Where Are The Women in the Chicago Tech Scene?

Reva Minkoff

When I founded my company, DigitalGroundUp, over a year ago, I wasn't trying to make a statement. I'd never seen myself as a founder, and it wasn't a position I'd been looking to be in. But in the year plus since, I've found myself facing this quiet undercurrent of a problem: the lack of women in the entrepreneurial space, paricularly as founders, CEOs, and even as C-level employees. 

It's common knowledge that men outnumber women in the technology space. And while 1871 claims to have 30% of companies with either female founders or female members on the founding team, companies with women in the founding team is very different from having a woman running a company. 

I know a lot of people want to pretend that sexism isn't a problem in this space, but it is. We can not talk about it and watch those once-enthusiastic college graduates become frustrated in the wake of a world where their voices aren't heard and they don't see many female leaders, or we can actually do something and say loud and clear: "We're here, and we're not going to fail!"

I'm writing this because I was aghast that only three female founders (myself included) attended the Founders Card Happy Hour two weeks ago. It was a very well attended event, so there were more than 50 male founders. But just 3 women. There were more women working at the event (the two hostesses, the photographer and a bartender were all women) than there were at the event. That's just sad to me, and it's not the first time I've encountered such a scenario within the Chicago tech scene.

I'm grateful for the presence of organizations like MSTech and Women 2.0 that are filled with great groups of women in the technology space, but eventually (and sooner rather than later in my opinion) we have to have a strong presence in non-gender specific groups too. We have to show up at events and publicize our successes. Get out, be loud, be proud, and show that there's nothing wrong or strange about a woman running a company, founding a company, or both. "We're here, and we're not going to fail!"

 

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Riana Lynn
Thanks for posting
Reva Minkoff
Want to do something constructive to help fix this problem? Need quantitative proof hiring women is better for business? Check out my follow up story in Crain's Chicago Business today: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20130828/OPINION/130829825/four-f...
J. A.  Ginsburg
Hi. I am posting a link to an article from last week's Fortune magazine that just left me breathless—and not in a good way. "Introducing the Kid VC" is a profile of a 20 year old from Beverly Hills who apparently become the wunderkind of Silicon Valley. http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/13/technology/alex-banayan-vc.pr.fortune/in... Alex Banayan is savvy self-promoter who has managed to convince a bunch of 40-something men that he's their conduit to young talent. In fact, he refused to meet with anyone over 25 at SxSW. The story opens on a bus at SxSW that's been chartered by the founder of Zappos and filled to the gills with drunken young entrepreneurs—unclear whether any of them are women, though there some women apparently dancing. Banayan also snagged a major book deal and wants to "interview some of the world's most successful people—Warren Buffett, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Kanye West, Mark Zuckerberg..." Beyond the fact that this in-a-position-of-influence kid can't think of one successful woman, and, of course, the age-ism thing, his rise brings up a troubling issue about VCs: Where *are* the women?
Jeff Carter
Can you illustrate examples of sexism? I hear this all the time, but haven't seen it. At HPA, we have a woman leader, many women on our board, and have backed women entrepreneurs. In my own funding, I have backed four women led companies. I don't disagree that women have different challenges then men. I also don't disagree that there are more men than women when it comes to starting companies-but there are more men than women in engineering school. I suggest you read Brad Feld's book about Startup Communities. Any movement that adds or builds the entrepreneurial ecosystem has to be lead by entrepreneurs. Funders and government shouldn't because it won't be sustainable. I also think that if women create great companies (like brilliant.org), any sexism that is there will go away. Only people that are looking for sexism or perceive sexism will experience it.
Reva Minkoff
Hi Jeff, I disagree that the only way sexism is there is if people are looking for it or perceive it. There are definitely activities and things people say flat out that are clearly sexist and challenging as such. While I'm sure many people who have read and/or commented on this post have examples they could share, some examples friends or I have personally witnessed include: - A guy dropping a pen and asking a female employee to pick it up (as part of his attempt to prove to her that her skirt was too short). I've also seen this happen when guys just want a woman to bend over. - A female secretary overhearing her bosses talk about how big her butt is. - A male (with children) saying he doesn't invest in women because they have kids and are then inevitably going to choose their children over their careers. - Female employees noting that their opinions are not acknowledged in meetings - until a male coworker says the same thing later. - Female employees not being called on in company meetings. - Female employees not being promoted or given raises. - Women being hit on at networking events and conferences (Oh, you should come by the party in our room later. Oh, are you sure you don't want to come to dinner?). - Networking with men who won't look at your face. - A female friend was drugged while we were out at the bar after a conference a few years ago. - The low number of female nominees or female led companies for many awards or as speakers at conferences or events (clearly these should go to people who are qualified, but it gets ridiculous when you can't find one). - A woman getting fired for being "too attractive" - her boss and his wife was afraid he'd have an affair with her, so the boss fired her: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/12/iowa-supreme-court-attractive-w... It's about getting respect for our great companies without it mattering whether or not the founder is female, and getting evaluated as such.
Jeff Carter
the things you mention aren't confined to startups. I'd say the thing in Iowa is a statistical outlier. Believe me, I know there are differences, but I don't see overt sexism in the Chicago entrepreneurial community. If there is, call it out and the community will use peer pressure to change it. I know that I have passed on female owned companies that have nothing to do with "female" and everything to do with the company. Rejection doesn't mean sexism.
Monica Metzler
I stumbled on this thread and really appreciate Reva's piece as well as all the comments. I've observed - and been bothered by - the obvious gender imbalance for several years. However, I come at it from a different angle. I started a nonprofit (the Illinois Science Council) in 2006. Because there isn't a lot of support for start-ups in the nonprofit sector, I spent a lot of time learning from the for-profit entrepreneurial groups here. And since my organization's mission (and my personal interest) is focused on science & technology, that has meant the tech scene. I face many of the same issues of any entrepreneur (e.g., marketing, seeking advisers, growth, hiring challenges, etc., etc.), it's just that the revenue/fundraising approach is different than with a product. I have mixed thoughts about creating gender-exclusive events and/or groups as I definitely see the pros and cons in this space at this time. Marcy and Shradha touched on it, but if you expand to include founders in the nonprofit arena, I'd definitely be interested in getting involved and helping promote your efforts.
Reva Minkoff
I know some of you have reached out to me via Facebook messages or Built in Chicago, but I just wanted to take a minute to thank you all for your thoughtful responses to this post. I am extremely heartened by the reaction of the community and the dialogue that's been started. I know there have been some requests to put events together and discuss this more in person - Amanda, I don't know if your event is the right setting for that? Please let me know - otherwise I'm happy to coordinate something additional separately. Lastly, as probably goes without saying, I am more than happy to be a mentor, speaker, panelist, or simply give advice to anyone who needs it - regardless of gender. You can reach me at reva(at)digitalgroundup.com. I look forward to continuing this conversation with many of you, whether it's online or in person. I also hope you will take it into your workplaces and networks, both single sex and co-ed. We all can't go to everything, as many people have said, but if we each vow to try to attend one additional event a month, it'll make a difference. We're here, and we're not going to fail! Best, Reva
Bess Gallanis
I'm thinking I'd better start up another company to even up the odds a bit.
swathi narra
As one of the 3 females at the event mentioned I couldn't agree more. I think Biagica makes an interesting point, "we are indeed here..just a matter of where we are spending our time these days". I'm a strong proponent of networking and have personally gained value from it but I do understand there are many factors as to why women (in tech, or elsewhere) don't actively attend. Whether women attend these events or not, I wholeheartedly agree with Shrada's comment that what's most important is for female founders to feel they have access to other female founders/exec for support. I've actively reached out to a few female founders in Chicago with most being extremely positive experiences and a few not so much. I'd like to put myself on the list as a female founder that welcomes meeting others in the tech/digital/entrepreneurship space for access & support. Feel free to email me at [email protected] and I look forward to meeting all of you at one of these events soon!
Emily Lonigro
Fantastic. I own a web design firm here in Chicago called LimeRed Studio. It's been a great journey from just me to now 6 employees. I'd love to meet more women in tech and business in Chicago. I totally agree with the sentiment about more numbers in non-gender specific groups. I've been a part of a few organizations just for women and really, it would be great to see something more focused on business and less on being women. I've grown this thing without any outside funding. Just a great group of advisors, who all happen to be men. I would love to see more women in mentor or advisor roles and we definitely need to get a lot LOUDER about what we do!
Elaine Russell
Great article and I definitely agree with everyone's comments. I have been working in the Chicago start-up scene for 2 years now and recently co-founded a company (www.heirlume.co) with another female entrepreneur. We work out of 1871 and it has been refreshing to see more women in the space even over the past 6 months. I agree with everyone's suggestion on hosting more women generated entrepreneurial events - if anyone has any ideas, I would love to be involved and help build something out. Looking forward to connecting and meeting more inspiring entrepreneurs in Chicago!
J. A.  Ginsburg
What an interesting post—and what a fabulous comment stream! My name is Janet and I am probably a bit of an odd duck here. Among many other things, I was a sci-tech correspondent at BusinessWeek (mostly covering microbiology and energy stories); and created a demo news aggregator for a small indie spin-off of google.org that focused on health issues, humanitarian response and technology. Coincidentally, I am also thisclose to finished with a post—which I'll cross-post here—that goes into some detail about the latter. My intersection with tech is four-fold: passionate about digital publishing platforms (much longer story for another day); deeply interested in the energy sector; as it relates to a couple of children's media properities in which I have a stake; and as someone just plain interested. I thought Reva's point about "a strong presence in non-gender specific groups" was really on point. Women networking with women and acting as mentors are both critically important, but the transformation to a more balanced community means mixing en masse. btw, re the use initials and avatar, which I hope is not off-putting... Years ago, I started using my initials for my byline because I wanted people to focus on words, not whether I was a woman or man. It was also a nice hat tip to the style used in scientific research papers, which made me feel nicely geeky. This desire for an amorphous public identity is also why I generally use an avatar online (when TrackerNews, the demo project, ended, its twitter string had a loyal following of UN types and Greenpeacers, so I kept it going).
Megan McCann
Thank you for your post, Reva. It is great to be connected to you across the airways…. I agree with Maria’s response that we, in the Chicago community, are fortunate to have a few fantastic female CEOs who are incredibly support of one another, the startup community, women in technology, etc. Noticing this topic has been of significant importance to the community as a whole—not only to those in the C-suite seeking a peer support network but those trying to navigate the predominately male-dominated field—my company, McCann Partners, along with Leslie Vickrey from ClearEdge Marketing, and Jane Gilligan from Harvey Nash founded ARA , an organization committed to supporting women in technology. ARA aspires to Attract, Retain, and Advance women in the traditionally male-driven field. ARA’s goal is to provide up-and-coming women in IT with career support and mentoring, as well as senior-level executives (i.e., Directors, Vice Presidents, CTOs, CIOs, etc.) with a platform for engagement. Our goal is to expand our constituent group to those roles peripheral to IT (i.e., CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, etc.). To date, we have hosted two events with attendances of 65+ in each case. Our most recent event was just last week; there are some great photos, posts, and tweets captured on ARA’s Storify: http://bit.ly/14tuHjQ. The evening, sponsored by Fieldglass in collaboration with our strategic partner, Illinois Technology Association (ITA), featured an engaging panel discussion on topics related to women in technology, careers, and mentorship. The evening culminated with an announcement of ARA’s web site launch (www.arachicago.com), as well as a speed mentoring session. You may learn more about our efforts, ways of becoming involved, sponsorship opportunities, etc. by visiting the site. For a great video explaining who we are, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI08UQBIA9A#at=14. Please consider joining us for our next event. It is scheduled for Thursday, November 21st at TechNexus in the new ITA space located in the Civic Opera Building at 20 North Wacker Drive and is being sponsored by Hospira. We have all heard the phrase it takes a village…we have one amidst our networks…we just need to connect the dots through conversations like this to show how we can continue to pioneer and support one another, the Chicago community, and our respective professional efforts. Look forward to having an opportunity to meet all of you in person at some point soon! (P.S. – Reva, I understand you met another of ARA's co-founders, Leslie, tonight. Small world! Let’s connect for coffee next week as I am also in 600 West Chicago.)
Erica Levin
I loved reading this and am so proud of our growing tech/start-up scene. I look forward to meeting more women founders in the coming days!
Shradha Agarwal
Hi Reva, Thank you for writing this post and it's so nice to see so many of Chicago's women founders and executives comment already - this community exists and is a strong one, just not always visible or social! I think we certainly need to inspire and support more women to follow their dreams and become risk-takers, while also recognizing that businesses started by women may play in different industries outside of pure hi-tech, such as F&B, apparel, non-profit. To your suggestion, I completely agree that we need more women at non-gender specific events; but I feel women sometimes prioritize family and friends over networking, not to disagree with your overall point that women need to get louder and prouder, especially in Chicago! :) I like the suggestions of starting by rallying this group together (ARA at LightBank is hosting some events as is Bin36/SoMe tomorrow) and then we can raise the presence at other events too. What is most important is that female founders feel they have access to other female founders/execs for support when and where needed and we're all here to help!
Megan McCann
Thank you for mentioning ARA, Shradha!
Reva Minkoff
Hi Shradha, Thanks for your comments, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night at Bin36! Let's be loud and proud, but yes, there's an amazing community of female founders/execs in Chicago. And thank you for being such a great and helpful role model and mentor for me and DGU.
Katherine Raz
I can only speak from my own experience. I work at 1871, and it's definitely a boys club. But there are women, and the women here are awesome. And so are the dudes. There's just an imbalance. There's so many more dudes. After a while it's the sheer numbers that make you go, "Huh?" Before coming to 1871 I founded a company, but it wasn't a tech company. It was a pop-up vintage market. We had dreams of launching an online market component, but never got it off the ground because we didn't know any developers. Or how any of that stuff worked even remotely. That's sort of how I realized I wanted to do something in tech: I wanted to learn how awesome websites like Etsy got built. It seems to me -- and again, this is my experience -- like most of the women I know are founding "tangible" businesses: stuff like food trucks, dog walking companies, non-profit groups, vintage furniture shops. These aren't massively scalable. They're not attracting investors or VCs. I'm glad Marcy broke the ice talking about "natural female inclinations" because I think another is that ladies sometimes aren't looking to take over the world. A billion dollars is cool, sure, but we're happy with 1.5 million and a loft office where the 8 people that work for us can bring their dogs. It would be cool to see: 1. More encouragement for women to learn programming and development or connecting women with programmers/developers who can help fuel their ideas 2. More mixing between awesome tangible, brick-and-mortar ideas and the tech sector in a single business model. Businesses like MoxieJean, Dabble, and Sittercity are inspirations. 3. More encouragement of innovative female entrepreneurship whether it's in the tech sector or not. There are a lot of women-focused business development organizations, but they're not up-to-date enough to teach stuff like Lean Startup techniques. Stuff as simple as, "hey, put up a launch page!" Like Marcy, I think we need to be careful about blending tech and entrepreneurship into a single category, but let's find a way to empower all female entrepreneurs by ensuring we all have access to the benefits tech has in Chicago (access to capital, office space, office hours with important people, etc.)
Reva Minkoff
Thank you so much for your comments Katherine. I agree completely and couldn't have put it better. Especially about the Boys Club that is 1871 and the steps we can take to empower all female entrepreneurs.
Marcy Capron Vermillion
double Amen. Maybe I will curate a female founders directory (tech and nontech) ... as a weekend project. The existing groups out there are not actually as entrepreneurship focused as what I'd personally need from a list. I always talked about doing a group here in chicago called The Hustle Sisters, which is a camaraderie-first club where women become friends with colleagues and by coming to respect each other, they learn who they can work with in the future. Networking as a by-product of true friendship and understanding.
Amanda Bohl
Hi Marcy - I agree as well that this sounds like a fabulous idea and forum!
Katherine Raz
Um, I love this idea. Let me know if you need help with data entry.
Marcy Capron Vermillion
sounds like we gotta start with a curated list and take it from there. i'll poke around this weekend :)
Reva Minkoff
Marcy, I think it's a great idea and am happy to help too.
Marcy Capron Vermillion
I think an important distinction is that tech and entrepreneurship scene overlap, but tech =/= entrepreneurship and vice versa. And, this is a good thing. With new companies we oft think only of innovation in technology but many are companies utilizing non-proprietary technology who are at their core new businesses/companies, yes, but not truly technology companies (not "building" tech and so on) — however they are just as legit with their goals even those goals tend to be social, marketing-related, whatever. It's all good. Then, there are products/companies genuinely building tech. Either way you do not have to be technical to be a ceo, nor is a female ceo inherently "in tech". And, some "women in tech" are not entrepreneurial at all, working on products at existing companies or just generally for someone else. So looking for women in tech may not mean founders/CEOs etc. Then, there are also women in the "digital" space that we refer to as "tech" which is a misnomer. Lastly, there's this sub-circle of startup culture that overlaps both tech and entrepreneurship but is, in my opinion, a swiftly-becoming non-meritocratic microcosm (polite term for "circle jerk"). I suppose in that way, C-level title is just that — a title — and I think it is something one must earn through metrics, success, etc. Anyone can call themselves a CEO/founder in the startup space, but in entrepreneurship they must prove their worth with their company (real revenue! create jobs! play the long game!), and same in tech (there, sometimes proving specific technical skill/leadership as well). I think there are quite a few women in both the tech and entrepreneurship sectors... and some weirdo ones like me that are both (programmer/CEO/founder combos or similar)...but they do a good job of hiding in the woodwork for no specific reason/not on purpose. Maybe we are head-down working, or not huge on networking (I am admittedly the latter; I prefer intimate ways of expanding my network of <5 people at a time). Therefore I do think getting more women into entrepreneurship and STEM is necessary (both from existing careers and at highschool/college level) but also doing a better job of getting those that exist that we don't hear from, out into the open. I bet that would get our ~10% women in chicago issue to 20+%. Anyone who knows me well knows I would love nothing more than 50% women/men (and I make sure my founder-clients are as such) and I even did a TEDx talk about how I think natural female inclinations are a huge benefit to leadership and therefore a must to balance traits that males use to succeed. Anyways, I will get off my soapbox here, but just wanted to chime in that it's a multi-facted problem/solution (and looking for "women in the tech scene" when really we mean entrepreneurs is something we should all clarify better). I am biased both by growing up in the technical entrepreneurship scene here (my dad is a programmer-CEO too) and because I talk on the topic pretty often (and receive a lot of criticism for my specific views on how women should interact with tech and entrepreneurship to bridge the gap). I, for one, never heard about this event but I do need to do a better job of figuring out how to keep on the pulse with events. If it's appetizing and I hear about it, I will try to go and nag other women to attend as well! Events in the past have been largely non-useful to me so I stopped paying attention, unfortunately. It's an interesting conundrum that women pinching pennies in entrepreneurship are not hugely into Founders Card due to inherent costs, but I do hope they reach out to women all the same. /end ramble #thanksReva
Marcy Capron Vermillion
p.s. somehow I missed the "the two hostesses, the photographer and a bartender were all women" comment the first time I read the post and now I am horrified. Jeez louise...
Julia Evans
As a female collaborative workspace operator, I hear you. Grind's original Park Ave (NYC) location proudly has 40%+ of women and women owned businesses. It took two years to get there. But, it's set a benchmark for our Chicago space at 2 N. LaSalle which opens in just a few weeks (www.grindspaces.com). We talk about this core value at EVERY member tour. The best way to combat the "Brogrammer" experience, as WJS recently coined, is to make that your intention from the start! Multi-discipline, ethnic diversity, gender inclusive and AGE inclusive must be a priority from the start and it is something that has to be carefully managed and curated. Email me anytime if you want to collaborate [email protected]
Reva Minkoff
Thanks Julia - I definitely hear you, agree, and will be in touch. I really do think that if people don't build inclusive companies from Day 1, they're going to have a much harder time making them and their culture diverse (and diversity-tolerant) later on. Wish everyone would do that.
Kristi Klemm
Great piece. I often feel the same at networking functions, and wonder if it's the difference in how women vs men promote themselves? It's been said that women promote their accomplishments, while men are more comfortable promoting their ideas. Since so much of the startup scene in Chicago is so early stage...it just makes me wonder if this is a part of it. Does anyone else have thoughts on that?
Reva Minkoff
Hi Kristi, I've been thinking about your point all day, and hoping other people chime in on it too. I feel like I've heard the converse - that men are more likely to promote their accomplishments and themselves while women are more likely to demure - but I think we all know lots of exceptions to the rule.
Blagica Bottigliero
We are indeed here..just a matter of where we are spending our time these days. Would love to connect with all of you in person. Also this is an open invite to be a panelist on my Sunday show, Ladies Talk Tech. Blagica Bottigliero, Zlato Digital
Reva Minkoff
Thanks Blagica! I'd be happy to participate, and agree that we should definitely all connect in person too.
Amanda Lannert
Hi Reva, I'm talking to Maria about putting together a little get together at Jellyvision to give us a chance to meet (and drink wine) in October. I'll make sure you get the details, as I'd love to learn more about what you're up to. Best, Amanda Jellyvision
Amanda Bohl
Hi Ladies - this sounds like a great opportunity to schedule an event. While I didn't found my start up I am certainly involved in running the primary day to day operations, among other duties and would love to meet others and chat. Count me in!
Reva Minkoff
Thanks Amanda. That sounds great, and I look forward to it!
Kristi Klemm
I'd love to attend and meet with other women founders! Also, I'd love to provide cheese for the event from my company...if you're interested. Kristi Klemm Yankee Hollow
Blagica Bottigliero
If you need wine, my hubs is a sommelier and can help with the recos!
Amanda Lannert
Hmm. When do I not need wine? TMI, perhaps, but I'm always down for discovering new kinds of deliciousness. I'll hit you up when we've nailed down a date. Thank you!
Desiree Wrigley
Hi Reva! Glad to see your post. It's an opportunity we've all talked about but haven't moved on. If you organize an event/meeting, count me in! Best of luck! Desiree
Reva Minkoff
Thanks Desiree! Will do.
Stephanie Burke
Hi Reva, and congrats on founding your company! There are a good number female founders/CEO's, but we're not always easy to spot. I split my time between running my business and spending time with my family - so not a lot of time to spend at entrepreneurial events. The general networking is just one of those things that there's not enough time for, though I'm always happy to meet with people one on one. Best, Stephanie, CEO, Veritas Health
Maria Christopoulos Katris
Thanks for the post Reva and nice to e-meet another female CEO. While I agree there are not as many female founders/CEOs in town (compared to men), we are lucky because the few we have are quite amazing, each in their own right and are very supportive of one another. Here are some companies run by founder/female CEOs: GiveForward, Instant Technology, Veritas Health, Moxie Jean, Caregiverlist.com, Jellyvision, Eved, ContextMedia, SocialKaty, Polymathic, Cheeky Chicago, Lightspan Digital, Zealous Good, Frequency 540 and Built In Chicago (among others). Almost all of these companies are outside the super early stages of their company and in what I call hibernation mode where they are either fundraising, running mid stage companies, funded companies, high growth companies, etc. Please send me an email ([email protected] ) and I can introduce you to a group of rockstar female CEOs in town:) Welcome to the small, yet mighty group!
Brittany Graunke
Maria - I couldn't agree more with your comment! Reva - Nice to e-meet you, as well. Here in Chicago while there are fewer female CEOs, I've found that the women out there are more willing to support and add value as you focus on growing your business. My female startup mentor relationships have been more fruitful than any other I've seen in my career and I consider it one of the most valuable and enriching aspects of starting my company. I will say we are outnumbered at events. But, I'll also say we're respected, hard-working, and strategic. And, that is something of which I'm really proud. Again, glad to meet you and I look forward to crossing paths at events and otherwise!
Marcy Capron Vermillion
Amen, hard-working indeed! +100 to your and @Maria's comment
Reva Minkoff
Agree. Wish we could upvote. Thanks so much for all of your comments!

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