IVCA Profile: WiSTEM is the Women in Tech Program Based at ‘1871’
March 2, 2016
In July of last year, the highly anticipated WiSTEM program was launched at “1871” (the technology and business development hub at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago). The goal of the program, an anagram for Women in Science, Technology and Math, is to connect women entrepreneurs to capital, technology and community. WiSTEM just finished its first 16 week program with their start up partners – which they call “cohorts” – in the fall, and had its first showcase of start ups in January of 2016. The next group of start ups will begin the Spring session next week.
One of the key moves that WiSTEM made as part of their launch was to connect and partner with Ms. Tech, a membership organization for women-in-technology ventures. The co-founder and president of that organization, Nicole Yeary, was named “Co-Facilitator” of WiSTEM and moved the operations of Ms. Tech to 1871. WiSTEM also has support from a extensive network of local and national initiatives, including Google for Entrepreneurs’ #40Forward initiative, and is supported by the Lefkofsky Family Foundation and the Motorola Mobility Foundation. Nicole Yeary represents the organization in the following IVCA profile of WiSTEM.
What factors motivated the founding of WiSTEM?
The goal in creating WiSTEM has been to produce a purposeful and long lasting program that meets real needs and creates impact oriented opportunities for women. That’s why WiSTEM focuses on three critical areas for women entrepreneurs – capital, technology, and community. Chicago is the global leader for start-ups founded by females, and we hope to build on that to facilitate opportunities for even more inclusion in the tech and entrepreneurial communities.
What principles of Ms.Tech did you apply to facilitate WiSTEM?
Over the past six years, the Ms. Tech community has developed to become a forum for early, mid-career and executive level individuals who are committed to developing themselves as leaders through education, mentorship, networking and knowledge sharing. Our vision aligned with these core values, and we continue to facilitate a learning community that provides women in technology ventures and innovative companies with inspiration, knowledge and connections to reach their full potential. Finally, it’s our mission to remove unjust obstacles for technology innovators, and our partnership with 1871 has helped to bolster that mission.
Your three guiding principles are connecting women tech entrepreneurs to capital, providing supporting tech for them and community. Given the many steps it took to launch your program, how has the focus been on those guiding principles?
The curriculum learning objectives hit on all three areas of technology, community and capital. First, we have WiSTEM sessions on leadership every week where we cover topics around business acumen and relationship building. We also recognize peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing is critical on their journey, so every week we host a ‘Cohort Confab’ that provides the space to candidly ask for help with present challenges and celebrate their successes together.
When it comes to connecting to capital, we ready the entrepreneurs with pitch training and guide them through preparing a fundraising strategy. This not only helps the entrepreneurs perfect their pitches, but also includes a parallel benefit of meeting guest judges who happen to be investors, potential advisors and industry leaders.
In relation to technology, our network of expert mentors hosting workshops and office hours help tremendously in teaching the entrepreneurs in WiSTEM the critical components of technology in order to hire the best team and to make the best decisions when it comes to running their businesses. And this is all in addition to events and programming that exist at 1871, which make the programming that much more robust.
How did the partnership with Google #40Forward take the program into a new realm? What does that resource provide besides monetary incentive?
Google has been an amazing partner to women entrepreneurs at 1871. In addition to Google’s #40Forward initiative being one of the original sponsors of WiSTEM, 1871’s partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs has created amazing opportunities – including participation and funding from the Google Demo Day, access to the Blackbox Connect program, participation in Google Exchange programs, and access to educational opportunities with Google’s experts – for WiSTEM and other women entrepreneurs at 1871.
What was the criteria for your first class of 13 entrepreneurs, which began last fall? What do you think they all had in common?
There were two main qualifications – the companies must have at least one woman as a co-founder, and the companies must be technology enabled. The first cohort includes women running companies that are focused on a variety of industries and that are at varying stages of development. What the first cohort’s members have in common is a focus on participating in and growing a community that advances women entrepreneurs.
You had your 'demo day' last month, what positives came from that event, and what did WiSTEM learn from the caliber and indications of the entrepreneur presentations?
Over 200 individuals from the community showed up to the WiSTEM Showcase. WiSTEM’s entrepreneurs were able to pitch their businesses, making connections with potential partners, advisors, and investors. A significant positive from the showcase event was the boost in applications for the next cohorts. After seeing the program come full circle, there was no doubt the WiSTEM program had been a significant value to the entrepreneurs presenting – and frankly we learned a lot. Not just from the presentations at the showcase, but before, throughout and after the program.
We learned that one all day weekly program was better than splitting chunks of program time three days a week. We learned that hands on, lab-oriented sessions were more valuable over pure workshop sessions. Working through the pivots, we observed the ‘eureka’ moments, the cohort camaraderie, and the growth in leadership. The confidence and ability to articulate a business case for the problems in their businesses that they had built-in – and to find a solution for them – has been an incredible experience. I felt lucky to have shared the entrepreneurial journey with each one of the founders.
Studies have concluded that women are much more efficient with start up capital than their male counterparts. To what do you attribute that efficiency, and how can that be an advantage for investors?
While it’s true that it has been published that women-led start ups generate 12% higher revenue, and women-led private technology companies generate a 35% Return On Investment, it’s also still true that 93% of investor money goes to startups founded by men, according to Business Week.
Rather than speculate, I’ll point to what we do know – that there are a number of factors and variables that play a role in the success or failure of any start up. Every investment on a start up is a bet on the entrepreneur and team. So considering what we do know, I would indicate that any investor not funding woman-led startup companies is at a disadvantage, and missing out on high growth opportunities by not intentionally seeking out diversity in their portfolio. I would discourage looking through the gender lens, but encourage opening up new channels to discover a diverse group of high potential entrepreneurs building high growth technology companies.
We're only a couple generations away from the equality movements that evolved women into businesses of all kinds, plus the notion of investing and entrepreneurship has been entrenched for centuries with the male power base. What factors do you think will equalize this field in the next two generations going forward, for example?
What it takes to launch and build a high-growth tech start up is different from what it takes to advance within a corporate hierarchy. Recognizing that high growth start up companies are essential to job creation and economic growth makes this an economic issue, not a gender issue.
We will start seeing more exits led by women-led start up founders, which will help perceptions in several ways. The women founders of those companies will become role models, advisors, and mentors to subsequent generations. Those founders will also reinvest in the next generation of women-led start up companies. And of course, gaining more women on both sides of the table, in general, will be a significant way to gain equality going forward.
What would you tell the membership of the IVCA about the WiSTEM, that you think makes the concept viable and most desirable to investors?
Upon entering WiSTEM, each company has gone through a rigorous application process. Throughout the program, start ups become ‘investor ready’ – founders are armed with tools, resources and knowledge to become more effective and efficient. They also build on and expand their network of industry experts, and they solidify a board of advisors.
All of these elements help the companies make the best business case for investment. – WiSTEM meets companies where they are. While we have a curriculum that focuses around our three pillars of community, technology and capital, we are tuned into high-level vision and short-term tactics to guide each company in exceeding goals and reaching set milestones.