Orlando Area Sees Surge In Women Technology Entrepreneurs

By Richard Burnett
Orlando Sentinel.

Beth Caffera has made a living by taking people into “the cloud.” The Orlando telecom expert and chief executive officer of Cloud 3C LLC sets up phone- and Internet-based services for clients big and small.

She started Cloud 3C mostly because she liked the idea of being her own boss — the same reason most people become entrepreneurs.

But she also chose that autonomy over navigating the typically male-dominated structure of big technology companies.

“There’s definitely still a good-old-boy network,” she said. “Do I think more women are starting their own business because they don’t want to fight it in corporate America? Yes, I do believe that. But there is still plenty of opportunity out there for women business owners.”

Caffera is part of a surge of women entrepreneurs in Central Florida technology industries in recent years, local experts say.

Their products run the gamut, from gaming software and nano-medicine to sensor technology and GPS analysis software.

One of the hotbeds of women-led tech startups is the business incubator at Central Florida Research Park, which includes Caffera’s company.

Since 2012, the number of firms led by female CEOs has hit a record at the incubator, which is part of the University of Central Florida. Nearly 30 percent of its 54 companies are now headed by women — more than double what it was a couple of years ago, said Carol Ann Dykes, director of the incubator.

“We’ve seen continuous growth in these companies involving a wide variety of technologies,” she said. “It’s been very encouraging to see because the tech fields traditionally have been difficult for women to really grow their companies and have the same opportunities that men have. Fortunately, we seem to be making some progress in that area now.”

As more women establish themselves as entrepreneurs, they can become mentors for other women and help them navigate the male-majority tech industry, said Cecily McCoy-Fisher, chief executive officer of Orlando-based Talawah Technologies Inc., a designer of industrial and aerospace sensors.

“I think there’s been an increase in women who have been successful in male-dominated career fields,” she said. “And that has helped chip away at that glass ceiling. Women are demonstrating our expertise in technology, and we’re able to assert ourselves more as leaders.”

In many ways, however, women are no different from men when they start companies — they feel they have better products or services than the competition and they want the chance to prove it, entrepreneurs say.

Caffera said she formerly worked for a large telecommunications company that was stuck in older technology and unwilling to embrace change.

“I knew that our industry was headed for the cloud, but that company wanted to stay with traditional hardware systems,” Caffera said. “It was a big decision, but I knew I had an opportunity to start a business that was plugged into the future.”

Some studies indicate women entrepreneurs may often show more empathy in managing employees and get more productivity from them.

Women also tend to communicate better with clients, especially translating technical details in clear, plain language.

“Females often work well in the position of project management when it comes to technology,” said Lisa Macon, dean of engineering programs at Valencia College. “Before I entered academia, I was often hired as a programmer or software developer, but eventually ended up as a project manager — not because I was better, but because I could communicate clearly to both sides, the clients and the engineers.”

Central Florida is not the only place where women-led companies are on the increase. Silicon Valley is also seeing a spike in female entrepreneurship, according to recent reports by Bloomberg and other media outlets.

That may not be surprising, given how tough it remains for women to break through the so-called glass ceiling in technology industries. Last month, Google, Yahoo and other Silicon Valley giants released figures showing that women account for only 11 percent to 17 percent of their work forces.

Nationwide, women hold about 57 percent of all professional jobs, according to Department of Labor figures.

Local experts say Central Florida’s rise in women entrepreneurs has been fueled by people with good ideas, business savvy and an overall confidence in their ability to bring their ideas to market.

“What’s driving this is not so much that they can’t find a job with tech companies,” said Bill Grimm, a professor of entrepreneurship at Rollins College’s Crummer Graduate School of Business. “I see a whole movement that is giving women more courage to start their own businesses now.”

The trend has created a groundswell of interest in mentoring programs, networking events and co-working spaces, local leaders say.

For example, there is a growing number of women in downtown Orlando’s emerging tech scene, which includes the nascent co-working space known as Canvs; the Starter Studio business accelerator program; and UCF’s digital-media incubator.

In addition, hundreds of women business leaders — many of them techies — have attended the annual ATHENA Orlando Women’s Leadership networking luncheon since it began in 2012.

That event led to the first ATHENA Next-Gen mentoring course, which drew nearly 50 female entrepreneurs this year.

Likewise, the ATHENA Powerlink mentoring program at Rollins College has graduated scores of female entrepreneurs since its inception in 2006.

“When you look at how much is happening — the incubators, the ATHENA programs, Starter Studio and Canvs — all of that is really helping to create a dynamic environment for women entrepreneurs in Orlando,” said Jennifer Johnson, co-founder of the ATHENA networking luncheon and marketing director for the Cross, Fernandez & Riley accounting firm.

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