By Heather Somerville
San Jose Mercury News.
MENLO PARK, Calif.
In an unassuming office building here, there’s a group of startup founders working feverishly to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams, and not one of them is a Stanford University dropout in his 20s.
You won’t find baby-faced coders hunched over MacBooks, empty ramen containers or kegs of beer. Instead, you will find mothers and other women, most in their 40s and 50s, with backgrounds in fashion, music and law.
Many have never worked in the tech industry or attempted a startup. Despite the odds stacked against them in the youth- and male-dominated Silicon Valley startup world, they are forging ahead.
“I have no fear,” said Jodi Murphy, 57, of San Mateo County, who joined the Women’s Startup Lab in February to build Geek Club Books, a storytelling app about children with autism. “Everything that I have done has led to this. Even though I am older, I literally leap out of bed every day, because this is my time for doing this.”
The lab also has an ambitious mission: To equip women founders with the skills they need to thrive in the macho tech industry, which has made it difficult for women to build and fund startups.
According to research from the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit focused on education and entrepreneurship, between 2004 and 2007 women founded only 3 percent of technology firms. And just 1.3 percent of venture-backed startups have a female founder, while 6.5 percent have a woman as CEO, according to Dow Jones.
“A woman entrepreneur coming out of a place like the Women’s Startup Lab will be better prepared,” said Andrea Rees Davies, associate director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. “These women will have the strategies to cope.”
The dearth of women startup founders not only perpetuates the inequality that has long plagued the tech industry, experts say, but also creates a void of women role models needed to encourage more girls to pursue careers in tech.
The shortage of women in computer science is a well-documented problem, a quarter of Stanford University computer science degrees are awarded to women, and about 20 percent of the country’s computer programmers and software developers are women, and organizations and academic programs are working to push more girls into these fields.
But experts say change can only happen when more mid-career women emerge as successful startup founders to inspire younger generations.
“Once you see more Jack Dorseys that are women, you’ll start to see more girls majoring in computer science,” Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capitalist Stephanie Tilenius said, referring to the co-founder of Twitter.
While none have yet risen to Twitter-like stardom, some startups coming out of the 1-year-old lab have seen success.
Monique Giggy, a 35-year-old mother of two from Palo Alto, last month sold her company, Swing by Swing, a smartphone app that maps golf courses and keeps score.
Liesl Capper joined the lab last fall and last month her Australian startup, Cognea, which makes virtual assistant software that responds with different personalities, was acquired by IBM. Neither price was disclosed. And San Francisco-based Style Lend, a peer-to-peer marketplace for renting designer dresses, grew 26 percent week over week during the first quarter of 2014.
Like other accelerators, the Women’s Startup Lab is a springboard for aspiring entrepreneurs to turn ideas into full-blown businesses, and founders to grow fledging companies.
But the lab is also atypical: It doesn’t offer money or the chance to mingle with celebrities, and its focus is less on hitting revenue growth targets than instilling confidence and leadership skills.
The women meet with life coaches and business advisers, some of whom are men, and gather for weekly problem-solving sessions.
Many juggle their startups with picking up children from school and making sure the grocery shopping is done. Women must apply and pay $4,500, plus the lab takes a 2 percent stake in the company.
“They don’t have the luxury of just up and leaving their lives,” said lab founder Ari Horie, who has previously worked at IBM and a handful of mid-size startups.
“They’ll work around the clock, but still leave to drive their kids to ballet and karate class.”
Alumni describe the experience as nurturing and supportive, in contrast to the hypercompetitive Y Combinator, where entrepreneurs hole up in Mountain View, leaving behind families to vie for investors’ attention.
Y Combinator “is pretty much just numbers, numbers, numbers,” said Style Lend founder Lona Alia Duncan, 33, who completed stints at both Women’s Startup Lab and Y Combinator. “You’re so focused on the metrics, and no one is worried about your needs.
With the Women’s Startup Lab, it’s very welcoming, very open. People are willing to collaborate and share.”
Not everyone is a fan. Amanda Kahlow, who founded San Francisco-based 6Sense, a software company that makes sales and marketing predictions using big data, said all-female accelerators give woman a false perception of the workforce.
“I wouldn’t want to attend a women’s-only incubator, because it’s not the reality of the situation I’d be heading into,” Kahlow said. “Women need to be interacting with men because that’s who they will be facing in the industry. I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a room and there are 300 or 400 CEOs and I am the only woman.”
Even with a Women’s Startup Lab diploma, women still face obstacles such as overcoming ageism, experts said.
“We are much more open to the ideas of a Stanford graduate student than we are a 45-year-old woman,” said Marilyn Nagel, CEO of Watermark, a women’s executive and entrepreneur group in the San Francisco Bay Area. “When we think of the next big tech breakthrough, we perceive that it will come from a millennial.”
But age doesn’t worry 40-year-old Elaine Dai of Palo Alto, who in August will launch her first startup, an event-finder app for families called EventLoko. Dai’s young children are now school-age, and the law practice she founded years ago nearly runs itself.
“I’m not intimidated,” she said. “Bring me into a room full of Mark Zuckerbergs. Nothing, nothing, intimidates me. Because at 40, you’ve kind of seen it, done it, been there. You know exactly who you are. You’re not looking for your identity; you know exactly what you want out of life and you know exactly how to ask for it.”
WOMEN IN STARTUPS:
-1.3 percent of privately held companies have a female founder
-For startups with five or more females, 61 percent were successful and 39 percent failed.
-83 percent of startups have no female executives
-3 percent of tech startups are founded by women
SOURCE: Dow Jones, Kauffman Foundation