Saturday, March 15, 2014

Why a woman's place is at 1871

Why a woman's place is at 1871

A shortage of women in the tech startup world? No surprise there. For years, the gender gap has been the subject of op-eds, white papers, in-depth reports and panel discussions. Now the city's most prominent startup incubator is doing something about it.
Last week, 1871 announced that it is teaming up with Google Inc., Motorola Mobility and the Lefkofsky Family Foundation to launch 1871 FEMtech, an incubator for women-owned tech startups.
The program will mentor 10 to 15 companies a year. But before you get too excited about those figures, take a look at these: FEMtech will launch with $500,000 to $1 million in funding. For an industry that routinely throws around billions, that's a drop in the digital bucket. And while it's commendable that Google is addressing the dearth of women in tech, it has a relatively modest presence locally. It's time for major Chicago companies to join in the push. As the new digital-manufacturing lab proposed for Goose Island is demonstrating, big things can happen when companies, universities, private investors and governments work together.
The benefits come from burnishing our growing reputation as a good place to start and grow a tech-oriented company.
There's plenty of work to be done. In 1985, 37 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer science were awarded to women. By 2010, that share had slipped to 18 percent. While the number of female small-business owners hovers around 50 percent, the number of female founders of high-tech startups is consistently in the low single digits. At 1871, the startup hub based at the Merchandise Mart, about 28 percent of the teams or companies have a woman among their founders. And nationwide, roughly 4 to 9 percent of all venture capital funding—the lifeblood of the tech startup world—goes to women.
Howard Tullman, 1871's new CEO, suggests that more programs like FEMtech are in the works, focusing on everything from education to finance to the “Internet of Things.” The need for a minority-oriented incubator—or a partnership with an existing one like Blue 1647—is worth exploring.
There are long-term payoffs in this kind of investment, not only for the women involved but also for the people they eventually employ and the investors they attract. Kauffman Foundation research finds that women-led private technology companies are more capital-efficient and achieve a 35 percent higher return on investment. For Chicago, the benefits come from burnishing our growing reputation as a good place to start and grow a tech-oriented company—no matter the gender of its founders.

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