Tuesday, March 11, 2014

John Pletz in Crain's Google helps launch women-tech incubator at 1871

Google helps launch women-tech incubator at 1871

1871 is about to become less of a boys' club.
The high-profile launch pad for tech companies at the Merchandise Mart will soon be home to 1871FEMtech, an incubator for women-owned tech startups.
It's part of a broader $1 million effort by Google Inc., called #40Forward, to help launch 40 incubators worldwide aimed at boosting women's participation in technology by 25 percent this year. FEMtech also is being underwritten by the Motorola Mobility Foundation and the Lefkofsky Family Foundation,set up by Groupon Inc. founder Eric Lefkofsky and his wife, Liz.

The program will mentor 10 to 15 women-owned tech startups a year at 1871. It comes at a time when the lack of women in tech has become a hot-button issue and frequently an embarrassment for the industry.
"We know the percentage of women in tech hasn't improved, that it's hovered around 7 to 8 percent," said 1871 CEO Howard Tullman. "There are a massive number of companies who want to make this sort of commitment, but we didn't have the mechanism to do anything."
FEMtech will launch with $500,000 to $1 million in support. Entrepreneurs from Chicago to outside the U.S. will be encouraged to apply in the next 30 to 60 days, with the incubator starting in the fall. The program will feature intensive mentoring, intensive resources and specific programming.
"It's an issue whose time has come: No one can deny it's a problem," said Sharon Schneider, founder and CEO of Moxie Jean, an Arlington Heights-based e-commerce startup. "Diversity doesn't just happen. You have to work to make it happen. I'm thrilled.
"(The backers) are sending a message that their organizations value diversity and inclusion, and that's good business for them," said Ms. Schneider, who ran Moxie Jean from 1871 as part of the TechStars accelerator in late 2012 and early 2013. "It's important to Google's and Motorola's futures. It's the war for talent."
Ms. Schneider, who founded an early group for women entrepreneurs at 1871, said Chicago's startup and technology scenes don't have as bad a "bro-gramming" culture as Silicon Valley. "But when the constant subtle messages to women suggest this isn't a career for you, maybe they don't apply or come around," she said. "Maybe a really overt program overcomes that. It's a pipeline issue."
About 28 percent of the teams or companies at 1871 have a woman among their founders. Mr. Tullman notes that tech startups with women tend to have a success rate about 30 percent higher than startups overall.
FEMtech is the first part of a broader reorganization of 1871 under Mr. Tullman. He took over in January, vowing to add more structure to the program in an effort to make startups at the popular co-working space become successful.
Mr. Tullman says he plans to create similar programs focused on topic areas such as education, financial services, hospitality and food and the Internet of things.
"This is just the beginning," he said. "The more of a concentration we have, that makes it easier than having 240 random companies. If we slice and dice it, we can go deeper and attract more specific sponsorship. It gives us a broader foundation."

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