There’s a trend of women reaching out to build new networks, organizations, and systems for women to assist each other.
Women in the fields of STEM have used both formal and informal systems to support each other in their careers, entrepreneurship, and educational goals. But how far women’s networking can go in helping to change the game is yet to come.
Technology has become not only a discipline and a job field but a dream that draws talent toward it. Shaherose Charania was born in Canada and studied business and technology at the University of Western Ontario. In 2005, she took a leap of faith that would change her life. A friend sold her on the idea of going to Silicon Valley. She had a job interview but didn’t get the job. Nonetheless, she was so entranced with the energy and vision there that she went to her bank, took out a line of credit, and moved to technology’s Promised Land, the place where Google was growing and Facebook was taking off.
But things weren’t quite what Charania expected. “I arrived here and noticed–it’s weird, but I was the only girl in the room. I started to get to know a lot of investors, and they were funding their friends from college, their guy friends from their dorm rooms.”
At the same time, she was watching female entrepreneurs in emerging economies become more educated and sophisticated and gain access to capital through microloans. As they were continuing to grow in power and develop bigger businesses, the role of women was truly changing in these markets, but “they wouldn’t find role models when they looked to the West. Which led to the start of Women 2.0.”
“A friend of mine was working at Facebook (before I could even get an account!) and hosting networking events for young entrepreneurs,” said Charania. “Again, I was the only girl. At the third [gathering], he said, ‘I know these two other girls I went to college with who are really into tech. They want to start a company; you should meet,’ and I was like, ‘Really? You wanted us to meet because we’re girls?’”
There are a variety of ways that women give back to other women. Some, like Charania, start networking organizations; others, including venture capitalist Heidi Roizen, mentor informally. Roizen also teaches at Stanford University, a nexus of tech entrepreneurship, bringing women into an inner circle of future business leaders.
Roizen traces the gender disparities in venture funding to an earlier point in life: education:
Most Silicon Valley technology venture-funded private companies are founded by engineers, and women have a disproportionately small representation in the people coming out of college with degrees in engineering and computer science. I believe ten years from now we’re going to see a big change, but that takes all of us continuing to push and continuing to encourage women.
For example, I teach entrepreneurship classes at Stanford in the engineering department, and I literally recruit and encourage women to come to my classes. My classes are often oversubscribed, and as the instructor, I get to have a big say on who gets in: For the good of the individuals as well as the quality of the class (which is a discussion class), I tip the scale to try to admit as many women as I can. In a class of 50, I’ve had as low as nine, even though I let all female applicants in. But recently, I had so many women on the list I actually had to turn some away or I would have exceeded fifty out of fifty.
Roizen also lectures in her class about life-work balance, something she feels the men appreciate as well as the women. Roizen believes that established networks are only one part of the picture.
This morning, a reporter e-mailed me and asked, ‘What women’s groups are you a part of? What are the big campaigns and other initiatives that you’re leading or advocating?’ The truth is I’m not really participating in a lot of formal groups and initiatives. For me, I prefer to use my position, knowledge, and available time to do things more at the individual entrepreneur level. I believe if everybody in positions like mine (male and female, by the way) did more individual ad hoc efforts, we would change the world. For example, I just finished spending a half hour with a female entrepreneur giving her advice. This is not a company that would fit DFJ’s investment criteria, and she was not a Stanford student–I just did it to be helpful to a woman entrepreneur, give her a little extra edge.
Roizen allocates time nearly every day–often during walks near her home–to meet with entrepreneurs, especially female entrepreneurs, hear their stories, and offer advice.
Kimberly Bryant, an engineer who worked at companies including DuPont and Genentech, takes a different approach–running coding classes for girls, often from poor or working-class neighborhoods. “When I started Black Girls Code in 2011, there weren’t any programs that had a foundation in communities of color to teach our kids about technology,” said Bryant, the mother of a young daughter. “So our focus is really to drive this whole conversation around why it’s important for our kids–both girls and boys–to know how to be creative with technology and not just be delegated to being forever just users and consumers of it. It fosters that conversation not only with the youth, but also within their communities, with their parents, and within their schools.”
There are many computer summer camps and enrichment programs available to teens these days–including ones targeting girls, but some of these teen tech camps can cost up to $1,000 per week. Black Girls Code, which is funded partly by foundations, can charge as little as $150 for a six-week session.
Among the contributors in our forum we found robust discussions of the different ways women can help each other in this field, the value of male mentors, and even some critiques of whether women are supportive enough of each other in the field.
Megan Groves, a digital marketing consultant and startup mentor said, “I’ve had a long list of mentors over the years myself–in academia, business, and for general life guidance–and most have been men. Several live in different cities, but we’ve kept in touch with regular Skype calls and in-person meetings when we find ourselves in the same area. I’ve seen that many men have a genuine interest in helping bring out the best in the women around them, even when other women may or may not share that desire. I think it’s important to seek out women to trust and learn from, but I also believe in accepting support where we can find it.”
This article is an excerpt from Innovating Women: The Changing Face Of Technology by Vivek Wadhwa and Farai Chideya, funded in part by the Kauffman Foundation, and published with permission from Diversion Books.
Professor, researcher, and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, alongside award-winning journalist Farai Chideya, set out to crowd-create a book featuring research, stories, and perspectives about women’s global participation in the innovation economy. Wadhwa and Chideya expected 50 contributions from women; they received more than 500.