Houston SheHacks Event Encourages Women to Form, Lead Tech Startups

HoustonRebellion Photonics co-founder and CEO Allison Lami Sawyer said she’s tired of being alone when attending technology conferences full of men.

“Where is the pipeline of women behind me?” she said. “I want to see more women CEOs.”

Sawyer’s remarks on Sunday were given to an assembled crowd attending SheHacks, a hackathon geared towards women in Houston. Her startup, Rebellion Photonics, served as the host for the coding weekend, which brought together founders, programmers, and other women interested in tech startups.

In total, eight projects were approved by organizers, startup ideas including websites to rent or buy formal dresses or kids equipment, an online game to encourage girls’ interest in chemistry, and a website that can connect busy adults to events happening in their cities.

By Sunday evening, the teams made their pitches before a panel of judges that included Carolyn Rodz, founder of the Circular Board, and Chevron Technology Ventures president Barbara Burger.

The top two winners of the competition were EllieGrid and Poshare, which both had some traction and customer acquisition. EllieGrid has a “smart” pillbox that allows users to scan medication labels so that an app can give them alerts about missed dosages or if a medicine needs refilling. Poshare is a website where women can rent or buy dresses for formal occasions. The site is specifically targeting the bridesmaid market.

In addition to those two startups, which will receive prizes in the form of mentoring, co-working spaces, and other services, the judges also said they wanted to recognize a few of the projects that were started from scratch at the beginning of the weekend: ShAIR is a website where parents can lend or borrow kids’ equipment and gear (think renting a playpen when you arrive at your in-laws’ city instead of dragging it through the airport). The second project is called PlanIt, a website that serves as a one-stop-shop dashboard for group travel that can share air, hotel, and other travel information.

The hackathon was the first SheHacks event held outside New York, which has hosted two hackathons this year. (SheHacks itself is the brainchild of two New York women who worked in finance and couldn’t connect with a woman developer to help them with an app project.) According to the group WomenWhoTech, women-led ventures receive only 9 percent of seed stage investment and 13 percent of early stage venture capital.

The group says so far they’ve hosted more than 100 women who pitched 23 new business ventures. For Sawyer at Rebellion, the idea is if entrepreneurship looked like SheHacks, the tech industry wouldn’t have a diversity problem. And, in Houston, last weekend, I did notice the, well, diversity in the group: East Asians, South Asians, African-Americans, and a few women from Iran.

As their teams formed and worked together on their projects over the weekend, mentors from Houston’s tech community helped them refine concepts, better target markets, and polish their pitches.

Sawyer urged the attendees not to get discouraged from pursuing their ideas even as everyday life’s stresses and responsibilities begin to demand attention. “Rebellion didn’t happen overnight,” she said of her startup that sells a hyperspectral camera to detect potentially dangerous gas leaks in real time. “It was a series of small bursts of courage. This is one of those.”

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