The Download: Up-and-Comers Who Are Breaking Down a Digital Divide

By Kim Hart
Monday, July 27, 2009

Around town, I often hear people referring to a tech start-up as just "two guys in a garage." But that phrase excludes a gender that, some say, is too often overlooked in the technology industry. In Washington, a number of women are leaving their mark as entrepreneurs, social media enthusiasts and policy experts. And they're trying to make room for more girl geeks. Here are five women who have established themselves as influential figures in the region's tech circles and are worth keeping an eye on.

-- Shireen Mitchell's interest in technology began when she became addicted to Atari video games as a teenager. When she came to Washington for college at Howard University and graduate school at the University of the District of Columbia, she began to notice that she was one of the few women who frequented tech events and got involved in "geeky" projects.

"I was never encouraged to be interested in technology," said Mitchell, 39. "Even my mother thought I was going to the arcade room to hang around boys -- not because I actually loved the games . . . There just aren't a lot of women who feel comfortable in the field."

In 2000, she started Digital Sisters, a nonprofit that provides training for women and others who traditionally have not been part of the tech community. Nine years later, she said she still sees a huge digital divide that adversely affects women, especially minority women.

She's tried to bridge that gap by helping communities and neighborhoods take advantage of tools such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter to organize events, respond to issues and spread information.

"Social media is the one tech industry that seems natural for women to be part of," she said. "It's all about communicating, and women's communication skills are great assets."

-- Larissa Fair, 26, has been president of the Washington chapter of the Social Media Club for two years, since shortly after it formed. Under her charge, the group now has more than 900 members (by Facebook's count, anyway) and meets every month to network and discuss trends ranging from cloud computing to mobile media campaigns. She's done public relations work for local firms such as Platinum Solutions and Livingston Communications, and now manages Web communications for a nonprofit.

Fair's main passion is expanding the reach of social networks among associations, educational institutions and government groups.

"The idea of it has gone much more mainstream," she said. "People are going to be online anyway, so you need to find the way to reach them."

-- After stints as a professional dancer and labor union worker, Alexis Rodich, 28, changed directions and went to American University's business school to study finance. Her interest in venture capitalists and angel investors helped her land a job as an associate for LaunchBox Digital, which has a 12-week incubator program in the District that invests in and advises eight start-up companies. She helps the entrepreneurs craft revenue models, define their markets and develop social media strategies.

Rodich plans to continue to work with a couple of the start-ups at the end of the summer and launch her own company related to yoga.

She also writes a regular column about entrepreneurship for Women Grow Business, a community blog hosted by Herndon-based Network Solutions and edited by Jill Foster, who co-founded DC Media Makers, an organization that focuses on digital media.

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