What Style Startups Mean For Women In Tech

Recent data shows that style-driven startups have the power to shift tech’s gender balance and bring more women to the tech table. But is that a good thing?

Not too long ago, I found myself standing in a candlelit, subterranean private dining room at a San Francisco restaurant. It's tucked into the still-gritty but speedily gentrifying, mid-Market district that’s also home to Twitter, Zendesk, Yammer, and One Kings Lane. The occasion was a media dinner for the launch of the newly personalized, 3.0 version of social shopping startup Wanelo, which is increasingly discussed with descriptive phrases such as hot property, on fire and the prettiest girl at the party. Amid passed canapés and a choice of red, white, or sparkling, it dawned on me that something odd was going on in the room: I was surrounded by women.

This was not an event exclusively for women. But I spotted only three guys there, not including the waiters (Sean Flannagan, the Wanelo's VP of Product Development and AngelList Co-Founder Naval Ravikant were among them). There to chat with Wanelo’s cocktail dress-clad Founder Deena Varshavskaya were no fewer than five other reporters from tech-centric publications--all women but for a male writer from Pando Daily. There were even two female VCs (two!), Floodgate Capital’s Ann Miura-Ko and Kirsten Greene of Forerunner Ventures.

Style And Substance

The gender breakdown was noticeable enough at an event in an industry where men, more often than not, far outnumber women. This kind of thing has started to happen to me more and more often. In fact, it’s gotten altogether commonplace for me to encounter a female founder or CEO helming whatever startup I’m writing about. But here’s the thing: The vast majority of companies (minus the occasional STD startup or legal retail hybrid) I cover have something to do with style, shopping, fashion, or retail e-commerce.

Now one media event does not a respectable sample size make, but recent data suggests that style-driven startups are changing the gender equation, at least in their unabashedly girlie part of the tech landscape. New York’s Third Wave Fashion, a consultancy focused on fashion technology startups, recently released the first database of fashion tech companies. Of the 672 companies it was tracking at press time, nearly 44% counted a female founder in their ranks. Among those companies are names familiar to many mainstream shoppers today, including Rent the Runway, Birchbox, and Moda Operandi, as well as less well known up-and-comers such as Muchness and MaterialWrld.

In some ways, that’s a strikingly high percentage, especially when you consider that the number of women in computing jobs has been on the wane since 1991, with women comprising a quarter of the total IT workforce, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Women in Information Technology, and that women hold a meager 4.2% of the CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.

But in other ways, that number is less impressive.

Gender Parity Or Tech Segregation?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are women founding and leading female-friendly companies supported by largely female audiences seeking information, goods, and services in stereotypically female realms such as shopping, fashion, cooking, and home interiors. Wanelo’s Varshavskaya, whose company has grown from 1 million users in November 2012 to 8 million today and with 70% of those active monthly, says this often leads to more authentic experiences.

“I think it comes down to who has the insight into the user,” she says, adding that some male-led startups can miss the mark entirely when it comes to resonating with the female customers they hope to attract.

“I think customer empathy is always extraordinarily important.... If you’re selling to a female audience, and you’re a female entrepreneur, you’re going to get that on a DNA basis,” says Floodgate’s Miura-Ko of women-led startups in the fashion and retail space.

That women today are finding success either as leaders or employees of companies with ties to female-friendly verticals has an obvious and positive outcome: there are more women in technology. No one would deny that that’s a good thing. But is a tech landscape populated with lots of women working in female-dominated outcroppings focused on fashion, food, family and the home really the same thing as gender parity? It doesn't feel that way to me, even though it's an unquestionably better scenario than what's existed in the past.

Tech Diversity

To be fair, you can track down women elsewhere in technology.

“Just because women love to shop does not mean that that’s the only place you find female entrepreneurs,” says Miura-Ko.

To her point, many of us are familiar with well-respected leading ladies of not-specifically girlie companies such as Task Rabbit Founder Leah Busque, Cloudflare’s Michelle Zatlyn, and Hearsay Social’s Clara Shih. But they are unquestionably the exception. In fact, a recent analysis by Las Vegas tech marketing firm Pivotal Pod found that 73% of female-founded tech businesses are “centered around women.”

At the same time, the paucity of female engineers and those in rank-and-file technical roles is glaring.

“I do see for sure an obvious gender imbalance on engineering teams,” says Varshavskaya. “We still don’t have a single female engineer on our team, and I certainly hope that that will change.”

Others in the industry agree.

“If you look at how many women are doing extremely technical jobs, there are barely any. It’s very sad,” says Sukrutha Raman Bhadouria, a senior software test engineer at Citrix and an organizer of the popular Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners.

Still, technology may never have been a more attractive looking space for women than it is today.

For example, the regular dinners Bhadouria helps organize at leading Silicon Valley technology companies became so popular that she and her team chose to move from offering tickets on a first-come, first-served basis last year to a lottery system so that more than the lucky early responders had the chance to attend. The group recently received more than 1,000 sign-ups in the few hours after posting details of a single dinner with just 300 spots.

No doubt more women are headed for technology, in both female-centric companies and otherwise. In the meantime, several women I spoke with pointed out that being a woman in a male-dominated industry, it turns out, has its perks.

“In many ways, it’s an advantage because I see things in a different way,” Miura-Ko says.

In Las Vegas, where Zappos’ Downtown Project is nurturing a new community of startups, Pivotal Pod’s Ana Yoerg notes that being one of a small number of women in tech, relatively speaking, makes it easier to connect with other women in the space:

“Women in the tech space here, they don’t blend in, and there’s this camaraderie there.”

Varshavskaya agrees, especially at a time when the organizers of popular conferences and the media are increasingly intent on featuring perspectives from women in the field.

“Ironically I think you get a lot of extra opportunities as a woman…. As soon as you prove you are actually creating something of value, it’s almost easier than if you were a male entrepreneur. I attend events where I am one of the few women, occasionally the only woman, and it’s easier for me to stand out among the male entrepreneurs that are building startups.”

[Image: Flickr user See-ming Lee]

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