Women play catch-up in hot technology start-up field


Valerie Coffman, creator of Feastie.com, a Web site that allows visitors to find recipes and create grocery lists, checks out produce at the farmer's market near the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)
September 18, 2011

Paula Jagemann vowed to retire after successfully selling her second technology startup, a company that handled back-office issues for e-commerce businesses.

But she was drawn back in after joining the board of a hospital and seeing firsthand the difficulties patients faced in buying needed supplies. So Jagemann launched Someone With, which helps customers find and pay for home health care products.

Jagemann has found success with her businesses; she sold the accounts from her first company — an online office supply business — but retained the software to found her second. But she’s a relative rarity in the technology startup industry, where men lead many of the closely watched and rapidly growing businesses.

At the Entrepreneur Center of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, fewer than one-fifth of the companies selected for its business planning course had a woman within its leadership. A slightly higher percentage of the companies chosen to seek angel funding in the past 18 months through a program run by the center were woman-led, according to Kristin D’Amore, the center’s director.

Elizabeth Thorp launched Poshbrood.com, a travel site focused on upscale family travel, about a year ago. Though she has been adding to the site and is now beginning to mon­etize it, she said she has faced sexism. After informally pitching her idea to one venture capitalist, he told her only that her site was “cute,” and that he’d send it to his wife, Thorp said.

“I do think there is kind of a guys club,” she said of the investor world. Poshbrood has not received venture capital backing.

Many in the industry say there are multiple reasons that women are underrepresented. Some point to the low number of women in technology fields.

“I think it starts early,” said Nancy Lamberton, president-elect at Women in Technology. “How do we get more girls in middle school and high school to see the opportunities and possibility in the technology field?”

Even women who work in technology or engineering fields may not start their own businesses. Elana Fine, the director of venture investments at the Dingman Center, said entre­pre­neur­ship remains a male-dominated world.

“The path to building a business isn’t as clear,” said Fine, who said that when women do launch startups, they often turn to lifestyle businesses — those that solve a problem or sell a product related to running a home or raising children.

Jagemann said she benefited from relationships with lawyers and investors that she established while working at entrepreneurial companies before striking out on her own.

“You really do need to know somebody,” Jagemann said of getting a company off the ground.

Still, plenty of young women are jumping into the hot field. Mili Mittal spent more than three years at the Corporate Executive Board before going to business school in hopes of starting a new business.

She and her co-founder, Katie Rinderknecht, came up with the idea for myChef while MBA students. The site, which collects data on users’ tastes and cooking skills to recommend recipes, drew on their own experiences living among 20-somethings who had advanced palates but had never learned to cook.

Busy with activities as kids and then on meal plans in college, many in their peer group made enough money to eat out all the time.

“Our taste palates became really, really refined, and now you ask people like that to make pasta and sauce,” she said. “That’s not going to cut it.”

Mittal said the company has been self-funded thus far, and isn’t actively seeking venture capital.

Valerie Coffman has developed a site called Feastie, which allows users to search recipes and then to translate recipes into grocery lists and receive applicable coupons. Coffman holds a Ph.D. in computational science and previously worked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

She started the grocery list tool in March and added the recipe search, which ties into the list, in late August. Coffman won first prize in the Rockville Economic Development’s StartRight Women’s Business Plan Competition, earning $5,000 and marking the first outside investment in the startup. The site already is producing affiliate fees when coupons are printed, and Coffman said she sees more opportunity for revenue in partnerships with grocery stores.

Both Mittal and Coffman report that they’ve found no obstacles related to their gender.

“Founding a startup is a lot of work for anyone,” Coffman said.

But others say there need to be changes to open the doors to more women. Thorp said the field would benefit from more female investors, and Lamberton said Women in Technology offers networking opportunities so women business owners can make critical connections.

As more young women graduate and go to work at startups, they’ll become more likely to start their own companies in the future, Fine said.

“When you experience that venture creation in a startup firsthand, you are more likely to get bit by an entrepreneurial bug,” she said.

Farah Giga, who relocated from Silicon Valley to work at Vienna-based Valhalla Partners, said reduced bureaucracy and less hierarchical structures at tech companies will help successful women move up more quickly.

“It’s not going to become 50-50 any time soon,” she said, but at entrepreneur-run firms and startups, “the structures seem more flat and more open-minded.”

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