The statistics are dismal: 74% of high school girls show an interest in STEM subjects, but only 4% of college girls choose to major in science, technology, engineering or math. 50% of women who are in STEM careers leave the workforce.
CodeGirl, the latest documentary released by Director Lesley Chilcott (Executive Producer of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman) tracks the story of 5,000 high school girls from 60 nations as they compete in a technology entrepreneurship competition called the Technovation Challenge, aimed at increasing the number of girls who are interested in pursuing studies and careers in technology.
Technovation appears to be having a positive impact: 70% of alumnae took further Computer Science courses after Technovation and 46% of college-age alumnae intend to major in Computer Science.
To understand what else we can be doing to support more women in technology, I asked a number of successful startup CEOs about the "tipping points" in their respective entrepreneurship paths, which are shared below.
Drive: Seek Out Opportunity
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, Founder and CEO of Joyus, moved to the Bay Area with a car, $10,000 in cash and an offer to sleep on the couch of a friend's parents. "I came here looking to become an entrepreneur without knowing quite how to do it and joined my first startup 3 months later," she says.
Sonal Puri, CEO of Webscale, moved to the Bay Area from India with the intent of pursuing a career in architecture. Deciding that career path was neither fulfilling nor financially compelling, she built websites, logos and collateral for startups as a freelancer and also took courses in web and IP systems engineering after work. One of the startups she was consulting with decided to hire her as a marketer, which teed her up for a successful career as a technology executive and entrepreneur.
Trina Spear, Co-Founder of FIGS, says that her first "tipping point" was when she was a teenager working as a server at Johnny Rockets. "I realized pretty quickly that what I put in--hard work, positive attitude, hustle--was directly correlated to what I got out--generous tips, fulfillment and personal satisfaction. After working on Wall Street for 6 years, I missed this feeling of direct impact. Being an entrepreneur brought back the feeling of cause and effect, of seeing tangible and direct results from my actions."
Heather Hasson, Co-Founder and CEO of FIGS, speaks of a profound experience that led to her co-founding FIGS along with Trina Spear. "I started my own company at age 24," she says. "I built a high-end bag line with my business partner, Steven. Three years in, Steven was diagnosed with cancer. 7 months later, he passed away. When this happened, my whole world turned upside down. I hopped on a plane, and flew to Kenya. After witnessing such extreme poverty, I committed myself to helping those in need. I knew I could build a profitable and philanthropic business. That is why I started FIGS."
And what is her mantra as an entrepreneur now? "I never quit. I just keep going. Keep fighting. Keep moving," says Heather. "Also, understand that humans set up all the industries in this world and that everything can be changed. Rules are made to be broken."
Risk-taking, determination and scrappiness are all important aspects of becoming a technology entrepreneur. These women all started from different places with different experiences, but took big risks to ultimately get where they are today.
Breadth: Nurture a Diverse Skill Set
Skill building from an early age can pay dividends later on. Sonal's parents spent a month's salary to send her to computer camp. Sukhinder's entrepreneur father trained her to do his bookkeeping by the time she was 7 years old and his income taxes by the time she was 11 years of age. Sukhinder now has her daughter working on small entrepreneurial projects such as self-publishing a book and creating an online cupcake business.
Trina, a varsity tennis player in college, believes that sports teach young women many skills that can be applied to business situations, including how to believe in themselves, how to overcome fear and to win, and how to make decisions and learn from mistakes.
Sukhinder observes that, "putting entrepreneurship, design, and being makers into our regular classrooms is a big part of making creativity the norm for our girls--not just solving structured problems with known formulas." Rebekah Iliff, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at AirPR, agrees that success in entrepreneurship comes from a broad skill set: "It's not just engineering: it's design, creative thought, and leadership roles too."
Sonal adds, "Programs like Technovation are about realizing one's own potential, planning, designing, working towards deadlines, thinking like a businessperson, and expanding horizons."
Kristina Klausen, Founder and CEO of PandaTree, explains that having prior exposure to many different parts of a business--strategy, product management, and marketing--was a tremendous asset when launching and growing her startup.
Kim Shrum, founder and CEO of KEY, says that she held many different types of jobs over the years, starting from a young age. "This gave me the ability to try a number of different fields and skills which allowed me to figure out what I do best as well as identify my areas of weakness. Find what you like to do and do it well, and surround yourself with others whose strengths complement your weaknesses."
As an early stage investor as well as previously in my work with technology companies, I couldn't agree more: diversity of work and life experience has been incredibly helpful both in cultivating my interests and positioning me to thrive.
Aspiration: Learn from Role Models
One of the Technovation participants in CodeGirl highlights part of the problem: "It's hard to get excited about what you can't see, and you don't see many girls in coding so it's hard to get excited and tell people, 'This is what I want to do!'"
Michelle Zatlyn, Co-Founder and Head of User Experience at CloudFlare, says it's important for girls to know that technology entrepreneurship is a real career path and they need to see more examples of what that looks like.
Sonal says, "Share with girls what the universe is, outside their little world. Inspire them with stories about women just like them, so they can relate. Bring them to the office with their parents and let them experience various careers. I know my daughter will love math, science and technology because she is aware."
Anna Zornosa, Founder and CEO of Ruby Ribbon, believes that the more we explain to young women how senior women in technology went up their career paths the "faster this next generation will rise. Conscious modeling and conscious networking are key. Sharing the realities is also important: You may need to move some times. Assume everyone you meet along the way will also be at the destination and don't burn bridges. Don't expect balance to be a day-by-day thing. Look at work and life as a series of imbalances and seek to create the right mix for yourself over the long haul."
Impact: Solve Meaningful Problems
Kristina says, "I saw a need when I tried to find a Mandarin tutor for my girls, and thought about the idea for PandaTree for about a year. I just couldn't shake it and it got to the point where I thought I just had to do it."
Rebekah Iliff spotted a market opportunity in 2008 when everything was crashing and companies were scaling back on their PR spend. She started a PR firm called talkTECH that was able to provide high quality PR services in a nimble way for a fraction of the price of regular PR firms. Her nimble approach enabled her to launch more than 50 companies from around the world into the U.S. market in under 3 years.
Sophie Lebrecht, Co-Founder and CEO of Neon, has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. She used the science behind how the human brain responds to images to develop Neon's core technology: algorithms that automatically surface the most engaging images so consumers better engage with visual content.
Enlightening young girls about the power and reach of technology is also important. Sophie eloquently captures this sentiment when she says it's important to show "that coding is not simply about 'coding' but a tool to create new things that have the potential to provide impact at massive scale."
Network: Cultivate a Posse
Anna and Kristina point to the importance of a strong group of other female entrepreneurs and business leaders who consciously work on each others' behalf. "It is not about networking with someone because of what they can do for you," says Kristina. "The relationships always start from a place of genuine friendship and human connection. You build networking skills by finding ways to help the friends you have today."
A tipping point for Sukhinder was the opportunity to work for 5 talented entrepreneurs at Junglee, which was acquired by Amazon. These entrepreneurs then started and seeded a number of highly successful companies including Google, Kosmix and Efficient Frontier, and connected her with a team of engineers with whom she co-founded her first company, Yodlee.
Though there is much work to be done inspiring and encouraging more girls to engage with technology and pursue entrepreneurship, we can at least share the advice and stories of successful entrepreneurs who have gone before them, like the ones in this article.
Share the key tipping points along your entrepreneurial path to #mytippingpoints.