Chicago Engaging Women in Tech: Startup Communities

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My advice is simple – learn from Zach and Brian’s work. Before and during the event, they took what I would call extraordinary measures to make sure women not only attended but were fully engaged in leading.

By Lesa Mitchell (Vice President, Kauffman Foundation)

The book Startup Communities clearly states the need for inclusiveness as a basic tenant of a good startup community. Since the pipeline of women with STEM degrees has been bursting at the seams for years (except in engineering) one would think these women would be spilling over into our startup community events and activities.

Not so much.

I recently attended an awesome maker/tech event hosted by Zach Kaplan (Inventables) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Google) called ORD camp in Chicago. It was an amazing example of a Startup Community in action. I noticed something different about this event that I thought was important to share – the guys tried hard to engage women in their vibrant tech entrepreneurial ecosystem. In 2009, when they launched the event, they had only 6.6% women participants, but this year, that number went up to 26%.

It is not unusual for me to get calls from organizers across the country who are thinking hard about what they can personally do differently to engage women in their tech community. So my advice is simple – learn from Zach and Brian’s work. Before and during the event, they took what I would call extraordinary measures to make sure women not only attended but were fully engaged in leading sessions.

I would call this work heavy lifting not for the shy or uncommitted. It is important to note (I am a witness) that many times women entrepreneurs and STEM leaders are invited to events but back out at the last minute. Entrepreneurs are super busy so this isn’t unusual, except the problem here is that there are already so few of them in the STEM areas that when they don’t attend, it leaves so few women – you have a guys event.

The extraordinary measures these guys took in planning were as follows:

  • They invited way more women than they thought would show up knowing shrinkage would happen.
  • They hired a well-known “sitter service” located close to the event and publicized this to all invitees/attendees. The previous year, women that cancelled, named “sitter problems” as a reason. One man had also noted this problem so they realized this service may benefit a large number of attendees.
  • They posted a detailed no harassment of any kind notice on their invite. As many in the tech crowd are aware, they are not the first to take this overt action. Tim O’Reilly led this charge for his events a couple of years ago so these guys followed suit. And I mean detailed – do not do this kind of thing with examples. This provides a strong positive signal to women (especially when there are late night events with alcohol).
  • They put women on the advisory board to help select and encourage other women to attend once they were invited.
  • They made sure that a number of the women attendees were going to come prepared to lead discussions and demonstrations. The young women from Google who led a demonstration of physics and food science was amazing.
  • They alerted local police that women and men would be leaving the building late at night.

Feedback from attendees

This was an un-conference so at the event, I posted the “how do we get more women into tech” on the wall and waited to see if anyone would vote on it as a topic. They did. Then to see who would show up – a lot of people showed up. Note – six years ago I did this at another well known event and three people showed up in the room all women and one guy. This time we had a large group show up and it was 50% men.

I opened the conversation with an overview of all the above observations and asked for ideas about what we were still doing wrong and what we could do more or less of to get more women into the tech/maker network. The women in the session provided the following feedback:

  1. “I almost didn’t come here because I hadn’t been to this before, I never heard of anyone that had attended, I don’t know any of these guys running it and it looked so crazy I was worried about what I was getting into showing up by
    myself.”
  2. “I am too busy to go to something that looks like it involves late night boozing with people I don’t know. If I didn’t know other people who had attended and told me it was amazing, I never would have showed up. If you think the 1950s are over, you are wrong – the young tech guy crowd still treat women as second class citizens and I don’t want to spend a weekend having to shout to get a word in the conversation.”
  3. “I work at (well known company) as an engineer and attended last year, I learned a lot here. It has created a broader support community for my work. This year, I nominated other women to attend and then followed up with them to make sure they understood the purpose of the event and what to expect. They all showed up! I hate being separated into the boys and girls clubs, so I am doing my job of bringing women into what have been predominately men’s fields but actually finding women engineers is hard.”

The session was not only productive because of the honesty of the participants, but also because they came up with great ideas about specific things happening on the ground in their city and what they could all do (both men and women) to bring more women into the pipeline and into leadership roles. Bless the men that took an hour and attended this session and are carrying out their acts of support today.

If you really want to engage women (and that is topic of this post) in your startup community – it requires an effort.

Look around at your next Startup Community event/program and see if the majority of the faces are all men. We know there is a large pipeline of highly qualified women, so if you don’t have many at your event and you want to change that – you may need to change what you are doing.

If you are organizing events focused in an area that is already devoid of women in the pipeline, you need to find a women willing to be your co–organizer so that right up front it is obvious that this isn’t an all-male event. I personally think this is so much more important in the middle of the USA than on the coasts simply due to the small number of women tech entrepreneurs. California, Boston and New York already have a lot of women leading or co–leading startup community programs/events/gatherings and they have been working hard at this for years.

Hats off to all of them.

About the guest blogger: Lesa Mitchell is a Vice President at the Kauffman Foundation. She has been responsible for the Foundation’s frontier work in understanding the policy levers that influence the advancement of innovation from universities into the commercial market and the new relationships between disease philanthropy and for profit companies. Prior to joining Kauffman, Mitchell spent twenty years in global executive roles at Aventis, Quintiles and Marion Laboratories. Follow her on Twitter at @lesamitchell.