Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Melissa Harris Tribune 1871 to launch incubator for female entrepreneurs

Melissa Harris

1871 to launch incubator for female entrepreneurs

Startups to be funded by Google, Motorola Mobility and Lefkofsky Family Foundation

1871 is launhcing an incubator for female entrepreneurs. (James Janega/Chicago Tribune / March 11, 2014)

1871, the city's leading tech startup center, will announce Tuesday a dedicated incubator for female entrepreneurs, funded by Google, Motorola Mobility and the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, which is run by Liz Lefkofsky, the wife of Groupon's chief executive.

Women face hurdles in the tech startup world, in which they are underrepresented among leaders and often feel marginalized by a male-dominated culture. There have been more discussions in the entrepreneur community in Chicago and nationwide about recruiting and nurturing female talent. The 1871 incubator would be the first of its kind in Chicago.

Howard Tullman, 1871's chief executive, did not disclose the size of the corporate and philanthropic donations. Instead, he said this and other "verticals" to come at 1871 will operate on $500,000 to $1 million in annual funding. Future incubators will be dedicated to financial technology, education technology, hospitality and product/gadget designers, he said in an interview.

"What we have found at 1871 is that if we embrace specific verticals and natural areas of growth, we can help our companies achieve much more than they might have on their own," Tullman said in a news release. "Critical mass creates an environment of support, shared experiences and cross-pollination that significantly accelerates the development of powerful ideas."

The full complement of resources that will be directed at these 10 to 15 women-owned startups, which has been dubbed 1871 FEMtech, has not been spelled out. But Tullman said it will involve a dedicated space within 1871, a full-time staffer/mentor, midday programming to suit mothers' schedules and "something around child care or day care."

Tullman expects that 1871 will begin accepting applications for the program in June, and it will start in the fall. 1871 hopes the program will draw participants from around the world.

"This initiative is critical to the success of Chicago's tech infrastructure," said Genevieve Thiers, founder of SitterCity. "We have enormous untapped female talent in this market and nationwide that could be tapped with some simple changes in the way that we support and train our female entrepreneurs. I look forward to seeing that talent unleashed."

The incubator will be part of Google's #40Forward initiative, which argues that women-led tech companies achieve higher returns and, when venture-backed, bring in more revenue than male-led peers. Yet women are still underrepresented in the tech community and receive only 4 percent of venture capital, according to Google's website.

"The current accelerator models are not attracting and advancing enough women-led startups, and 1871's new program will help reach these women," Bridgette Beam, global manager of Google for Entrepreneurs, said in a news release.

While any effort to improve those numbers is laudable, Google is committing only $1 million to these 40 organizations, while the company was worth more than $407 billion as of Monday. Still, Tullman argued that these startups will be able to tap into "Google's marketing arm as well," providing a soft benefit and public exposure that no budget can capture.

"There are accelerators, incubators and co-working spaces," Tullman said. "An accelerator takes an economic interest in its member businesses. We will not be doing that. On the other hand, we'll be supplying far more support and resources to these groups in the way of special tutoring and mentoring than any traditional sort of co-working space."

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