Why female technology entrepreneurs are so hard to find.

How to start and grow companies.
Sept. 10 2010 3:52 PM

The Fairer Techs

Why female technology entrepreneurs are so hard to find.

"We Can Do It!" poster for Westinghouse.
The "We Can Do It!" poster has long been a symbol of women in the workplace.

Jessica Mah is co-founder and CEO of inDinero.com, a business software company that launched in March 2009. A year-and-a-half later, 4,000 businesses use the financial-tracking platform to manage a collective $400 million. The startup also boasts $1.5 million in funding from YouTube's Jawed Karim and Yelp's Jeremy Stoppelman, among others.

But Mah, one of about a dozen female founders who initially received funding from Y Combinator, the early stage investment firm, refuses to talk about why there are so few female entrepreneurs. "It's a distraction," she said.

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Mah's view may represent an extreme, but in the little-guy economy, many female founders of technology startups hesitate when asked about being female. They'd rather talk about the problems their ideas solve, how they got their businesses off the ground or how many users they have. Many say they don't feel disadvantaged being female, but would these women who defy the odds and start technology companies admit it if they did? Probably not.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal's Shira Ovide noted the lack of female entrepreneurs in technology startups. The story unleashed another round of Internet parsing of the subject. Union Square Ventures managing partner Fred Wilson posted in favor of an XX Combinator, an early stage investment firm for female-run startups. In a visceral response, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington urged women like Change the Ratio founder Rachel Sklar to stop complaining and "go out and start companies," which he promised to cover. Sklar's response? Mission accomplished.

As the Journal pointed out, theories abound for why there are so few women in tech. They're risk-averse. They don't have the right backgrounds. They have different timelines. They don't receive proper mentoring. But the hubbub obscures the fact that women long have been business owners and entrepreneurs, in spite of their enormous responsibilities as child-bearers (and, more often than not, child-rearers). Even though they make up only 1 percent of high-tech startup founders and boast fewer million-dollar-plus companies, female-owned businesses could create up to 5.5 million new jobs—one-third of all job growth—by 2018.

Female tech founders say they don't feel alienated by their male counterparts. Deanna Bennett, a former property manager in Chicago, co-founded RentMonitor.com, a software startup for small-time management companies. Her co-founder is a guy. Fine, it's her husband. But this year, she was one of just two women who received funding from TechStars, the seed investment firm in Boulder. Her area of expertise—business—is different from most startup founders, who, more often than not are male technologists, but she didn't feel patronized, ostracized or put off by other TechStars participants. If anything, there were a few cloudy technology talks. "There may have been a couple of those moments where it was like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about,' " she said.

Like many founders in the little-guy economy, female tech founders partner with people who have different skill-sets. Emily Olson was a private label manager for the Fresh Market when she followed her passion for food and partnered with entrepreneur Rob LaFave and technologist Nik Bauman to create Foodzie, an online food marketplace for small producers and growers, also a TechStars startup. She hadn't thought much about being a female entrepreneur until she became a go-to female entrepreneur for articles on women in business. "I never thought about it until people started asking me to talk about it, and I was like, 'Oh, this is kind of rare. How am I doing this and not many others are?' " She attributes the lack of female entrepreneurs largely to the childbearing conundrum for women in their 20s and 30s who don't have the luxury of time that a startup requires.

Similar to their male counterparts, female tech founders start businesses they are interested in, which suggests another reason there are so few women in tech. Women often don't pitch tech-heavy business ideas because fewer are interested in tech-heavy businesses. It's no secret that there are more women in marketing than in computer science and, while it's arguably because fewer women are encouraged to be technologists, it might also be because women find programming boring and overly technical. Often women are more attracted to content development, graphic design, and product management than being coders of software that is going to change the future of the Internet. So maybe the explanation for the relatively low number of female tech entrepreneurs is simple: They just prefer to start other kinds of businesses. But as businesses become more intertwined with technology, many of those upstarts will, by default, be tech startups.

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