Women Tech Founder Helps Women Engineer Their Potential

By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune.

Terri Brax launched her first business to help women find quality child care. She launched her second business to help them find their voices.

In the mid-'90s, Brax was a young mother of one searching for day care options so she could return to her job selling computer systems to retailers. Unhappy with the choices, she left her job to pursue a master's degree.

When she was ready to return to the workforce, her day care center and nanny options were no more appealing than before.

"I wanted somebody who was going to provide lots of enrichment and be knowledgeable about child development," she said. "I wanted to see the kind of child care that would really change families' lives."

She created TeacherCare, a service that connects families with teachers who are educated in child development and will tailor the type of care they provide to a child's particular interests and needs.

"Let's say a child is into bugs," says Brax, who grew up in Hanover Park. "The teacher and the child can go to the library and check out books about bugs. They can do art projects about bugs. Lunch becomes ants on a celery stick. It's the kind of learning that sticks with you." (Raisins play the part of ants, of course. No actual insects are ingested.)

In the process of expanding her company beyond its Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters, Teacher Care now places teachers and tutors in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and several other mid-size to large cities, Brax started to notice how difficult it was to find women in technology positions: videographers, coders, producers.

"That's how I started understanding the needs of women in tech," she says.

Seven months ago, two decades after creating Teacher Care, Brax launched a startup of a different sort: Women Tech Founders, whose acronym is, very intentionally, WTF. It's a nonprofit media company whose goal is to inspire more women to pursue careers in technology and to help tell the stories of women who are already making waves in the field.

Brax has three children now, all of whom are grown and living around the Chicago area. Following is an edited transcript of our recent conversation at 1871, the tech incubator on the 12th floor of Chicago's Merchandise Mart.

Q: Was there one moment when you specifically decided there was a need for Women Tech Founders?

A: It was a few different things, but while I was collecting testimonials for Teacher Care, I was filming one (woman) who was a tech founder, and the whole idea of bringing together women to be interviewed and to hear their stories led to launching Women Tech Founders. It felt like there was such a lack of any females who were visible in tech.

Q: Is part of the mission also to showcase the women who are already succeeding in tech?

A: There are so many women who are deeply contributing to the world and making money at the same time: Desiree Vargas, co-founder of GiveForward (a website that enables users to create online fundraisers), Katie Hench who developed an autism app. The question becomes, "What if there were as many women as men who went into tech?" What would the world look like if you had the collective efforts of more women? And why isn't that happening?

Q: Are there stereotypes that keep women from pursuing technology careers?

A: A lot of women don't go into tech because they think we're all nerds sitting behind computers, or that we're bored all day. If you talk to somebody who's successfully building a tech startup, they love what they're doing. You can see the light in their eyes because they're so excited about what they're creating, what they're building, what they're putting out there and giving to other people. It's the same thing I look for when I'm hiring a teacher.

Q: Why is it important to correct those misconceptions?

A: Tech is, in the world right now, the most powerful thing there is. If less than 10 percent of minorities and women are in it, that means we don't have the power. The power is there for us, and we need to figure out how we can take it and use it to give us a voice. That's why I feel strongly that the message should be out there, in colleges and high schools and junior high schools, that tech should be on your radar. You might love it. It might be your end-all.

Q: Are you optimistic about women's future in technology? In leadership, in general?

A: When a woman knows there is something out there she wants, she goes through anything to get it. I don't think women aren't going into coding because they don't think they can do coding. I think it's, "I don't see a reason to do coding." We want to show them those reasons. I'm so encouraged. In the past, women felt like there were only so many seats at the table. I don't think today's woman feels like that. I think she's going to make more seats. She'll add more chairs. There's a whole different attitude now, and it's so exciting.

Q: Did you grow up with a mother or someone else who was a strong example of a woman creating change?

A: My mom is an incredible person. She was a concentration camp survivor. I'm adopted. My mom was in Siberia in a concentration camp as a teenager, and she lost almost all her family except her brother, whom she was separated from. When you grow up with somebody like that, you learn a lot of WTF. She did everything. She was on the roof at 80 years old, "I have to take the leaves out of the gutters." She was as tough as they come.

Q: Is she still with you?

A: She passed away. She had cancer. Because I own a business, I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to take care of her in my home at the end of her life. It took cancer and a lifetime for us to feel a bond, but it's such a gift that I had that time with her. It was a difficult childhood. War is never over. War goes on for generations. The fallout is all over the place. I wish there had been more support for her, but she didn't have any. I think that's part of what brought me to be such an advocate for families in need.

Q: How do you unwind?

A: I'm a big runner. I think because I drink so much coffee. I have to run it off. It's a bad cycle.

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