Why are there not more female tech entrepreneurs?

Originally posted on TalkSustainability.com

As the discussion continually turns to the absence of female tech entrepreneurs, I thought it was time to reflect on my own experience. Over the course of the two years REfficient has been in business, we have increasingly seen the importance and opportunity of technology in our business. As a result, we have continued to develop our online platform and will continue to do so, knowing that technology is integral to our future.

Yet this was not what I envisioned early on. I did not start out thinking that running a technology-based company was what I wanted to do. Now as a Non-Technical Founder (a label I have since learned and gladly embrace – see my blog on the subject) and a female one at that, I realize there are some realities that discourage women in technology businesses.

The following are my reflections on these realities. I will discuss what I believe we can do about it in a future blog.

An Identity Issue – The Tech-Company Box

It feels slightly odd to me to even write that I am a tech entrepreneur or that REfficient is a tech company. The tech aspect is certainly one facet of who I am, what we do and how we deliver it – but there are so many other aspects to me and the company which we identify. The technology part is simply just one. Perhaps that is a reason why I sometimes feel a disconnect with the tech community.

The tech community seems black and white to me – you are a tech company first and foremost, and then, perhaps, a company that is solving a particular problem and enabled by technology. There is a perception that the founders are techies – and guys at that – and you code all night. Perhaps you even drop out of school to start your company.

This can and does happen, but there are so many other examples and identities out there. I personally do not identify much with the standard tech image and believe the stereotype can turn people, and especially women, away. If these stereotypes continue to exist, “putting things in a box” will be counter-productive to encouraging more women in tech. We are a shade of grey and frankly, that’s okay.

Seeing Technology Entrepreneurship As An Option

Stephanie McLarty created REfficient, an online marketplace which handles business equipment for sale and provides integrated sustainability reporting

Stephanie McLarty created REfficient, an online marketplace which handles business equipment for sale and provides integrated sustainability reporting

I never considered starting a tech-based company to be an option; it was not on my radar. Looking back, I knew nothing about being a tech entrepreneur, or where to start. I simply started a company to solve a problem about business sustainability, and realized that technology would be needed to optimize the solution. In that sense, I became a tech entrepreneur unknowingly.

While this reality relates to the issue of identity, there is more to the story. Seeing tech entrepreneurship as an option is also an issue of education and awareness, both that being a female tech entrepreneur is possible and the reasons why you should consider it. There are also few well-known examples of women tech entrepreneurs who have “been there, done that” to show other women that this career path is possible.

Code is a Foreign Language

After folding in technology into our company, I came upon the reality that I knew nothing about code, databases, or anything software-related really.

It occurred to me that code was like Cantonese or Mandarin – completely foreign. I looked at it, admired it and had no idea where I would even start to grasp it. It was also not something that I could muffle through, like other Latin-based languages. Unless you have a particular interest and the courses to learn Chinese or code, chances are you will not learn it. Yet for those who do, these skills provide such a distinct advantage.

It is critical that tech-based companies have solid technical people to build great technology. Given the number of women who take these courses in school is still low, this is also another deterrent why women do not venture into tech companies.

Navigating The Risk Capital World

To build scalable technology and have the ability to execute on high growth, you usually need risk capital to make it happen. When I started down the investment track in 2011, I really had no clue about the risk capital world. Over the course of the next months, I began to learn about how to pitch to investors, what they were looking for, the pitfalls and more.

It was fascinating to learn about this world that was completely abstract to me before. There were unsaid rules towards entrepreneurs (“investors won’t invest in first-time CEOs, unless there is traction”) and also restricting remarks towards investors (“beware the vulture capitalists”).

The business of risk capital is about numbers and returns, which can lead to the perception of being cold and cut-throat. While this is not necessarily the case, the risk capital industry is not particularly approachable or accommodating, which can turn women away. This is coupled with the fact that the realm is highly male-dominated, which can be intimidating for some.

Taking on investment is not for everyone and every company, and that is completely fine. Yet given the choice, many women would just not want to figure out the current risk capital world, let alone deal with it.