By Matt Lindner
For Sun-Times Media
The dearth of women in tech is a problem, but one local startup sees it as potential.
It came to light during Twitter’s IPO filing last week that there are zero women on the social media giant’s board and only a single female executive within the company.
But Nicole Yeary, who runs Chicago’s Ms. Tech, isn’t frustrated by those figures.
“It is what it is,” she says. “Our mission is to look beyond changing the ratio.”
Yeary and startup veteran Lisa Russell founded Ms. Tech three years ago to help women build and operate innovative businesses. The network, which started as a group of eight women and now boasts a membership of more than 700, puts on events aimed at connecting businesswomen and technology pros.
“There are less boundaries and less rules than we often try to paint for ourselves; you just need a core group to say, ‘Hey, you can do this,’” Russell says. “We find that there are so many women eager to run their own businesses. They just need that little push.”
Much of that hesitation comes from women being steered away from STEM for so long, says Sheila Talton, CEO of Gray Matter Analytics. “Because we have so few women in technology, the few that are there don’t receive the mentoring and coaching necessary to flourish as technical professionals,” she says.
It’s also important for women not to network with just women, says Talton, a former VP at Cisco. “Women in tech understand that because of the male orientation of the market, they essentially need to re-credential themselves with each contact, to open the door that will allow their value to be heard.”
That’s something Yeary acknowledges and is working on at Ms. Tech, where men are welcome and the events are “the least girlie possible.”
But if Ms. Tech is going to become the go-to for female entrepreneurs in Chicago, it’s going to need to grow beyond weekly “mastermind lunches” at the 1871 space in Merchandise Mart. It also has a ways to go to catch up with organizations like Women in Technology International, a group carrying out the same kind of mission that Yeary and Russell aspire to.
First, Ms. Tech has to start making money, something that hasn’t happened to date. So the pair is working on a business model they plan to launch by January. Plans include adding a $35 monthly membership fee.
“We’re not going to start charging for something unless we know it’s worth way more than we’re charging,” Russell says. “We’re confident that we can create that value with the resources that we’re creating and with our partnerships.”
Yeary says she’d of course like to see some angel investors and VCs take notice of Ms. Tech. “There are so many incredible women building really awesome things that they’re not out there touting,” she says. “We want to bring it to the surface.”
Till then, they’ll keep bootstrapping. Russell has a day job as the director of sales for content-sharing startup PointDrive, and Yeary has been “living minimally,” in her words. They’ll also use their own network and tools, and follow their own advice.
Yeary says, “It comes down to your skill sets, what you do with what you have, being inventive, being innovative, not stopping and not giving up.”