Supporting Women-Led Tech Firms

By Melissa Harris
Chicago Tribune.

It has been nearly a year since Chicago’s tech hub 1871 announced it was creating an incubator for female-led startups.

Then it stalled … just like these dots … slow … you … down.

The only tangible activity seems to have been the changing of the name last summer, from FemTECH, it’s original billing, to WiSTEM.

Little more than a week ago, my colleague Amina Elahi reported that 1871 leadership had decided the WiSTEM incubator would not be an incubator after all. It would be a program.

That implied female-run companies would not be diverted into a different track or office space within 1871. It also implied the services dedicated to these women would be less robust than initially broadcast.

That all might not be a problem if the program actually offered, well, a program.

Or had an advisory board.

Or a leader.

This utter neglect leaves the impression that 1871’s leadership is more concerned with interior design than the women striving inside.

In recent months, Sittercity founder Genevieve Thiers and other women on the board of 1871’s parent organization have crafted a broad presentation explaining the problems women face from start to finish in the technology sector.

It starts with young girls being steered away from the sciences and too often ends with smart, ambitious 20- and 30-somethings wondering why no investor will pay them heed.

1871 Chief Executive Howard Tullman and Chief Operating Officer Tom Alexander still have the unfinished job of selecting mentors, forming an advisory board and deciding which problems WiStem is going to tackle.

Priority No. 1 should be helping women-led companies with investor research.

Help them identify men and women who have knowledge of or interest in startups in their sector and make the introductions.

Would that help?

“Yeah, it would be awesome,” said Sharon Schneider, CEO of Moxie Jean, an online marketplace for used baby clothes. “I certainly wasted a lot of time with investors that don’t get consumer products, physical products. That was six months of my fundraising time wasted talking to the wrong people.

“I certainly have a network where people were very generous, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, if there’s someone I can make an introduction to, I’m happy to make the introduction.’ The question is: Who should I be asking them to introduce me to?”

Schneider shared this example of an almost unconscious bias toward female entrepreneurs. When a woman starts a company related to fashion or babies, the initial response is: Of course. She’s a woman. She likes clothes. She likes babies.

But if a man starts the same business, the response is, “Well, he would only do that if there’s a real opportunity there.”

“Why do men who start these fashion businesses keep getting funded, where some women don’t?” she asked. “Same with media companies. Did you hear about Bustle?”

Bustle is an online news site for young women, founded by a man. It has raised about $27 million in venture capital.

“Meanwhile, women running sites for women have not been able to raise money for the same thing,” Schneider said. “The broader concern is that women, if they’re starting companies to solve their own problems, those problems aren’t very interesting to funders. How is 1871 going to help me with that problem?”

Perhaps the best way would be to organize weekly pitch sessions for members of the program. One or two entrepreneurs would get an audience with one or two carefully selected investors every week.

But this would require WiStem be led by someone well-connected and held in high regard among investors. I can’t explain why such a person is not in place already, given WiStem has secured funding from Google, Motorola Mobility and a foundation run by Liz Lefkofsky, the wife of Groupon’s CEO.

Seeing inaction, a group of women acted on their own and launched Women Tech Founders with an event Tuesday night at 1871.

Every quarter the group plans to turn over the microphone to about 10 women who have founded tech companies, giving each two minutes to pitch to the room. The group’s co-founders — who include Schneider as well as TeacherCare’s Terri Brax, FoodTrace’s Riana Lynn and Bradley LaRocco, a local, male filmmaker — are playfully calling the stage show WTF Live.

But if six months from now the world is saying WTF about WiStem, it might be time for Google, Motorola Mobility and Lefkofsky to yank their money back and give it to Brax and her pals.

At least then they would have something to show for it.

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