Why should women seeking tech jobs in Chicago look at startups?

Written by Duncan Brown
Published on Dec. 07, 2015
Why should women seeking tech jobs in Chicago look at startups?

The technology startup industry is a boys club.

This year Compass named Chicago the friendliest place for women founding businesses. But friendliest is a relative term. The Second City only leads with 30 percent of new tech companies created by women, and according to the Indiana University Center for Excellence of Women in Technology, none of their alumni based in Chicago work for startup businesses. Rather these young women select larger, established corporations like Allstate, United Healthcare, and Capgemini. So what do female leaders from the city's tech scene have to say to their younger counterparts, who may be skeptical about taking a job with a startup?

Nicole Yeary and Sharon Schneider are both prominent leaders in the industry, who are committed to promoting women in technology. Nicole is founder and CEO of Ms. Tech – a startup incubator specifically geared to the needs of female entrepreneurs. Since its inception in 2008, Ms. Tech has "gone global" with clients as far as Jamaica, initiated a mentorship program on the Purdue University campus connecting technology focused entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs with students, and now has plans for an investment arm. Sharon is founder of Moxie Jean – an online consignment retailer for kids and women's clothes – and co-creator of Women Tech Founders – a media and event company showcasing women in technology and sciences. In its four years, Moxie Jean surpassed one million dollars in sales, received two top Chicago business awards, and this past July successfully negotiated a merger with Schoola

These women did not begin their careers as disruptive entrepreneurial tech tycoons. Rather, they made several key decisions that got them where they are today.

"I think you should learn a hard skill to be able to market yourself." For Nicole, knowing how to do something difficult is crucial. She recalls the market in 2008, when a technical skillset could decide between employment and joblessness, "When there were no jobs you had to have a hard skill – like building websites, coding, SEO, graphic design, something tangible that you could go out and get paid for." She also feels it is important that young women not be intimidated by male dominated professions, "I want them to focus on what they have available to them, and working as hard as they can to make things work for themselves. I don't want them to focus on the fact that there are fewer women in the industry."

Sharon does not want women to be discouraged by gender disparities either. Instead she says they should strive for line jobs, which are positions that actually generate money for the company, " If you want to advance, you need to know line jobs and not just support jobs. Very often women end up in support positions like marketing and HR. Those are not the positions that advance to executive levels. You have to have experience in direct revenue positions." Although both women emphasize the importance of technical acuity, Sharon thinks that soft skills play a major role in developing a successful career as well, "Soft skills make you most successful – things like emotional intelligence, the ability to influence people you have no authority over – getting your peers and managers to complete your projects and take on your priorities."

The ideal company would of course allow young women to cultivate hard and soft skills, while working in line jobs, and as Sharon puts it, "be a place where they can grow and take on more responsibilities as they prove themselves." Since team members work closely together in multiple roles that impact the bottom line, startups are exactly those kinds of businesses. "At a startup, you need everyone to be entrepreneurial and get it done," states Sharon, "If you can develop good working relationships with your peers and wear many hats you become a more flexible person."

Young women should seriously consider applying for startups because, in so many ways, they provide an environment that nurtures career development. But the next generation of professionals has the opportunity to change the landscape of the tech industry too. "We still have a clear opportunity to create parity in Chicago," says Nicole. Groups like Ms. Tech, Women Tech Founders, and 1871's WiSTEM are creating mentorship programs, arranging support networks, and organizing capital for women entrepreneurs. Now, young women can help bring about a time when these efforts are no longer necessary – or as Nicole envisions, "When Ms. Tech does not need to exist."

Hiring Now
IGNA | tasty
Fintech • News + Entertainment • Software • Financial Services