Getting more women and girls interested in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields is "the unfinished business of the 20th century," said Hillary Clinton during the Unique Lives and Experiences Women’s Lecture Series held at San Jose State University in April 2014, reported the Silicon Valley Business Journal.
"We must focus on how we can help women and girls break through ceilings that hold them back," Clinton told the crowd. Women represent only 24% of the STEM workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, while the number of women receiving STEM degrees has decreased.
How do we channel more women in fields that are filled with men? We need more role models, says Nora Poggi, director of She Started It, a documentary about female tech entrepreneurs. It goes beyond women who have blazed the trail in STEM—young girls need to be exposed to inspirational women who look like them.
"You could read articles about Mark Zuckerberg and watch documentaries about the tech industry, but if you don’t see people that look like you, you might not think it’s possible for you," says Poggi, who was inspired to make a documentary after interviewing countless male startup founders as a tech reporter. "You can’t be what you can’t see."
While Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are two inspiring examples of women in technology, at 44 and 39, respectively, their relevancy to middle school-age girls is dwindling. Enter three young women who are leading the charge to change this:
- Stacey Ferreira, 21, cofounder of MySocialCloud
- Brienne Ghafourifar, 19, cofounder of Entefy
- Thuy Truong, 28, cofounder of GreenGar.
As a young girl, Ferreira wanted to do everything her older brother Scott did. Her admiration eventually led her into gaming and technology. Using online tutorials and books, she taught herself coding. When she graduated from high school in 2011, she and her brother pooled their ideas and know-how and started MySocialCloud, an online platform that allows users to store login information for social media platforms.
"My brother’s computer crashed and he lost everything," says Ferreira. "He had an Excel spreadsheet with his usernames and passwords. We thought: 'Wouldn’t it be cool to have a place where you could store this information and have it automatically log you in?'"
MySocialCloud was that place, and the company would take a big leap forward in 2012 when Ferreira saw a tweet sent out by British business tycoon Sir Richard Branson inviting his followers to a cocktail party. The admission to the soiree was a $2,000 per person donation to charity. Borrowing money from their parents, the pair attended the event, introduced themselves to Branson, and secured his help in raising a $1 million investment.
In 2013, the Ferreira siblings sold MySocialCloud to Reputation.com, and Ferreira started another tech company AdMoar, an online marketplace for billboard, radio, television, and print magazine advertising. By putting ad space inventory online, AdMoar streamlines media planning and buying across all platforms through one portal.
"When I was buying media for MySocialCloud, we started with tech solutions like Google AdWords," says Ferreira. "We decided to experiment with radio and TV, and I realized how tough it was to buy campaigns in different cities. If I’m buying media, I know what I want; I don’t want to have to talk to a million people to get it done."
Ferreira says the most exciting aspect about working in technology is the low barrier to entry. "By learning how to program you can build whatever you want," she says. "You don’t need tons of capital; you just need motivation to learn."
"Stacey is one of the youngest females to successfully exit a tech company," says Poggi. "She could have easily bragged about her accomplishment, but she decided to create another startup and jump through hoops again. It’s inspiring to see that kind of bravery in a girl that young."
Brienne Ghafourifar set a world record when she was 17 years old; she’s the youngest college graduate to raise $1 million in venture funding for her business. Graduating from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, she and her brother Alston launched Entefy, a tech startup that aggregates texts, emails, and social messages onto one interface.
Taking risks and starting businesses runs in the family. Ghafourifar’s parents have launched successful entrepreneurial ventures in technology, health, and film.
"My parents would always involve us in their business; it kind of became a family hobby to go to Peet’s Coffee and talk about business ideas," she told Women 2.0, a website that covers women in technology.
Targeting a market of trillions, Entefy has raised more than $4.1 million in investments, and has grown to a team of 10. Currently in development, a private beta for the platform is expected to be on the market by the end of 2014.
Ghafourifar is proof that a degree in computer engineering isn’t necessary to launch a tech startup, and that age doesn’t matter when attracting top talent to work on your idea.
"Throughout my life I’ve been focused on making things people need," she says. "Innovation moves the needle and drives us forward, and technology gets us there faster. I’m less concerned with technology, and more concerned with human psychology and behavior. Technology is a means to an end."
In the technology field for only two years, Ghafourifar says she has observed a lack of women in leadership. "My dad always told me that business is hard enough, and to surround yourself with the right people," she says. "I’m always looking to find mentors I can learn from, and I’ve made a commitment to give back and help other young women grow."
"There are a lot of hurdles when it comes to gender and age, but girls shouldn’t get discouraged by the sheer number of men in the industry," she adds. "The world is ready to level the playing field, and we can all work together to support each other."
Poggi says you don’t need to be a genius to get into tech. "Brienne graduated from college at 17, but her greatest asset is her passion and drive," she says. "She worked extremely hard to get funding, and she’s mature and wise beyond her years. For girls who know what they want, Brienne is someone who will inspire them to go for it."
Thuy Truong is the cofounder of GreenGar, maker of real-time mobile collaboration apps such as such as Whiteboard: Collaborative Drawing and Brain Tuner. Born in Vietnam and knowing little English, she moved to California with her family at the age of 17, and she attended the University of Southern California.
"I chose computer engineering for my major because I want to build things, starting small with software and games," she says. "I enjoy people using the stuff that I build."
In 2009, she took a detour from technology and returned to Vietnam to start Parallel Frozen Yogurt. "I had the ambition of building a community of people who love premium frozen yogurt," says Truong, who raised $400,000 in funding to open five stores.
A year later Silicon Valley came calling. In 2010, Elliott Lee, a friend she made at USC, came to Vietnam to ask for Truong’s help with his startup GreenGar. "I found a lot of interest in technology," Truong says. "If I’m going to spend the rest of life doing something, I would love to build something that impacts a lot of people; something that is scalable."
She decided to close Parallel Frozen Yogurt and return to California, where she and Lee were invited to join 500 Startups, a seed fund and startup accelerator program for technology companies. To date, GreenGar has surpassed 12 million downloads of its apps.
"Thuy was invited to pitch at the 500 Startup Accelerator and she blew everybody away," says Poggi. "She has a strong personality, and hers was the first Vietnamese company to be accepted into 500 Startups incubator. She knows what she wants and she doesn’t give up."
It’s Truong’s drive that garnered her the company’s CEO position. "It was the most awkward moment when I sat down with my best friend, my cofounder of GreenGar, and told him that I want to drive the boat from now on," Truong told Women 2.0.
"Thuy isn’t just interested in the fame; instead, she worries about things that produce results," writes Lee on the GreenGar website. "A good CEO is constantly focused on producing results; not being famous. So Thuy is taking this opportunity to attract top talent to GreenGar."
[Image: Flickr user Todd Kulesza]