Last night, I attended the Girls in Tech NYC Entrepreneurship and Venture Series Kick-Off at Dogpatch Labs in New York City. Founded in 2007, Girls in Tech NYC is a networking group dedicated to bringing together and empowering females in the tech industry.
Panelists included Heidi Messer, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of LinkShare; Stephanie Sarka, co-founder of Overture (formerly GoTo); Jenny Fleiss, co-founder and President of Rent the Runway; and Jen Bekman, founder of 20×200.
The four panelists are extremely educated and articulate; two graduated from Harvard Business School, one graduated from Harvard Law, and all are outspoken, strong “movers and shakers” in their respective industries.
I especially liked Heidi’s comments about how being a tech entrepreneur is perfectly suited for women. The Internet is a great opportunity for women to reach a broad audience, and the medium has no legacy, allowing hard-working outsiders with bright ideas to break into it.
Heidi also believes that Internet-based startups allow entrepreneurs to cultivate more of a work-life balance, even though she’s not sure if a perfect balance is ever possible. Working remotely and creating your own hours allows women to juggle family life, if they choose to have children.
Though Heidi graduated from law school, where students are praised for mastering just one thing, she said the Internet appeals to her desire to multi-task; she can focus on many things at once and access information immediately.
When asked about being a rare female in a male-dominated industry, all four panelists had different responses. Heidi said she was always lucky to surround herself with people who didn’t see gender, and she was never self-conscious about being the only woman in the room.
Stephanie suggested women should use their wiles to their advantage; she likes to wear a short skirt and boots when she is meeting a decision maker. This comment attracted mixed reactions from the audience and sparked further discussion. All women agreed that, at the end of the day, you can look pretty, but you have to bring substance. The final decision is: who is going to get the money? The shortest skirt in the world won’t influence a multi-million dollar deal.
For Jen, being a woman means being strong and being your own best advocate. She maintains that you shouldn’t defer to other people, that you should be empathetic, and that you should “make it up as you go along” because that’s what everyone else is doing.
Jen isn’t afraid to ask questions when she doesn’t know something, she doesn’t worry about trying to get everyone to like her, and she leverages her personal strengths as best as she can.
Said Jen, “I’ve been telling people I don’t know what I’m doing for seven years, and it’s been working out.”
The panelists agreed that a female tech entrepreneur can have it all, but she may not be able to have it all at once. They suggested female entrepreneurs make their path and decide what’s important when. A female entrepreneur probably won’t be following the “sorority girl track”, getting married and having babies at the same time everyone else is doing these things.
Being an entrepreneur requires a lot of sacrifice but, as Stephanie said, if you follow your calling, entrepreneurship is a compulsion that cannot be ignored.