Voted #6 on Top 100 Family Business Influencers, most influential expert on Wealth, Legacy, Finance and Investments: Jacoline Loewen LinkedIn Profile

July 6, 2011

Infuse start up teams with females to strengthen the business

Mark Zuckerburg told Sheryl Sandburg, his COO, that he does not check off boxes to get the right people. Mark will not hire to fill a gender quota but he did make Sheryl the most important person on his team and within a short period, the bleeding Facebook was making revenues thanks to Sheryl's new policy on advertising streams.
I also do not like gender and diversity for companies because it is good business sense to have a wide range of people in your business. Ruth Bastedo supports women in business strongly but without the preachiness, just the good business sense. Here is Ruth:
So, what is stopping women from taking major leadership roles in the technology startups of today? Through my work in the field of women entrepreneurs, I have identified five recommendations to increase the number of women in startup teams:
  1. Encourage startup teams to consciously analyze the diversity in their leadership teams. What diversity of thought could be missing as part of the growth strategy? Ask founders what might be missing in the mix, from product development to sales strategy to growth strategy? For example, with consumer-oriented products, how is the team addressing the needs of a female user base? Groupon’s subscription base is over 75% female. This is not the type of number to dismiss lightly. At times, the female viewpoint needs to be represented at senior levels in the organization, even if that female viewpoint is that of the end consumer.
  2. Tap into a base of experienced, older women leaders. Women business leaders in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are excellent sources of experienced management talent for startups. Tapping into this group and engaging them in technology startups as investors or members of a management team or advisory board can be an excellent way to tap into the experience and expertise of these women. This is the view of private equity expert Jacoline Loewen, Director at Loewen and Partners in Toronto and panelist on the Business News Network television show The Pitch. She says, “Startups are like an intense marriage and choosing a woman 50+ to be a founding member, particularly if you are all males under 30, could be a savvy choice… these guys have to get over the stereotype of mum with the cookie tray nagging about a messy room. At age 53, Arianna Huffington did a startup bloggers’ forum website called The Huffington Post which went on to get sold 6 years later to AOL for US$315 million.”
  3. Acknowledge that women may have different needs than their male counterparts. In their early 20s, women can compete more or less head to head with men. Unfortunately, many women soon find that their careers are impacted by the decision to have a family. What they need during this period is as much flexibility as possible. They also need to earn enough money to have good quality childcare so that they can present to that potential investor in New York on the spur of the moment. This need for cash flow during this critical period is important to understand.
  4. Support and nurture organizations that in turn support women entrepreneurs. There are several organizations and initiatives in Canada, and increasingly internationally, that support women who want to engage and be successful in high-growth startups. The support for these organizations needs to come from multiple sectors: government, professional services, technology, financial services, and academia. In order to increase the likelihood of success, women need the contacts, networks, mentorship, and access to information that these initiatives can provide. Compelling examples of these types of initiative in Canada include:
    Further examples from the United States include:
  5. Expose technology and computer science to girls in a more compelling way. Girls and young women love using technology, as any parent with any exposure to girls and their Webkinz can attest to, but how can this early enthusiasm and interest be translated into an interest in product and software design? How can we teach girls to engage in programming in a more appealing way? There are those that are trying, but the representation of women in computer science departments continues to decline. From 2002 through 2009, the proportion of female graduates from computer science bachelor degree programs declined from 19.4% to 11.3% in Canada and the United States (Zweben, 2009).
    Initiatives such as Alice, educational software that teaches students computer programming in a 3D environment at Carnegie Mellon, show a model of how to engage girls in middle school. Alice allows students to learn fundamental concepts of programming and programming logic without a background in mathematics and programming. The software introduces a storytelling model, which allows girls to create software that is personally relevant to them. (For further details on the promise of the Alice approach for influencing later success in computer science education, see the paper by the National Center for Women & Information Technology) Going through the process of learning how to program is very important in the technology industry, not only as a potential pathway to becoming a programmer, but also as important background to enable more effective interactions with technical teams. This early engagement in technology is a critical step in getting women to the point where, in their 20s, they might find themselves in an environment conducive to creating the next “killer app”.
From my vantage point, following these recommendations would help infuse our existing startup teams with female talent and nurture the younger generation of women that is interested in using technology to create products and services that are consumer friendly. Encouraging more women to be a part of high-growth technology startup teams, as entrepreneurs or otherwise, will result in well-balanced technology companies that can compete effectively in today’s diverse world.
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