen?” If the worst is something short of complete disaster, you may as well try it, and see what happens.
Excellent advice, no?
(For any budding tech entrepreneurs out there, check out Women 2.0 for great advice and networking opportunities.)
If you’re a female entrepreneur, share your experiences in the comments!
Alison Monahan is a web developer, turned lawyer, turned entrepreneur. She runs The Girl’s Guide to Law School and co-founded the Law School Toolbox. You’ll find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS.