Young & Female in Start-up Central
Silicon Valley may earn praise for its creativity and dynamism, but rarely is America's foremost start-up hub held up as a model of diversity. The world's engineers may flock to the area's start-ups, but when Shaherose Charania moved to the Valley to explore becoming an entrepreneur several years ago, she often found herself the only woman on product teams and at networking events. These days, she and a few friends are doing something about this gender imbalance with Women 2.0, an organizaton that supports female founders and runs a host of women-friendly networking events around the world. Jessica Stillman spoke with Charania to ask how the start-up ecosystem is evolving for women and how young female entrepreneurs can best grow their networks.
Why did you start Women 2.0?
We weren't planning to start this. It just happened. Back in 2006 I had just located to the Bay Area from Canada. I'd worked a little, but this was going to be my first real place to build a career, and I kind of wanted to start a company. Building a network is one of the first things you should do when you're thinking about being an entrepreneur, otherwise you're alone. Someone that I'd met through networking said, "hey, there are three other girls that are pretty cool. You should meet and do something." He was organizing networking events, and I was always the only girl. It didn't really bother me, but he introduced me to other girls and we sat down and were like, 'yeah, it's kind of weird. We're always the only girls at these events. What's going on?' We realized that we knew other girls that were smarter than us—most of them were engineers—and they weren't coming to these events or even considering them. Which made us realize they weren't even considering entrepreneurship as a path, and we thought that was a waste. So that was the beginning of Women 2.0.
What was it like at first?
It started off as just a networking group, gathering people at our houses, buying cheap wine and cheese, and inviting people over, keeping it a very professional environment. That snowballed into what we have today, which is an online-offline media company where we have networking events, conferences and now content.
You've been a witness to the entrepreneurial scene for a few years. How has it developed for women?
I feel like we really opened up the conversation. In 2006, no one was talking about the fact that diversity in Silicon Valley was very much lacking, and when we started Women 2.0 that became a discussion. What we've seen locally is a shift in two parts. The first part is, yes, there are more women starting companies, and the reason we know that is we did our own survey internally. About three or four years ago the stats were showing that within the community, more than 50 percent were thinking about entrepreneurship, not yet doing it. We did the survey again recently and it changed to more than 50 percent were actually now being an entrepreneur. So it went from thinking about entrepreneurship to actually doing it. And our events are bigger. They were 20 to 30 people back in the day, and now we get 250 people.
What about fundraising for start-ups?
It's true: The other shift has been on the investment side. In the beginning, I felt like there was a stigma around funding a woman. Often the investor side was looking at it and saying, 'I'm not used to funding this type of profile of person.' That's changed now because you can point to a bunch of women who have been funded, and so we've seen investors embrace that a little bit. Not all of them, but a majority of them. There's always those old-school folks that will never change their thinking, but the truth is they're coming to us. We do a competition every year, which is like TechCrunch Disrupt, and investors say to us, 'we don't see this kind of deal anywhere else and we want to be a part of what you're doing.'
It seems we're hitting a turning point for women in entrepreneurship. Do you agree?
Entrepreneurship is sexy now, so I would say yes. Take myself as an example. My father was an entrepreneur, but I didn't think about it as a career until I moved to Silicon Valley, immersed myself in the community and was like, 'oh, it's not that I want to be, it's that I am.' I didn't know that that was the full expression of myself because it wasn't brought up in school as an option at all. The only entrepreneurs I always followed were Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and, come on, I can't really relate at all to anyone like that. Now it is actually discussed.
Do you feel that now that there are more women entrepreneurs around that they support and lift each other up?
Absolutely. We've got a presence in L.A., New York, Boston, Seattle, Spain even. Having a network where you feel comfortable sharing and growing - men or women by the way -is important. It's not about building a women-only network. It's about building an inclusive, diverse network and diverse from every part of the word diversity, not just gender.
How do you think this influx of women into entrepreneurship will change the start-up scene?
I think it'll make better products, products that are more usable, that are speaking to the other 50 percent of the world, that are designed differently, that are addressing problems that a guy would not have thought of. I think it just means better business, better ideas. It'll take an adjustment period. We're going through that awkward phase in the start-up scene, where it's like: 'What is this? Why is she here? Is she his girlfriend?'
What advice would you give to a young woman just starting out on the path towards entrepreneurship?
Get comfortable networking, but not to the point where you spend 90 percent of your time networking. Spend 10 to 15 percent of your time networking to build that network for help, to keep a pulse on what's going on. General networking is something I would encourage, but manage it because you can go overboard and waste your time. The second thing would be to keep a close group of people that are in your peer group, people that you really trust, that you go to and ask the difficult questions: "Do I hire now? Do I quit my job now? Do I fundraise now?" Someone at your level but maybe a little bit higher, ideally entrepreneurs that you feel very, very close with—your inner circle. And then get what I call the person board of advisors. These are people who have sold their company, maybe they're investors, they're veterans in the scene. Choose people that understand what you want to start and are passionate about, and can offer you real advice. Make a point to be in touch with them every quarter. Tell them what you're doing, tell them what you're looking to do, ask for their help.
You stress being passionate and authentic, but there are a lot of skeptics who feel networking is actually really inauthentic and sharky. What would you say to them?
When you're authentic you will draw authentic people and you will create authentic relationships. If you are going in sharky, you will deal with short-term relationships that go nowhere. If you expect people to be sharky, you will not get anything from them. So it's up to you to position the idea of networking as: "Hi! This is who I am. This is what I stand for. How can we mutually help each other?" The way I've built a lot of my understanding of business has been through networking because I've been authentic. It's not a waste of time if you're going in with the right mindset.
What does Women 2.0 have coming up that might be of interest to young entrepreneurs?
I'd say our website—spend the time reading it! We're one of those many resources out there. Also, Founder Friday. It's a lot of women, so it's a really comfortable, warm and welcoming. It's a great place to start and understand what networking is about without daunting pressure. So whatever cities readers live in, they can check that out on our website. I would say that would be useful for them even if they're not yet starting a company just to get the feel for what it's like and see what other people are doing.
JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.