"She Started It" Aims To Change Silicon Valley's Gender Inequality Problem

A new film focuses on what makes female entrepreneurs succeed—and inspires the next generation of girls to follow suit.

"You can’t be what you can’t see" said Marie Wilson, founder of the former White House Project, in 2010, reminding everyone that unless we have role models we can look up and relate to, we may never know what we’re capable of.

This is exactly what journalists Insiyah Saeed and Nora Poggi wanted to do with their film She Started It, which follows four female entrepreneurs over a year to show their journey from the beginning: "building their products, putting it together, the happy moments and the ending on whatever the ending is," Poggi tells Fast Company.

The co-directors’ hope for the film is to be able to show young girls that this type of success does exist and to get them thinking, "Whoa, if she can do it, I can do it."

"You don’t need to be someone you’re not … you don’t have to act like a man to do this," says Poggi. "So often, women are being conditioned to dream small … our goal is to give young women that ambitious push, because if she doesn’t see other women doing it, she might never do it herself."

If young girls are able to see Brienne Ghafourifar, one of the entrepreneurs featured in the film, then they will know that it is possible (although definitely challenging) to start a company, graduate college and raise $1 million in venture funding by the age of 17.

Ghafourifar started Entefy, which aims at centralizing all forms of digital communication, with her brother Alston while still in college and jumped into the role full-time the day after she graduated. The film will show her journey along the way during this transitional time.

Educating and inspiring the next generation is an important responsibility, but to change Silicon Valley’s longstanding "pattern of recognition," it’s important to have women leaders in the media and films like She Started It, says Rachel Sklar, co-founder of Change the Ratio, and TheLi.st.

"The one thing that is notable and the drumbeat of coverage in Silicon Valley over the years is that the top line of entrepreneurs have the same profile," Sklar tells Fast Company. That profile typically consists of being white, male, and an Ivy-leaguer. It affects what most people think of when they picture what an entrepreneur looks like, including venture capitalists who decide whether they want to give you a chance or not.

While doing research for the documentary, Poggi and Saeed spoke to women who said that it’s difficult to get the same level of respect as a man in the tech industry and that they’ve heard phrases like, "Oh, you’re so cute," from investors.

"Sometimes men are not even aware of the explicit disrespect," says Poggi.

Black Girls CodePhoto courtesy of Nora Poggi

Well-connected venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers proves that bias does exist in Silicon Valley when he told Dow Jones VentureWire that he decides to invest based on profiles of past successful entrepreneurs:

"That correlates more with any other success factor that I’ve seen in the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. If you look at Bezos, or [Netscape Communications Corp. founder Marc] Andreessen, [Yahoo Inc. co-founder] David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in—which was true of Google—it was very easy to decide to invest."

And Doerr is, of course, not the only venture capitalist who thinks this way. Paul Graham, who runs startup accelerator Y Combinator, admitted to The New York Times that looks are a big factor when he decides whether to invest:

"I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg," Graham said. "There was a guy once who we funded who was terrible. I said: 'How could he be bad? He looks like Zuckerberg!"

Sklar, who has been trying to bring awareness to women doing great work in her
own company Change the Ratio, says that the tech industry no longer has any excuses because it’s now a "mature industry overlaying all other industries," but she does admit that the industry has been changing for the better.

"The fact that we see more and more women shows me that that paradigm is shifting," Sklar says. "It’s starting to be bad business to go by the old tropes of pattern recognition. The smart money is to bet on diversity and new markets because that’s how we innovate."

Danae Ringelmann, cofounder of crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo first heard about She Started It when the film used her platform to raise money and she immediately found the project exciting.

"I look at the venture world and I see numbers saying that anywhere between 3% to 13% of venture-backed companies have a woman behind them … so much coverage in tech has been about how few women there are, but by re-framing that message and focusing on how many women there actually are, the more we will get the message out there and the more women will see it," she says.

"It’s a very positive message."

To get that message out there, Poggi hopes the film will get into theaters as well as classrooms to become tools for teachers and parents to tell young girls that they can be anything they want to be.

"There’s a specific story to be told of women who have the guts to start out from scratch ... that’s not what you're taught," says Poggi.

"Little girls are not taught to start their own companies ... to be ambitious ... and it’s not something little girls are attached to because they're not taught from a young age," she says.

But it’s time that we teach the next generation they can start a business if they want—and that it’s certainly not something just for the boys.

[Image: Photo still from She Started It]

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