By Sarah Granger (Contributor, San Francisco Chronicle)

It’s no secret that San Francisco and Silicon Valley’s tech demographics skew heavily on the side of men. Rather than continue quietly observing this cultural inequity, over the past few years, more voices have brought attention to the issue.

Through increased publicity, thanks to speeches by leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and articles like this month’s feature in San Francisco magazine, the conversation around women entrepreneurs is beginning to change. Still, some of the discussion is going in the wrong direction – focusing only at those at the very top and at the biggest companies – founders, board members, CxO’s.

When you look much closer, there are numerous women making waves as entrepreneurs, executives and investors. It’s just that they seem to be ignored because they’re not at Apple or Zynga.

Silicon Valley has its own version of celebrity culture, and the dazzling stars are not just attractive, but they’re brilliant, creative and usually nouveau riche. As with celebrity culture everywhere, the mainstream media often focuses solely on big names, big companies and big dollar signs. And the issue of women tends to be misunderstood. One way of learning the real story is to listen to the women entrepreneurs themselves, and that’s just what we did Thursday at Cisco headquarters in San Jose at the TEDx Bay Area Global Women Entrepreneurs conference. Eighteen speakers (15 women, 3 men) gave eighteen minute talks, sharing their statistics and stories.

One of the speakers I looked forward to seeing was Ann Winblad, co-founder of Hummer Winblad, one of the most respected venture capital firms in the world. Winblad told of how she was courted by John Hummer to become a VC after she had been a successful entrepreneur, and how it took 133 meetings for them to raise money for their first fund. “Every day, I get to audition the future,” shared Winblad. “It’s kind of like spinning straw into gold, except harder.” Her statistics showed a painful reality: 87% of funded founders are white, 67% are over 34, and 92% are male (94% in California). Rather than turning this into an issue of overt sexism, she made the basic point that people give money to others like themselves. The existing VC culture is dominated by middle-aged white men, so it makes perfect sense they would naturally gravitate toward founders like them.

Kara Swisher, well known tech writer and founder of AllThingsD, told a new story of suffering a stroke last month. As a woman, she said, people would pat her on the arm and tell her it’s time to “slow down” Her response: “I don’t want to slow down.” “I don’t like relaxing.” She spoke of Steve Jobs’ final years leading to his becoming a tech icon as “his most productive,” indicating that her brush with “near incapacitation” gave her an extra appreciation for her work and showed her how much personal satisfaction she gets from her career.

Each speaker was impressive in her own way, including those who came from places not usually a part of the Silicon Valley conversation, like Haiti, Brazil and Kenya. Lead organizer for TEDx Bay Area, Tatyana Kanzaveli, envisioned a conference featuring a wide range of backgrounds, ages and skills, and her vision came to fruition. Lindy Wafula captivated the room with her story of pain and suffering as her parents died of AIDS. “I got to the point where I said, Linda, you have a choice,” she told herself. Rather than wallowing, she created Project Africa, and later the Lady Mekanika Project, training Kenyan women to become auto mechanics, helping pull them out of poverty. Now she’s a 2012 candidate for Kenyan parliament. Each speaker told a unique story – perhaps not as sobering as Wafula’s, yet each a thread woven into the fabric of the conference theme.

Not surprisingly, the characteristics of successful women entrepreneurs showed to be no different from men: brilliance, determination, great ideas, hard work, perseverance, and business acumen. As a member of the organizing committee, I have to stop here and address the line often given by other conference organizers that there aren’t enough qualified women to speak. We were turning away amazing women. I don’t know where the others look, but in my opinion, they’re not looking hard enough; there are highly qualified women funders, founders and leaders both locally and globally who can speak to a multitude of topics. That excuse is no longer valid.

Each of these women has put in thousands of hours, endured hardship and personal sacrifices, made major mistakes, and each has come out a winner – from Tayana Etienne, the Haitian professor who won the 2010 “Change Agent Award” from the Anita Borg Institute for p2p Networks – to Kay Koplovitz, founder of the USA Network. Improving lives – whether through personal science of DNA at 23andMe, as explained by Chief Business Officer Ashley Dombkowski – or through educating children, as with the new Words with Bears language learning game devised for the Kinect by Elsa Kim and team (pictured right), these women forge on.

Of the men speakers, Salim Ismail of Singularity University stirred things up with his “Occupy Male Street” presentation, talking about how the female archetype of leadership differs often sharply from the male version, illustrating “the epitome of our male structure today is probably Wall Street.” The message: support female archetypes and bring about peaceful change through nurturing and collaboration.

Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and researcher known for sparking controversy around the topic of women in tech, observed how Indian company founders increased their startup successes and refocused his research toward improving the ratio of women. In Thursday’s talk, he amended his previous thoughts on the subject with five key steps to help improve the odds for women to succeed:

  1. Existing Silicon Valley leaders must acknowledge that is not a true meritocracy, without placing blame, just accepting that there is a problem;
  2. Women must help other women by reaching out, mentoring, connecting, encouraging and funding them;
  3. Women must create, facilitate, and build groups and organizations supporting women entrepreneurs;
  4. Companies need to mandate including women and minorities as part of hiring teams, so that at least the prospect of interviewing more women and minorities is a part of the collective consciousness;
  5. VC firms should enlist more women and minorities as interns, recruiting from schools other than elite names like Stanford, MIT and Harvard, thus expanding the diversity pool.

These are good pieces of advice for those of us already in the high-tech ecosystem, but for those seeking their first job, who just signed up for LinkedIn, who are putting themselves through college, or who are taking their first computer science class, they need encouragement to continue. And even before that, we need to inspire young leaders and provide role models through programs like SheHeroes. As Wadhwa admits, it “starts with mom and dad.”

In a sobering moment at the end of a day full of inspiration, Ann Winblad made the biggest ask of her life. “No mother in 23 years has called me asking how their daughter can become a venture capitalist.” Men call her asking how their sons can become venture capitalists. Her challenge to a nearly all female audience was to encourage women to not only start companies but to help others start theirs – as venture capitalists – bringing deals to the table, building new income streams, increasing the GDP. It starts with our daughters.

As a parent, that struck a chord with me, as did the story told by Blair Christie. She serves as Chief Marketing Officer of Cisco and was named “Mother of the Year” by Working Mother magazine in 2009. After encouraging her eight year-old daughter to give money to a local charity, her daughter was so moved by the experience of seeing philanthropy in action that she and a small group of friends founded their own small organization, “Happy Helpers,” raising money and donating to worthy causes around the world.

The Bay Area hosts hundreds of events for entrepreneurs, executives, influencers, funders and other thought leaders each year, and a dozen of these focus on women. Yet at every standard tech conference where I scan the program and can count the number of women speakers on one hand, there remains a problem. At every company where one or no women sit on the board, there’s a problem. At every venture fund with less than 10% of portfolio companies run by women, there’s a problem. And in every instance where a woman fails to extend a hand to help other women, there’s a problem. We must continue the conversation until we solve these problems.

This post was originally posted at San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo credits: Tatyana Kanzaveli.

Sarah GrangerAbout the guest blogger: Sarah Granger is a new media pioneer with 20 years of experience in information technology, Internet startups and online publishing. After beginning her career in computer security and IT consulting, Sarah played a lead role in three Internet startups and began advising organizations on online communications and new media strategy. Follow her startup on Twitter at @SarahGranger.