Women and Startups


The news from PyCon rekindles a long-running discussion about the lack of women in tech startups. The description of the roomful of men, cracking fraternity-scale jokes without regard for the few women in the room brings back plenty of memories of other rooms full of men in my twenty years of tech startup life. Far more recently, last week Jon Staenberg and Google held a dinner with three or four dozen CEOs of early-stage tech startups (plus a few of us “old timers”) and the attendees included just two women, with Kate Matsudaira just earning that CEO title by a few weeks.

With this as a basis for startup life, I was pleasantly surprised last year to find it not true when I stopped putting tech first, and adjusted my focus to sustainable, “conscious” companies. Within this other thriving startup market here in Seattle, the norms are for an equal balance of genders, where women are flourishing not just as team members, but also as leaders.

As founder of Fledge, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and core team member of the Social Innovation Fast Pitch competition, I talked to and worked with over two hundred “conscious” startups in 2012. More than half of these were founded by and run by women.

What is it about “conscious” companies that attracts so many women? Rather than guess at the answer from my male-biased perspective, I simply asked a few entrepreneurs.

According to Carrie Ferrence, co-founder and CEO of Stockbox Neighborhood Grocery: “The traditional start-up model has been long dominated by men, but the shift toward conscious companies has created space for women to take a more prominent leadership role, designing business to be responsive to more stakeholder groups (community, family, environment, etc.) and, hopefully, due to that inclusivity, more sustainable over the long term.”

Cindy Todd, founder of Snohomish Soap, thinks the difference is deeper, that many women “view things holistically.” For example, “our kids, our work, our passion…they aren’t separate, they are all part of a greater whole.” Like our everyday lives, our companies can be just as holistic, while making a profit.

Rachel Maxwell, co-founder and CEO of Community Sourced Capital sees the chance the change the status quo. “I believe women are willing to step into the space of business for good because they aren’t as invested in competing in the world as it, they are willing to take the risks required to make the world as they would like it to become.”

In a world where Marissa Mayer’s choice as Yahoo CEO is considered news, due to her gender and impending motherhood, it’s nice to find an industry demonstrating that women can and will start startups, given an ability to attach “meaning” and sustainability to the process. Hopefully, the success of women in this corner of entrepreneurship will leak across to the tech-oriented companies, or at worst, that the movement of consciousness in business blends these two markets together, solving the gender balance issue in the process.

Luni is a 20+ year serial entrepreneur, founder/co-founder of five companies. His latest startup is Fledge, the conscious company accelerator and has published six books in The Next Step series, guiding entrepreneurs from idea to startup. In addition, Luni is Entrepreneur in Residence and Entrepreneurship Instructor at Pinchot, the university for the common good, and an Entrepreneur in Residence Emeritus at the University of Washington’s Center for Commercialization. Follow @lunarmobiscuit

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